Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Engineer as Artist: Some thoughts on Steve Jobs!

Picture: Apple's patented Active Packaging

The first time I bought an iPod was a revelation. The revelation was not the iPod itself, which is a great product, but the way the iPod was packaged. Starting with the Designed in California logo, the impossibly clean lines and minimalistic style as the product comes into view was dubbed by an industrial design magazine as a “ballet of unwrapping.”

The iPod packaging, at least to me, represented performance that you expect from a chef unveiling his prize creation. Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame comes to mind. Of course high-end retailers understood this for a long time. Witness Tiffany with their signature boxes. However, this was not something that technology companies were necessarily known for.

Most of our waking hours are spent interacting with technological devices, and indeed with multiple devices at a time as we surf content on our ipads while talking on an iPhone and simultaneously conducting an online meeting on a Macbook Pro! We are, whether we realize or not, highly involved with technology as it permeates almost every aspect of our lives. And yet, most of the high tech companies relegated design and user interaction to the sidelines.

One of the popular videos of 2005 (at least among geeks) was a very clever parody video titled “Microsoft redesigns iPod packaging” with an endlessly cluttered package - features list, discounts, product warranties, brand messages, third party endorsements – the list goes on. This parody captures everything about the aesthetics of high technology companies, which is, that they have none.

Apple was of course the anti-thesis of engineering with the emphasis on function and product features. This brings me to Steve Jobs, who was anointed by the New York Times as the “tastemaker of modern digital culture.” Steve Jobs didn't really come up with all these ideas.  Portable MP3 players, tablets and all the other cool innovations have existed for a while. Many have pointed out that Wozniak was the brains behind Apple. Malcolm Gladwell has a marvelous article in the New Yorker about how Apple essentially re-used the idea of the mouse that was originally conceptualized at the Xerox PARC. Steve Jobs himself, misquoting Picasso, said something to the effect that good artists copy and great artists steal.

In fact the newer generation iPods have even better packaging and have won myriads of design awards. Designer Sverre Oberg is responsible for the matchbox ipod package, which also doubles as a charger. Does any other high tech company have a designer who is solely responsible for designing a package?

It took Steve Jobs to insist that a plastic touch screen on an iPhone would be perceived as a design flaw and that iPhones should have glass screens. On Google Plus, I came across this marvelous story of Steve Jobs calling up Google’s Vic Gundotra during a weekend. The reason? Steve Jobs was concerned that the Google logo on the iPhone Google app need to be fixed since “the second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient.” Steve Jobs in an interview said that the use of proportionately spaced fonts in Apple products comes from observing typesetting.

It is this synthesis of form and function, engineering as aesthetic art that, to me at least, is embodied by Steve Jobs. That technology is beautiful and humanizing, that the computer is a marvelous general purpose device that lets us explore ourselves, enabling connected individuals to scan for extraterrestrial intelligence, to decode the human genome, to usher us in a democratic revolution in an area of the world dominated by authoritarian regimes..

Engineering and liberal arts, especially in the US, seem to operate across an almost unbridgeable chasm. Engineers are parodied as social misfits, tongue-tied, lacking social graces and obsessed with Star Wars and video games (of course if you read Malcolm Gladwell on video games they promote the development of skills you would certainly need the next time you were trapped all alone in a an Amazonian jungle!). Apple changed all that, before the current social media revolution, and indeed made it possible for the current generation of technology entrepreneurs to enjoy rock star like status.

Steve Jobs said of Bill Gates in 1997, “he and Microsoft are a bit narrow." Maybe this assessment is not meant to be taken too seriously, in light of Bill Gates’ enormous contributions to addressing poverty and eradicate diseases through the Bill Gates foundation, but it does contain a grain of truth. Steve Jobs took calligraphy lessons at Reed College, loved reading Shakespeare, hung out with musicians, and practiced Buddhism. Of course some of the stories we hear are the result of his showmanship and marketing acumen, the Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” parodied in popular culture. It’s still nice to imagine a world where liberal arts meet engineering, in the tradition of da Vinci who was a scientist, engineer and artist.  

(I'm not including any citations and footnotes in the spirit of minimalism)

Thank you Steve Jobs for setting a great example of an engineer as an artist!