Love, Beauty, and Design: What Steve Jobs Understood

It’s been nearly a week without a post and that largely due to some unexpected travel occasioned by less than happy circumstances. And now that I sit down to write again, it is under the shadow of more sad circumstances. It would be hard to have missed the news of Steve Jobs’ death last night. It poured in from every conceivable medium. I got it first from a friend’s Facebook status, and then from nearly every Facebook status and countless tweets and retweets. This morning my Google Reader was dominated by stories, articles, essays, and posts about Jobs and his legacy.

In one of those articles, Steven Levy’s reflections on Jobs’ life for Wired, I came across this intriguing passage that carried a great deal of wisdom:

Jobs usually had little interest in public self-analysis, but every so often he’d drop a clue to what made him tick. Once he recalled for me some of the long summers of his youth. I’m a big believer in boredom,” he told me. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, he explained, and “out of curiosity comes everything.” The man who popularized personal computers and smartphones — machines that would draw our attention like a flame attracts gnats — worried about the future of boredom. “All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.”

I’m certain that you will come across countless other lines from Jobs in the coming days; many, I’m sure, will be taken from his now legendary 2005 commencement address at Stanford.

I have come rather late into the Apple fold, I’m typing this on my first Apple computer which was purchased just two months ago. But for longer than that I’ve been fascinated by the cult that has grown around Apple products over the last decade or so (perhaps longer, I’m not certain how to judge the years between Jobs’ two stints with the company in this regard). It is an uncanny phenomenon that has been noted and commented on many times. In recent months news outlets have run reports on studies that link the regard users have for Apple products with the same parts of the brain that have been related to religious experiences and to feelings of love.

It seems reasonably clear that Apple has tapped into something deeper than mere satisfaction with a consumer product. It also seems reasonably clear that the reactions to Steve Jobs’ untimely passing are at least in part wrapped up with the attachment users feel to the products he made possible. At least one Facebook status I read noted how odd it was to feel sadness for the passing of a man one had never met. This is not, of course, a previously unheard of phenomenon; from time to time the death of some public figure generates this sense of sadness and loss.

But it is not exactly common either. Numerous public figures die each year and most occasion little more than a mention and a sigh. Then there are those individuals whose passing generates grief and sorrow that ripples out far beyond the circle of family and friends who had known the person firsthand. Examples are not hard to come by: Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson. I’m sure the list can be populated with other examples easily enough. The lives of all of these were ended prematurely and tragically, and they all managed to form emotional ties, each in their own way, with those who mourned their passing.

Now we may safely add Steve Jobs to this list and this raises some interesting questions. How does he fit in with this group and the others who may be added to their number? What was the source of the emotional bond? Whatever we might think of his genius, his vision, his determination — none of these seem to me to account for the emotional bond. The bond, it would seem, was not with the person of Steve Jobs in the same way that it was with the other individuals whose deaths spurred widespread and heartfelt public mourning.

The emotional bond, rather, is with the objects Steve Jobs envisioned and produced. The bond has been transferred to the man as the embodiment of our love affair with the products. It would not take long to confirm this anecdotally on Twitter. At both the announcement of his resignation in August and now his death, my Twitter feed was populated by mentions of how the products Jobs produced changed lives along with notes about how the very message of appreciation was made possible by an Apple product. This itself is an important index of our age.

And if we were to inquire further, we might note that the genius of his products lay finally in design. Jobs stands apart from both great inventors of the past and great corporate figures of the past. He was some blend of the two, to be sure, but added to the alchemy was a dash of the artist as well.

Apple’s success lay not only in its innovation, but also in its aesthetic. The heart is not so pragmatic that it loves what merely works. It loves beauty, and Jobs seems to have known that the consumer would flock to beautifully designed products. The beauty, of course, is of a certain character — minimalist, functional, clean — but it is a recognizable and appealing aesthetic.

It did not hurt either that Jobs moved Apple products into a symbiotic relationship with other objects of love, music and personal relationships. Music is itself a transcendent source of beauty and love. We love our music, and Jobs tapped that love when he made the iPod. Our love also flows naturally to our family and friends, and with the iPhone Jobs created a product that effortlessly mediated those relationships along with our music. Add to this the manner in which the “Touch” revolution Apple products initiated appropriated the visceral and embodied nature of our loves and affections and you begin to understand Jobs’ genius.

He seemed to have understood this above all else: the consumer was not the rational optimizer of classical economic theory. The consumer, who after all was a human being, was a lover and the lover loves the beautiful.

9 thoughts on “Love, Beauty, and Design: What Steve Jobs Understood

  1. Very nice piece! He was quite the visionary.

    “…from time to time the death of some public figure generates this sense of sadness and loss.”

    I think what you said here hits at a larger context. We lost an important figure that pretty much revolutionized a particular form of technology. And I believe that can go for any figure that influences society in one way or another.

  2. Michael,

    I believe that this is probably, and also ironically, given the context of whom it’s about, the most insightful and potentially genius pieces I’ve ever seen come from you.

    I agree totally, and would also like to add, he didn’t just change one industry, but three. First of course, was computing and bringing it wholly to the personal end of things. He made computing a lot simpler and a lot more intimate with the original Macintosh. His humor was also displayed, which is another thing which endeared him to people when he introduced that system, as during the key-note address at one of his events, the Macintosh spoke, introduced itself, and said it “Sure feels good to be out of that bag.” I think this touches on what you’re writing about too, in that he related technology to people, and their inclination to feel. Hence the touch functionality on the iPods, the iPhone, and now the iPad.

    We’ve lost someone who will not be replaced in Steve Jobs. And as a clarifying statement, I don’t own a single Apple product, and yet I appreciate his artistic ability to equate form with function, the complex, to the simplistic. As an artist and designer I relate highly to Steve Jobs, and he did more to revolutionize the industries of personal electronics than any other person in history in my opinion. This isn’t going to be met easily by anyone at Apple, nor will it be met easily by anyone from any other company here forth.

    Thanks for writing this piece, it’s a wonderful tribute to a man that not only contributed healthily to technology, but blended that into a contribution to society. It was news that shocked me (though it probably shouldn’t have, he wasn’t well near the end), and I too felt a sadness, so I think the connection seems to transcend even the products which he facilitated. He was a visionary for sure, and he certainly deserves the great connection he had made with people the world over. He will be missed and will never be replaced.

    Thanks again.

    1. Jamie,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s funny, that wasn’t the piece I started out writing, but, as often happens, once you start writing you end up somewhere unexpected. I’m glad it hit the mark, or one of the marks anyway. Much more, of course, could have been said about Jobs. It will be interesting to follow the development of Apple post-Jobs now, but I’m betting you’re right, it will not be easy to replace Job’s vision.


  3. I do that a lot. I can think that I have my direction nailed, but something just shifts it, and sometimes, one ends up making a much more poignant, as well as maybe even salient point, somewhere down the line. I think the biggest thing here though, is it touches rather heavily as the first poster had mentioned, on something of a deeper context, something you’re speaking about regularly… The pervasive and deep impact that our technology has on our humanity.

    In this context, it would almost seem reversed… In this case, and in a positive fashion, and it’s sad it’s only really realized after a death, is that it’s our humanity that has a profound impact on the technology. So maybe there’s some hope that people might at least, if not compare, emulate the path that Jobs laid as a foundation. He can certainly be proud of his legacy.

    All the best.

    1. “it’s our humanity that has a profound impact on the technology”

      Well put, this is very true and any effort to understand technology needs to take this very seriously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s