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Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson March 11, 2012

Posted by doviknissim in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Leadership & Change, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”
(Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, 1997)

I’ll begin with a confession – Steve Jobs was my hero! I found his unique personality fascinating. On one hand, he was the genius with the Midas touch, the man who discovered the secret sauce for designing great products and the subject of legends while still alive. On the other, Steve Jobs was notoriously known for his bad temper and controversial character He was a very difficult man to work with. These contrasts generated a colorful personality that is normally attributed to great leaders and crazy inventors. When I learned that Mr. Isaacson wrote this book at the request of Steve Jobs and with his cooperation, I was eager to learn more about who Steve Jobs really was and what was his secret sauce.

Summary:

“Steve Jobs” – the book tells the life-story of Steve Jobs and the stories of the companies and products he created. It is beautifully written. Isaacson uses simple language and simple story telling techniques to tell the tale of a complex man. He uses a chronological order, combining commentary from Jobs, his friends, his family, his co-workers, and his enemies, who offer contextual information that ties these beautiful stories to the man and his reputation. The author strips Jobs from his celebrity status and knowingly pays attention to the man behind the curtain, emphasizing that Jobs is not the “Wizard of Oz”

Critical Analysis:

The book gains credibility as it portrays and contrasts both sides of Jobs’s personality: The brilliant creator whose outstanding products changed our lives versus the obnoxious, untrustworthy, manipulator who stole ideas from others. In that sense the book does justice with some of the talented people that worked with Jobs and were hardly recognized. A great example for that is Jony Ive, Apple’s VP of industrial design and the man who should be credited as the designer of the iPhone.

But the book is not perfect. I was particularly disappointed with the author’s failure to pursue and document Jobs’s “secret sauce” for designing great products. While many believe that Jobs only used his intuition, there are indications that he had a set of clear, well-defined design rules (a.k.a. “the secret sauce”). An example for that is the story of both Jony Ive and Steve Jobs separately picking up a beautifully crafted knife in admiration, and then dropping it with disappointment, pointing out the same reason that made the knife’s design flawed. These rules should have been tracked and shared as Jobs’s legacy, as his gift to mankind. The author failed to realize that.

Another disappointing fact is the author’s failure to bring John Scully’s point of view. John Scully was Apple’s Former CEO and the man who mentored Jobs for a while, later on he publicly clashed with Jobs, and finally ousted him from Apple. John Scully played a pivotal role in Jobs’s life and Jobs even mentioned him at his Stanford commencement speech. The choice not to bring his perspective was a poor one.

The Story:

The book begins with a wonderful historical overview of how a beautiful valley filled with apricot and plum orchards boomed to become the Silicon Valley. The author walks us through how it all started when Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett launched their company at a Palo Alto Shed and how Stanford created an industrial park for companies to commercialize students’ ideas, opening the door for a booming economy based on technology – A great read for all residents of the bay area.

The author uses stories to rationalize Jobs’s complex personality. A good example is Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field” (e.g. his ability ignore certain realities when he didn’t like them or when he thought they were insignificant, like his cancer). The author uses the story of how Jobs’s foster parents treated him as the “chosen one” to rationalize Jobs’s belief that certain realities did not apply to him as he was “enlightened”

Similarly, the author tries to track the origins of Jobs’s design perceptions. He describes how Jobs’s father, while building a fence around their house, taught him how important it was to perfectly craft even the parts you could not see. The author also mentioned Jobs’s admiration to the clean design of his childhood home (built by Joseph Eichler) that instilled on him a passion for making great designs at an affordable price for the mass market. Furthermore the author ties Jobs love for simplicity, utility, and beauty to his trip to India to search for enlightenment and his interest in Zen Buddhism.

The author uses the early years of Apple to emphasize Jobs’s unique understanding of user needs and market trends, his strategic thinking, and his business sense – Apple wouldn’t have existed without these “superpowers”. Conversely, the author uses Jobs’s ousting from Apple as a platform to emphasize some of his weaknesses, such as: his a-political nature, his mood swings, his difficulty in building relationships, and his obnoxious behavior towards his colleagues.

But by far, the best part of the book tells the story of Jobs’s “restoration”, his second run to greatness. The author emphasizes Jobs vision, design principles, and business acumen as the main reasons behind the tremendous success both Apple and Pixar had. The author also uses detailed descriptions of the different product launches (iPhone, iPad, and iTunes) to emphasizing Jobs’s intuition and his attention to details.

Steve Jobs was a man on a mission and the author emphasizes that through his descriptions of his sickness. Cancer did not define him; in fact Cancer was pushed to the background. It focused him on what’s important (in his mind), it motivated him to pursue his destiny and create some of Apple’s boldest products.

Conclusion:

Oh and one more thing, the last words of book are Steve Jobs’s own words about what his legacy would be. After reading these words, I couldn’t stop but thinking how different and how much better our world would have been if only Steve Jobs was given one more year to live.

The relevance of the book:

The book shares some of Jobs’s thoughts about design as a competitive strategy. These are, in my opinion, the “tip of the iceberg”, indicating why there was only one Steve Jobs. Here are some of those thoughts:

Jobs about design principles:

  • Less But Better: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Jobs made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
  • Simplicity comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them: Simplicity is not just minimalism; you have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential
  • Design is not just about how the product looks like: it reflects the way the product was engineered, manufactured, packaged. A manufacturing mistake will ruin the greatest design.

 Jobs about designing great products:

  • It is not about the money, it’s about making great products!
  • Figure out what people are going to want before they do: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Never rely on market research. 
  • Focus: deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. Free your resources to focus on what you do best. 
  • Design a great user experience end-to-end: tailor the purchasing experience, the ritual of un-wrapping the product – such experiences should be theatrical, and tell a memorable story.
  • Design drives engineering, not the other way around: Innovate via the design. Engineering will fit the boards and wires into the new design.
  • Do not allow hacks or customizations to your product: that way you control the user experience and make sure it executes your vision. 
  • Constantly refine your art: If you are not busy being born, you are busy dying. 

Jobs about the design process:

  • Ban PowerPoint Presentations: “People who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint” 
  • Build models you can touch: instead of endless design documents and convoluted diagrams. Iterate often. 
  • Use intuition, instincts and fluid conversation as a review mechanism:  instead of formal design reviews that often lead to major disagreements.
  • If it’s not right, do not be afraid of making last minute changes: even if such changes will cause significant delays. It has to be right. 
  • Design all products in one place: gives you a sense of how all the newly designed products relate and connect with each other.

 

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Comments»

1. jhpittman - March 11, 2012

Nice job, Dovik – I liked the way you distilled Job’s design principles. Jobs was not a designer per-se but perhaps the best design leader who ever lived. He did not produce the designs, but was a great design critic and established the context for Apple to produce great products.

A couple of other links to look at are:

Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement address – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

The Crazy ones – Jobs narration of the Think Different ad campaign – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rwsuXHA7RA

2. Suhani N Mehta - March 17, 2012

I agree with you, Dovik, that the book doesn’t reveal a lot about Steve. In fact, when I read the book, I found it to be only a collection of historical stories rather than a revelation of Steve’s mind. For instance, when he was ousted from Apple, he secluded himself from everybody. At that time, when he felt that everything was shutting down on him, did he ever think about his past friends or other relationships he had? Did he ever contact his parents? Did his parents know about his situation? The latter 2 questions especially seem unanswered throughout the book.

The book talks a lot about what he *did* and less about what he *thought*.


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