Dan Margulis Applied Color Theory

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Posted By: Dan Margulis

Thu Oct 6, 2011 1:04 am  |

The apple.com home page tonight has an admirable allusion to one of the great print advertising campaigns of the last century, one so successful that its posters still hang in many of our offices. Each featured an iconic independent thinker, anyone from Jackie Robinson to Albert Einstein. The portrait was always black and white, normally in a provocative, pensive closeup. The only graphic elements were the Apple logo and two words: Think Different.

Someone tasteful at Apple has found an appropriate portrait to recall the series and accompany the simple, sad words: Steve Jobs, 1955-2011. Almost everyone in the world has been affected by this man’s work, but we in the graphic arts have been impacted much more than most, for which reason a few comments are in order.

Jobs goes down as the most influential businessperson in American history, and I say this as a student of both John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, both of whom lived much longer than he did. 

We have not seen such a combination of talents in a single individual. He was our greatest product designer because he understood both form and function. Paul Rand, whom Jobs often worked with and was himself featured in the Think Different campaign, was a brilliant designer in terms of the way products look and how they are advertised, but he did not have anything close to Jobs’ knowledge of what the products were actually supposed to do. Thomas Edison, also part of the Think Different series, is comparable to Jobs in his knowledge of what innovative products were really needed and how to make them easy to use. But Edison’s products were by no means as elegant as Jobs’.

Just the knowledge of both form and function sets Jobs apart. So does his ability to absorb technological change over an extended time. Remember, he was brilliantly innovative almost 30 years ago. It would have been easy for him to be blindsided by the development of the web, or to have lost interest in communications technology, particularly in the last eight years of his life, when he was plagued by health issues. Instead, some of his most successful designs were introduced in his last years.

Add to this mix a phenomenal ability as a public speaker and an inspirational managerial style, stir briskly, and what do you get? An adopted boy, a counterculturalist, college dropout, vegetarian, somebody with difficulty with authority, builds something in a garage that grows up to be the most valuable company in the world; he himself not only becomes a billionaire but the most valuable businessman in the history of the world, if Barron’s is to be believed. Based on technical analysis of Apple’s market cap (disclosure: I have often held largish amounts of Apple stock, and it continues to be the biggest single position in my equities portfolio), they estimated that the market was putting a value of around $25 billion on Jobs continuing to run the company in good health.

The old saw is that such a thing could only happen in America, and it was likely true at the time. One of the saddest things about the current economic situation is that it probably could *not* happen in America any more. Now is not the time or place to have that discussion, nor is it a good moment to flesh out the dark side of Steve Jobs, which definitely existed.

As for us, it’s too early to evaluate Jobs’ contribution to how business is done on the web, other than it will be massive. In terms of conventional publishing, if Jobs had never lived we would still be doing publishing on desktop computers today but we would be at least five and perhaps ten years behind where we are today. This is not just because, at a time when few of us knew how to use computers, the Macintosh was easy to learn, although that was a very big deal.

A bigger factor was that Jobs was pigheaded enough to mandate things that programmers and hardware developers did not want to do. For a fuller description, part of a message about Jobs’ legacy that I posted here a year and a half ago is appended.

I close with two thoughts. First, the two men whom I earlier compared Jobs to, Rockefeller and Ford, were, apart from their businesses, great humanitarians who did things of lasting impact for all of us--in their old age. We can only speculate what Steve Jobs would have done if he had been granted as many years.

Second, my quick list of the faces in the Think Different series, in addition to the ones mentioned previously (Edison, Einstein, Rand, Robinson), includes Ansel Adams, Joan Baez, Maria Callas, César Chávez, Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Henson, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Ted Turner, and James Watson. By posting a portrait of Jobs in a style deliberately chosen to evoke the advertising campaign, someone may have been suggesting that Jobs deserves the honor of being considered in the same league as these people. Personally, I would amend that to say that it honors the memory of the others to suggest that they should be considered comparable to Steve Jobs.

Dan Margulis

P.S. Here is a piece of my post of 5 May, 2010.

If you’re into American history, one of the best one-volume biographies around is Flexner, _Washington, The Indispensable Man_. The thesis is that on rare occasions one individual’s combination of talents and flaws matches the needs of the times so perfectly that, if given the opportunity, he can change history in a way that would be most unlikely if he had never existed.

Indispensable men are very rare, first of all because there are not that many opportunities to change history, and more importantly because it’s usually possible to envision somebody else doing the same thing if the candidate for indispensability had never existed. Jefferson was brilliant and influential, but he wasn’t indispensable. Without him, things would have played out approximately as they did. Washington was different. It is hard to conceive of a replacement with the same unique skill set at exactly the time it was needed.

Bill Gates is currently an indispensable man. Many people in history have been as rich as he is, but nobody has ever before used such wealth so intelligently and for so many projects that benefit mankind. However, Gates was not indispensable to the computer industry. If he had never been born, there might not have been a Microsoft, but an industry-standard OS would still have developed. Similarly, all of Adobe’s products, with the possible exception of Acrobat, were foreordained. If they had not been introduced by Adobe they would have been introduced by somebody else at about the same time.

Steve Jobs, OTOH, *was* indispensable. The reason was simply stated by Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”

Jobs is surely unreasonable, and often it’s cost him, as he’s gotten himself into serious trouble that any reasonable person would have known to avoid. However, he also has a strong technical knowledge of his field, a sure sense of how that field is developing, and is one of the greatest product designers in history. Other similarly talented unreasonable people presumably exist, but none of them happen to be CEOs of companies big enough to make a difference.

It was unreasonable of Jobs to insist on PostScript as Apple’s exclusive page description language, when better languages that he could not license existed. Allowing many different standards, as IBM did, was undeniably more reasonable, but Jobs’ decision launched desktop publishing, and without it we would have lost at least five years. It was completely unreasonable to withdraw support for the SCSI interface standard when the whole world had serious investments in that flaky, but standard, technology. It was unreasonable to pull modems off Apple laptops when such a large number of users still needed them to dial into the internet. It was unreasonable to design a computer that could not be physically connected to other computers. And on and on.

Executives at other companies would not have taken those unreasonable decisions. Neither would any successor to Jobs, because any successor could only have risen to the top by being reasonable and only by remaining so could maintain the confidence of the board of directors, which is always reasonable. Eventually of course all companies would have made the decision to pull floppies and modems and the like off their computers, but only when it was reasonable to do so, say, when 99 percent of the user base had already migrated to something else. And today we would all be using dated technology with way too many competing standards.


An epitaph for Steve Jobs

Posted By: Dan Margulis

Sat Oct 8, 2011 9:19 pm  |

The melancholy news of earlier this week motivated me to go through some of my things that might be of use to aspiring professionals, with a view to getting rid of them--more of that anon. But I discovered a snippet worth sharing, one that as nearly as I can google, isn’t available on the web.

In a previous message, I mentioned the relationship between Steve Jobs and the designer Paul Rand (1914-1996). Rand’s greatest work was in corporate identity. His designs have an unbelievable lifespan. The logos for IBM, ABC, UPS, Westinghouse and many others have been around for decades. They are all Rand’s work. His style was one of deceptive simplicity that resulted in an attractive, almost childlike look at times. He could also come up with industrial-looking designs that evoked a style of locked-in perfection. That’s what he did in his major collaboration with Jobs, which was the development in the years around 1990 of the NeXT computer platform and its corporate identity.

Their collaboration resulted in the most beautiful computer ever built. It did not survive, but its software did and made Jobs a good deal of money. Its spirit, however, lives on. In Jobs’ first stint at Apple many excellent products were released, but none were classics of design. The easy elegance so associated with Apple products today came later. Pick up an iPhone, an iMac, or a Macbook Air and you’re looking at Rand’s legacy, which Jobs and his designers were able to assimilate.

Anyhow, on to the quotation, from an apparently unknown (but provocatively titled) 1980 essay. Jobs was just getting started in his career so it is unlikely that Rand knew him, but upon reading this it is hard to believe that it wasn’t written yesterday with Jobs in mind.

Dan Margulis

It is no secret that the real world in which the designer functions is not the

world of art, but the world of buying and selling. For sales, and not design,

are the raison d’etre of any business organization. Unlike the salesman,

however, the designer’s overriding motivation is art: art in the service of

business, art which enhances the quality of life and deepens appreciation of the

familiar world.

Design is a problem-solving activity. It provides a means of clarifying,

synthesizing and dramatizing a word, a picture, a product, or an event. A

serious barrier to the realization of good design, however, is the layer of

management inherent in any bureaucratic structure. For aside from sheer

prejudice or simple unawareness, one is apt to encounter such absurdities as

second-guessing, kow-towing, posturing, nit-picking and jockeying for position,

let alone such buck-passing institutions and the task force. At issue, it seems,

is neither malevolence nor stupidity, but, simply, human frailty.

* * *

Unless the design function in a business bureaucracy is so structured that

direct access to the ultimate decision-maker is possible, trying to produce good

work is very often an exercise in futility. Ignorance of the history and

methodology of design--how work is conceived, produced, and reproduced--adds to

the difficulties and misunderstandings.

Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole person as well

as the whole complex of visual communication: talent, creative ability, manual

skill and technical knowledge.

--Paul Rand, Politics in Design