Visit any technology company in Silicon Valley, and you will find a group of people working on a product — a gadget, website or software application. Often, you can find some of these people sitting in a conference room locked in deep conversation. Something will be wrong. The product may not be shipping on time, or the future direction a feature should take is unclear. There will be an engineer, who argues that things can’t be changed now because of how the technology has been created. A representative from marketing will warn that the product’s competitive position will suffer if a certain feature isn’t included. And a vice president will pound the table and demand everyone consider market share and profit margin. Nobody, it seems, takes the side of the people who will actually use the product.
Steve Jobs changed that. He turned product development upside down and insisted that technology, marketing and business simply support an amazing experience. He brought design to the front, and built one of the world’s most successful companies by embracing the opposite of Silicon Valley’s conventional wisdom.
Many people think of designers as aloof artists who spend their day making pretty things in Photoshop, or sketching absurd outfits for next season’s Paris runway. Put the word “designer” before any product category and it connotes “expensive.” But through the rebirth of Apple (s AAPL), Steve redefined good design. To him, it was combination of a deep understanding of technology paired with incredibly good taste.
He used a different process, as well. In our industry, designers embrace usability testing, focus groups, and customer interviews to gain insight into their products. Companies like Google (s GOOG) encourage engineers to spend 20 percent of their work week pursuing whatever strike their fancy, hoping innovation trickles up. But at Apple, nobody ever sees the products before they ship. Ever. Design direction famously came straight from the office of the CEO. Story after story recounts product teams at Apple nervously showing their work to Steve, and him tearing them apart. Making them start over. Forcing them to sweat the tiniest details. Inspiring them to do their best.
Steve Jobs’ legacy can be measure in so many ways: The computer for the rest of us. Ten thousand songs in your pocket. Rebooting the phone industry. But to me, it’s even simpler. He taught me to have confidence in my instincts and to push against convention. He showed me that Silicon Valley could produce great design. And that great design can improve people’s lives.
Thinking different, indeed.
Jeffrey Veen is a founder and CEO of Typekit, the cloud-based font service recently acquired by Adobe. He has been writing about design and building tools for web designers for over 15 years.
Disclosure: Typekit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOm. Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.