Design is both the insanely radical and the passionately incremental

In the year since the passing of Steve Jobs, design has experienced a moment — a renaissance. Walter Isaacson’s biography cemented the fact that Jobs’ unusually acute passion for both art and design within the tech industry was the key to its dominance today. Design-driven startups, including Rhode Island School of Design’s own Airbnb, are garnering much more attention in Silicon Valley and the more design-driven New York tech scene.

And so it’s not surprising that the word “design” gets thrown around a lot now as the reason for a brilliant success, or the excuse for a fantastic failure — especially when it gets to be that time of year when Apple announces its newest products. From a commercial perspective, the iPhone 5 has already been a resounding success. But on the matter of its design compared to the iPhone 4, it seems the jury is still out.

Watching the chatter from my perch as President of RISD, the more people talk about its design, the more I wonder if we designers have done a good enough job explaining what “design” really means. I believe the passionate incrementalism of the iPhone 5 is just as important a design accomplishment as the original breakthrough of its predecessors.

Let me explain. Sometimes design is about making something that’s never been seen before. It’s like Steve Jobs said — you can’t ask people what they want, you need to design it and show it to them. The result can sometimes be a quantum leap, an epiphany that comes to life as an object or experience nobody in their right mind could have imagined before. Great designers can stretch us towards the limits of our comfort, and then create a new comfortable place where we didn’t expect to find one. Often, however, design breakthroughs are achieved in a less revolutionary sort of way. Great design can be about refining, or “perfecting.”

For example, think of the Sony Walkman — the first portable device that enabled you to listen to the music you wanted on the go, in all of its stereophonic glory, within the comfort of your own head. You no longer had to surrender your mind to whatever was playing on your pocket radio. The Walkman symbolized freedom and established a cocoon around you to help you achieve tighter isolation from your surroundings. After all, what teenager doesn’t want to turn off the world around them?

On the other side of the coin, think of Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System or any other means to pursue a 99.99966 percent level of flawlessness, and unless you’re a Six Sigma black belt, you start to yawn interminably. The quest for perfection isn’t always called out as a particularly brilliant form of design or innovation. Yet it is that kind of incessant pursuit of otherworldly excellence that ultimately grounds a designer’s ability to find new ideas much farther afield.

It is a furniture designer’s knowledge of the wood they are using — exactly which tree it came from, what layer of wood, and which side faced the sun — that results in a chair that bends in impossible angles. It is the web designer’s attention to the question of which screen resolution and what version of Javascript and which other applications might need to run in concert that results in the breakthrough mobile app.

So when you see Jony Ive talking about shaving microns off of a glass surface, or lasercutting tiny holes into aluminum, you see someone driven by one single purpose — to make the most perfect experience imaginable. There is much debate about whether the subtraction of N grams or M millimeters made the new iPhone too light or too thin, and certainly the determination of “better” is a difficult and ultimately personal one. Most importantly, the existence of this debate signifies how Apple is now reaching the apex of perfection on this slab of metal we carry around with a devotion that rivals Gollum’s to the Ring. They have achieved refinement, a critical milestone in the designer’s process of finding the next breakthrough.

Both the radical breakthrough of the Walkman and the perfection-driven refinement of the iPhone 5 represent significant design advancements, and both kinds are critical to the process of innovation. On this anniversary of Jobs’ death, I am reminded how artists — who are always asking the big questions that drive us — and designers — who are always trying to find the solutions — are the ones who obsessively navigate the difficult terrain of making us comfortable with what is new, and ultimately, making us happy.

John Maeda is president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and has been recognized as a leader in the fields of art and design. More information on his background can be found here. He will be speaking at our RoadMap event, focused on design in the age of connectedness, on November 5th in San Francisco.