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Book Club: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Last week at frog we kicked off our new book club with a discussion of the Steve Jobs Biography by Walter Isaacson. The main theme of the conversation was, “I’m not Steve Jobs and you’re not Steve Jobs, so what can we learn from Steve Jobs”. We went from there and discussed Steve’s personality, his reality distortion, his uncanny ability to predict the needs of consumers, and how these aspects of his very public life have influenced the design community and frog specifically. These are some of the gems that I found in, or from, the conversation, either because they are directly applicable to my career as a designer or because they touch the part of me that is passionate about quality, genuineness and discovering passion in all areas of my life.

What is Genius? 
Steve was a very passionate, emotional person. Was he a genius? He had a deep intuition about many things of which he had little or no formal training: typography, iconography, accessibility, graphical user interfaces, metaphors that connect humans with computer technology, and…the future. His ability to focus on the key aspects or features of an idea allowed him to ignore all things superfluous and inspire a deep drive to create in his teams. His honesty (and at times, lazy dishonesty) about project developments always drove his employees to work harder, to try to achieve the impossible. On one hand Steve could muster up every scrap of creativity and skill in his employees with one of his pep talks, but he also had a knack for recognizing people’s weaknesses and would exploit them with extremely damaging words. He was emotional and sensitive, brazen and egomaniacal. Some suspect he was also a classic narcissist. But was he a genius? Or did he just put it all out there and stick to his convictions?

Fail Early and Often
Steve wasn’t only successful. He experienced several huge failures early on at Apple, then at NeXT and nearly with Pixar, and countless business reviews doomed Apple to fail in the end. But he never gave up, even against severe odds, and shortly after his death we see Apple as the one of the most valuable companies in history as well as the number one computer manufacturer in the US, finally surpassing Microsoft after 20+ years. Some designers – including myself – were taught to fail early, fail often. To iterate quickly and collaboratively filter through as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time, in an effort to eliminate the unfeasible options while the process is still inexpensive, instead of waiting to make critical changes later when the cost of time or materials become more and more expensive. I’m learning that this isn’t just a bit of design theory, this is a way of life. To be willing to make mistakes and move on while the ideas are still fresh, while energy still abounds, while I’m still flexible/young/mindful and I’m not too deeply invested in one idea, one way of life. The idea of failing early and often may sound negative to some. To me it means get comfortable with being a work in progress. Mistakes will be made but nothing is broken. I will pick up the pieces of my failed experiments and from them I will make something better. And learning from the change will create a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s potential.

Are Ideas Cheap? Or Are They Expensive? 
The process of creative decision making at Apple is still somewhat of a mystery. Steve was notorious for labeling ideas “stupid” and people “bozos” and to him you were either a genius or an asshole. So how did anything get done? As a dictator, Steve had the ultimate say in every decision. Somehow he was able to create teams that thrived despite (or because of) his mistreatment to create incredible new technologies. Some, like his lead designer Jony Ive, incubated their ideas privately, protecting them from Steve’s outbursts until he was ready, then they would grow the idea together. Others iterated and presented the boss with scores of options to choose from, thus minimizing the likeliness that he would reject the concept altogether.

Both systems work in their own respects as opposite sides of the same coin. I wonder which is better, or which is more appropriate in the greater scheme of life? A designer is charged with creating new things based on experience, intuition or observation. The thing is then put out in the world for critique, review, acceptance, and if one is lucky, it is adopted, even adored. But before that ever happens the idea, the thing, is torn apart from every angle. It’s flaws are counted and documented, its weak points are stress tested, it faces rounds of feedback and critique (not always from qualified peoples), budget cuts, timeline cuts, resource cuts, stakeholder reviews and disprovals, user/usability/alpha/beta/human factors/ergonomics testing. From day one the idea is challenged.

The question, for me, is: How does the designer remove herself from the critique? How can one put judgement on the object and not on the person who created the object, or are the two really inextricably entwined? Or even more basically, how does the designer become empowered as to not ever feel that critique of an idea is a critique on oneself? I observe that there is a way to – unlike Steve did – develop a strong culture of honesty and excellence that advocates for the best possible design decisions while enabling designers to remain autonomous from the things they create, and this is what I want to experience and advocate for as a designer.

To Change the World or to Dent the Universe
Jobs famously proclaimed that he wanted (and planned) to make a dent in the universe. Coincidentally this is nicely reflected in the first line of the frog design motto, “we are fanatical about changing the world”. Politics and idealism aside, these are two wonderful goals in my eyes, but does corporate (or consultant) design culture enable this type of change-making? These concepts excite me less when I think about them from a design perspective than when I think about the size of the universe, the magnanimity of the Earth and all the people on it, and all the things I want to do and see and share in my life. When I think about these goals as a designer working in a design firm I feel small and too tightly constrained, like this job, or this setting, couldn’t possibly handle the great things that will have to be done to make any type of lasting impact on the world. And then I get excited about the things I want to do and I wonder how I’ll do them, and I think Steve was pretty inspirational in helping me see that I can do whatever I’m most passionate about and I can make it work out well, like he did.

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