Apple and simplicity

Like most designers - and indeed non-designers - I'm half in love with Apple. Only half because, heaven knows, they're not saints.

Suffice to say I refer you to the reports earlier this week of tax evasion, and the continued concern about working conditions at Foxconn. Apple haven't become one of the world's most valuable companies through idealism alone.

That said, there's something idealistic about them, something, at least, refreshingly non-pragmatic. There's a degree of attention to detail in the quality of their products, and in the consistency of their brand, that goes beyond what might be strictly necessary to maintain their market share. Jonathan Ive has said:

Apple's goal isn't to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products. We trust that as a consequence of that, we'll make money. But we're really clear what our goals are.

I take that with several pinches of salt. But I think there's truth in it.

I read an interesting book this week that comes as close than anything I've yet encountered to capturing the essence of what makes Apple distinctive. Ken Segall's Insanely Simple argues that the company's defining characteristic and unifying motivation is a - downright obsessive - concern with the ideal of simplicity.

Segall is interesting because he's able to draw on first hand experience. He's a marketing consultant who worked with Steve Jobs and other senior Apple managers on the development of many of their best known campaigns, including the Think Different ads, and the launch of the iMac, iPod and iPhone.

Segall argues that the desire to simplify, to rationalise a product, process or message to its purest essence, is the common thread running through everything Apple do, explaining the famous attention to quality and simplicity of design; the unusually flat and loose organisational structure; and the rigour of its marketing communications.

It isn't a perfect book. It's about simplicity but is somewhat on the long side, and the tone is too reverential: the legitimate questions to be asked of Apple's conduct that I refer to above are never mentioned. But it illuminated and brought into sharper focus for me some of the most interesting things Apple does. Here are a few:

Visualise the user experience first, then apply the appropriate technology

Jobs believed a project should begin with a vision of the ideal user experience, then apply, or invent, whatever technology was required to realise it. Sounds straightforward, but it's actually very hard to resist the temptation to do it the other way round: to allow technology to dictate rather than follow. Starting with the user experience is both easier and harder. Easier, because sometimes a project might require only modest technological firepower. Harder, because sometimes it's necessary to invent new techniques to realise a goal.

Segall recalls Apple's development of new software to make it easy for users to turn a home movie into a DVD. A team of engineers worked for some weeks on ideas for the application, to be presented to Jobs for approval. They developed several possibilities s based on existing interface conventions, but didn't think beyond that. Segall describes how Jobs simply walked in to the meeting and without looking at the team's ideas went straight to the whiteboard:

'Here's the new application', he said. 'It's got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says "Burn". That's it. That's what we're going to make.'

Jobs' saw that the easiest interface for the user was so simple that the engineers, too immersed in convention, hadn't even contemplated it.

Segall was also in a position to observe the development of the iPhone. The product's groundbreaking design was shaped by Jobs' dogmatic insistence that it only have one button. The obvious thing to do would have been to have three buttons, one each for the product's essential functions: for making a call, for accessing the web, and for playing music. The non-negotiable demand that there be a single button forced the designers to abandon pre-conceptions of how a mobile phone might look and work, and invent new technologies to make it possible. Now, of course, a single button is standard for nearly all smartphones.

There are a couple of very interesting pages about Jobs' influence on the Apple website. The site is often criticised for being rather thin on content. It's a fair to say that compared to more fully featured websites such as those of Adobe and Microsoft, apple.com is little more than an online sales catalogue. There's useful information about the products, but not much else.

Apparently that is exactly how Steve Jobs wanted it. No online communities, just essential information about each Apple product. It's a clutter free, low maintenance site. Segall mentions another feature of the site I hadn't noticed before. Apple's marketing communications never seek to direct users to special or modified URLs, set up for the purpose of advertising a particular product or service. Although each product is directly accessible through the URL one might expect - go to apple.com/iphone for information about the iPhone for example - you will never see a URL like that on Apple adverts or marketing materials. Jobs vetoed the idea, insisting that users should never have to remember a special URL, and should be able to find whatever they want easily enough by going direct to apple.com. Information about current Apple campaigns will always be accessible straight from the home page. I like the simplicity of that principle. No need for users to make a note of a special URL - just go direct to the home page the information can be found from there.

Trust intuition, not analysis

One of the things that surprised Segall most about Apple was the informality of the decision making process: all of the most important judgements about the future of the company were made on the basis of intuition rather than analysis.

In stark contrast to the other companies Segall worked for, like Dell and Intel, Apple never used focus groups. Every decision about new products and the future development of existing ones was made by a small leadership team, in-house, with no input from market research. Jobs and co didn't ask people what they wanted: rather, the assumption was that customers were waiting to be led. As Jobs said:

It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.

I like that. For me, there's something soul destroying and servile in the notion that a business should simply respond to customer demand. It's much more interesting to try to shape it, to cultivate desire for a new product or service, to introduce something new. It's often said that Jobs' iconoclasm in this regard owed something to the values he picked up from the Californian hippy culture of the early 1970s. Maybe. But that sounds too laid back to me. If we're going to use musical metaphors about Jobs it's more accurate to think of him as a punk than a hippy: this is what's on offer, take it or leave it, it's better than what's available elsewhere, it's your loss if you can't see that.

'Touch everything'

Like every large company Apple had it's problems with bureaucracy. But Segall notes some interesting steps that Jobs and co took to try to keep things manageable. He quotes one of Apple's former CEOs, John Sculley:

Steve had a rule that there could never be more than 100 people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone, you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: 'I can't remember more than 100 first names, so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than 100 people, it will force us to go to a different organisation structure where I can't work that way. The way I like to work is where I touch everything.'

That last thought is useful. Even in a little business like mine it's easy to lose track of things. Too many invoices, too many clients, too many emails, too many coding frameworks, too many software applications. Very stressful. I like to know what everything does, and where everything is. To keep things under some control. To maintain some sense of order.

So I can understand why Apple likes to exercise iron control over everything it does. I can understand why the company keeps its range of products and services to a minimum. Why it maintains iTunes as a closed shop. Why it insists on controlling both the hardware and software it produces. And why it opened the Apple Stores network to allow it to manage its customers' retail experience. I like that kind of control freakery. How else can quality be maintained?

Simplify the design, then obsess over detail

Segall notes that Apple's legendary design aesthetic is at least as concerned with leaving things out as with introducing innovative new features. As Jobs said:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying not to a thousand things.

There are already many stories on record about the company's fanatical attention to detail. Segall adds one or two more. He recalls Jobs introducing the first prototype of the second generation iMac:

He directed our attention to the lower corners of the iMac enclosure, where the front met the sides. He explained how, in the original iMac, three separate pieces of moulded plastic came together at this juncture, with a thin line visible between those pieces. In the new version, these corners were a single piece with no joints at all. No customer on earth would have noticed that improvement. But he told the story as if he were describing how Michelangelo had painted one section of the Sistine Chapel.

And there's a nice story about the company's obsession with packaging. The box for one product was to feature a recessed compartment supported by a tiny piece of Styrofoam. But it was to be so slim that the company to which Apple had contracted the packaging said it couldn't be produced: it would melt from the heat of the moulding machines. Apple's response was to insist that the contractor develop new moulds made from a different material, specifically for producing this one piece of Styrofoam, for this one product. Apple got its way and the packaging shipped as planned. It was highly unlikely that any customer even noticed the Styrofoam but that isn't the point: Apple wanted things just so, even at added expense.

I like the concept of paring back, of taking away, of removing superfluities, even if they have notional appeal, and then obsessing over what remains. Keep the design elements to an absolute minimum, and make sure everything that's left in works as well as it possibly can. That seems to me the essence of good design: simplify, take away, then polish to perfection.

Simplicity as religion

Suffice to say I think Segall's fundamental argument is correct. Studying all aspects of Apple's operation in terms of an underlying commitment to simplicity helps make clear precisely what is distinctive and interesting about the way they do things.

He doesn't speculate where that desire for simplicity comes from. Fair enough. Segall's motivations are practical, concerned with highlighting the concrete business benefits of simplicity, and how his readers might be able to marshall it for the benefit of their own organisations.

It has been suggested that the intensity of Jobs' commitment to keeping things simple lies with his life long interest in the principles of Zen Buddhism. Last year I reviewed an excellent graphic novel, The Zen of Steve Jobs, which explores the possibility that Jobs was influenced by oriental design principles. As the book's illustrator James Callahan noted:

Jobs’s immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain - it’s variously translated as 'void', 'space' or 'interval' - but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object - the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? - and you were to respond 'both', you’ve gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.

Wisely the novel doesn't make too big a claim for that suggestion. It's not clear exactly how important Zen was to Jobs. But one thing that Segall mentions in passing, and which I think might have had a more profound influence on Apple during the Jobs era, is the fact that for much of his second spell at the company, from 1997 to 2011, Jobs was living in the shadow of what turned out, sadly, to be terminal cancer. During the extraordinary period when Apple was turning out incredible products every few years Jobs knew that he might not have much time left.

Therefore his commitment to getting things done intensified. And his standards became ever higher. The commitment to simplicity and beauty became white hot: I don't think it's an exaggeration to say religious in its intensity. Faced with the sense of time running out, Jobs pared everything down to essentials: he would tolerate no superfluities, just a commitment to realising the best possible products.

Obviously that's just conjecture. I'm well aware that there were many other factors shaping Apple's philosophy during Jobs' tenure. Notably the commitment of Jonathan Ive and Apple's other top designers to a simple aesthetic inspired by the great German designer Dieter Rams. But I think it's well demonstrated, not least by Segall, that Apple's commitment to purity and simplicity of design has and continues to go beyond the rational. There's a transcendent element to it that has something of the purity of religious faith.

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