The Zen of Steve Jobs

It's well known that the late Steve Jobs was obsessed by the concept of simplicity, the guiding principle of Apple's design aesthetic. It's also well known that he was a long time disciple of Zen Buddhism, and employed insights from that tradition in shaping his company's design philosophy.

But it isn't clear exactly what he took from Zen, and what he discarded. The Zen of Steve Jobs is a fascinating little graphic novel published by Forbes which explores how Zen might have honed Jobs' design aesthetic, reimagining his friendship with the Buddhist priest Kobun Chino Otogawa.

Jobs first met Kobun during his early dabblings with Eastern religion in the early 1970s. They met again in the mid-1980s, just after Jobs' first spell at Apple had ended with his being forced out due to poor sales of the original Mac. That was the period of Jobs' most intense interest in Zen, to which he looked to not only for spiritual consolation, but also for insights that might help him with his next tech venture, the NeXT operating system. Jobs and Kobun gradually drifted apart from the mid-90s till Kobun's tragic death by drowning in 2002, but never entirely lost contact.

The novel imagines Job coming to Kobun in 1986 seeking understanding of the Zen notion of 'ma', an obscure teaching regarding the relationship between space and objects. In the notes at the end of the book illustrator James Callahan says:

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.

The novel imagines Kobun putting it like this:

It is both the forms that surround us and the spaces with no form at all - and how they interact together. It is what is in space and what is not. It is how we experience the relationship.

Eventually the penny drops for Jobs, and he takes away the understanding that good design is concerned as much with what is left out as with what is left in. This crucial insight is the turning point for Jobs. On his return to Apple in 1997 he radically simplifies the company's product line, and oversees the development of a series of devices that set new standards for purity of form and simplicity of use. Drawing on his understanding of ma Jobs insists on the removal of traditional design features that were hitherto thought essential, but which, with sufficient ingenuity, are in fact superfluous. The iPod dial radically simplified interface navigation, the iPhone and iPad have effectively removed the need for a physical keyboard, and the iMac elimates the distinction between computer and monitor. When we experience an Apple device we notice what's been removed, and wonder why it was ever necessary in the first place: ma.

Who knows whether this is really what happened. Jobs was exposed to other design influences when he returned to Apple, not least Jonathan Ive's admiration for the work of modernist designer Dieter Rams. But the novel's thesis is clever and convincing.

The book is careful not to sentimentalise Jobs' relationship with Kobun. He was a businessman, not a monk, and cherry picked the elements of Zen that helped him realise his ambitions for Apple. Author Caleb Melby writes:

The overarching narrative about perfection was, and still is, the most perplexing theme I encountered while researching this… Steve believed in perfection. Kobun didn't. He believed in self betterment, sure, but he also believed in achieving peace within oneself and with one's surroundings. Perfectionists are never at peace… In the end that's what drives these two men apart. One of them wants to be the perfect innovator making perfect products on a massive scale. The other is working to achieve peace within himself, his family and his surroundings. When Steve starts kicking ass again in the 90s, he and Kobun no longer see eye-to-eye. Perfection is the nail that drives that splinter.

There are also plenty of - frequently amusing - references to the former Apple CEO's legendary rudeness.

The novel has been criticised for being rather short - 65 pages - but it seemed long enough to me to clearly and concisely tell the story. Appropriately it reads rather like a Zen koan - a brief narrative intended to make a single, forceful point. And the illustrative style is clever and appropriate. To quote Callahan again:

The style is meant to loosely reflect the central element of calligraphy in the story. Heavy black lines and shadows clashed against suggested shapes and highlights are meant to mirror themes of Ma and spaces, hopefully in a way that represents the subtle atmosphere and introspection of the story.

Suffice to say I highly recommend the book if you are interested in Apple's design aesthetics, Zen, or the mercurial Jobs.