How Steve Jobs Forever Altered Product Design

Posted by Dylan C. Lathrop

Steve Jobs, RIP, Design, Systems, Apple

"Form follows function" is a design cliche that everyone associated with the widening field has heard over and over again. No big brand supports this ethos more than Apple, and with the passing of founder Steve Jobs, we can wholly appreciate this refreshing approach to technology. 

An architect of storytelling, Jobs created a lineage of products, from the initial Apple 1 personal computer to the latest iPhone we covet. He crafted a tale of simplicity, restriction, and intuitive use that has affected every consumer product made today. He didn't just change technology, he changed our way of thinking about design systems. If every piece of design is to work with anything that came before it—and anything to come after it—the system for that design has to be cohesive. This is bigger than a logo or brand language. It means designing so that loyal consumers will relate to a new object the same way they related to the old one, and that new consumers will find the learning process easy, too. Any interaction we have with Apple products is a direct result of incredible systems-design thinking, and that continuity and execution was a hallmark of Jobs' career. 

No company has made more complex and baffling pieces of hardware than Apple. The way anyone learns about creating products for people to use now—and not only use but enjoy—is informed by Jobs. An avid believer in correcting design flaws from product to product, and a consummate perfectionist, he has instilled key rules for design, such as streamlined interaction, like the click-wheel for the original iPod, a single interaction point that could execute an array of controls. Or there's his love for well-executed typography, which showed through across the entire brand—not just marketing and ads, but the words appearing on the screen of any Apple device. In design, rarely are these major rules broken, but if anyone could do it well, it was Jobs. And the moments when he broke the rules were the ones when he was most transcendent. It doesn't seem so revolutionary now, but look at the 1998 iMac, with its futuristic all-in-one body, and put it up against any other personal computer on the market at that time. He looked at all the precedents set by personal computers, and obliterated each one, leaving us with a glimpse of the future. 

The comparisons of Jobs to other monumental technical inventors will continue to roll in, but the thing that set him apart was his steadfast belief in design, whether in creating consumer products or living his own life. The oft-quoted passage about his views on death from his famous Stanford commencement speech was so remarkable because it was so practical. "Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there," he said. "And yet death is the destination we all share." For Jobs, even in death, form follows function.