Steve Jobs: What is good design?

Steve Wozniak gave an ultimatum to Steve Jobs. The year was 1977, and Steve Jobs insisted that his co-founder Wozniak build a computer with only two slots. Because all a computer requires is a modem and a printer. 

But Wozniak was the consummate hackers hacker. In his ideal computer, he wanted slots for extra memory and a game paddle and a music keyboard and maybe a few other input devices like the new fangled mouse. And so Wozniak gave an ultimatum: if Jobs didn’t let him design a computer with 8 slots, he would quit and take his computer design with him!

Jobs relented. And that’s how Apple II became the world’s first successful mass produced personal computer. Because it allowed other folks to build third party devices and applications for a personal computer – and grow the ecosystem!

But wasn’t eight a little wasteful? Because while two slots was too low a number, there was no one who used all 8 slots to fit something in! 

Steve Jobs had an epiphany when he saw a 1000 different use cases bloom on the personal computer. And when he met Jony Ive – the future lead designer of ipod and iphone, Jobs gave him his one word definition on what good design means.

Good design means: caring.

Wozniak cared. He cared about himself and other hobbyist hackers like him. Because of which, even the extra slots seemed like good design in hindsight. 

Most people think good design means something that looks good. But the sharpest of cool looks won’t matter if you don’t build something with care.

So how do you care?

The story of the iDVD

Apple’s software interface designers had made a cool design for their new iDVD app. The app would allow people to create and burn DVDs. The first version of the DVD burner came with a 1000 page documentation – with separate instructions based on if you were burning music, or movies, or photos on the DVD. But the designers had managed to streamline functionality and removed the need for reading documentation. 

They were confident that Jobs would like their work. But when Jobs was shown the new interface, he scrapped it. He then went to a white board and drew a rectangle. And told the designers that: “here is the new application. It’s got one window. You drag your stuff. And you click burn. That’s it.”

If you care about your users, you care for two things above all else:

  1. You don’t want to waste their time
  2. You don’t want to confuse them

Thats why, good design is simplicity. You have to maximize the steps not taken. What can you eliminate?

You have to go to the drawing board and ask: what’s the most important thing that a user needs to do? And then focus on that while thinking how you can eliminate everything else from his way.

But it’s about simplicity in usage. Not simplicity in looks. 

When it came to designing the Macintosh computer, all the designers were frustrated with Jobs. The designers had worked hard in creating a prototype for the Macintosh computer. The whole Apple team liked it. But when Jobs looked at it, he let out a burst of criticism. And sent them back.

This was repeated 4 times. The team would go back with Jobs’ suggestions and come up with a new prototype. And Jobs would find flaws again.

Jobs intuitively knew good design when he saw it. But he could not communicate it. 

Finally, Jobs asked them to go to Macy’s kitchen department. And buy a model of Cuisinart. And learn from it. Don’t make your computer look like other boring boxed computers. Make it look friendly. Use curves and bevels.

Science backs up Steve Jobs intuition

Today, research shows us that:

  • People love curves over straight lines. 
  • That when it comes to a rectangle, people love the shapes whose length to breadth proportions are closer to the golden ratio (1.618) than very elongated rectangles.


What makes something beautiful in our brains?

Beauty is not tangible. When anything triggers a pleasing response in our brain, we define it as beautiful. Good design is something that helps trigger that pleasing response.

When Sascha Topolinski conducted an experiment on humour, it gives us a clue to our inner brain workings. People were asked to read the same joke on paper. Half of them read the joke in harder to read fonts. Would you be surprised to know that they found the joke less funny?

The same joke had a different reaction based on how fast your brain processes it. Fluency matters. 

That’s why people like poems and rhymes. Because it is processed fluently in our brains. Fluency makes our brains go Aha! And what’s more, Piotr Winkielman conducted an experiment that shows that fluency in brains affects our physiology as well.

When people were shown images that were processed more fluently in the brains, their zygomaticus major muscles were activated. The muscles that connect your cheekbones to the corner of your mouth: the ones that make you smile.

Steve Jobs intuitively understood what would be processed fluently in our brains. He found beauty in calligraphy and Japanese zen gardens and kitchen appliances, and adapted their design into the computer and the phone.

Can we deconstruct his intuition? 

What are the rules to make things more fluent?

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and his wife Diane did a meta analysis and came up with an arbitrary list of things that trigger beauty in our brains.

  1. Symmetry and smoothness. Symmetry is fluently processed in our brains. So are smooth lines and shapes. (When it comes to written words, alliteration and rhymes create smoothness in speech.)
  2. Grouping. We perceive things fluently when they fit in a group. When similar things are kept in close proximity together and when there is contrast and demarcation between different things.
  3. Isolation. Our brains can usually process a single pattern of neural activity at a time. So when important things are isolated and shown in more focus, they are processed fluently than in a crowd.
  4. Hypernormal stimuli. Contrast and exaggerated elements help in fluent processing.

Robin Williams who teaches designing to non-designers has created a formula that closely follows the above. Focus in CRAP. Contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. And your design will be beautiful.

Action Summary:

  • The road to good design starts with caring. Because good design focuses on eliciting joy in people’s brains. Its job is to trigger beauty. (Beauty = fluency + delight.)
  • Fluency comes from first simplifying and eliminating steps. And then polishing it smooth.