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How Steve Jobs Influenced the Modern World of Digital Design

Created: 08 Feb 2013 • Updated: 03 Jun 2014 • 2 comments
Vicky Peterson's picture
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If you are a design professional, chances are one of the Apple computers was where you first learned your trade. You would also be somewhat familiar with one of the original men behind the design of Apple’s legendary products, Steve Jobs.  I just finished reading his biography, and learned that so many things relevant to this field were the direct result of his constant attention to detail and push for perfection.

Steve grew up not only in the heart of Silicon Valley, but also during its inception, when new technology companies were turning the industry on its ears and actual engineers were running the companies. This product-driven business model was proving to be quite successful. He also grew up in an era of free expression within a very open and tolerant culture. His favorite subject in college was typography; he really connected with how fonts influenced the content and audience. He also spent many of these years learning the eastern philosophies and their holistic values. These all later manifested into his well-known product philosophy that Apple still uses to this day – simple, sleek, seamless, integrated design.

The first product that changed the design world dramatically was the invention of the Macintosh computer with its graphical user interface (GUI), integrated graphic software and postscript fonts. Introduced during the 1983 Superbowl with the iconic, award winning 1984 “Big Brother” ad, it was the first mass-market computer specifically made for the creative person in mind. It came with this new input device, the mouse that would allow real-time drawing and precise cursor control – a must for any designer. It also came with MacWrite, MacPaint, and several fonts. These allowed a designer to not only typeset their copy on the fly, but to lay out pages ready to print. No more Exacto knives, hot wax, and galley type. Welcome to the new era of “Desktop Publishing”. Design would never be the same!

Apple’s GUI and “user friendly” operating system became the new standard for all personal computers going forward. GUIs were becoming the norm and were expected by the consumer. As speed and bandwidth grew, even the internet was becoming graphically enhanced. This gave the digital artist a whole new media platform to create for, leading to what we expect to see on the internet today.

After the success of the Macintosh computer, Steve and Apple split for over 10 years, where he pursued other business interests such as NeXt computer and Pixar (which challenged and set the standard for all future animation). He honed his management and product innovation skills, so when Apple asked him back, he was able to take over and move Apple beyond the Macintosh computer which, by this time, had fallen dramatically behind in the market. With this renewed purpose, Apple was able to launch the new iMac and for the professional market, the PowerMac. By taking advantage of and even driving the faster technologies in memory and processing power, Apple was able to bring itself back into the competitive market.

In order to go beyond its competitors, Apple started focusing on integrated software for personal devices like cameras, camcorders, and PDAs. This was known as the Digital Hub Strategy; where, different devices and media link together sharing data and common functions. This worked really well for everything on the market except for digital music players. The devices were clunky and had pretty bad user interfaces, so to fix the problem Steve Jobs had the Apple engineers design a new music player, the iPod. With its essential integrated software counterpart, iTunes, it was the product game changer that Apple needed to surpass its competition. The iPod once again showed Steve Jobs’ design values. It was clean, white, simple and elegant. It also introduced a mobile device user interface to the industry. This was the stepping stone to the next product that would again change the world of design.

Since the beginning of Apple, Steve had a vision of a marketable tablet. During his first term, the Newton had been designed. It was clunky, inelegant and it had no real marketable interest. Several other tablets were designed but they didn’t do well either. Now with the iPod technology, user interface and integrated strategy, Steve felt comfortable having Apple pursue a tablet device again. This device would be able to handle media of all sorts and be part of the digital hub. It would be so intuitive, anyone from a small child to an older grandparent speaking a different language, could use it. It would not be a complete computer needing lots of processing power and it would not need a stylus, keyboard, or mouse (Steve always felt external input devices were crutches and never liked them). Luckily, touch screen technology was well under way, so to Steve, it was the obvious and perfect interface solution.

This first touch screen tablet was subsequently shelved when Steve realized that its many functions also mirrored the new “smart”, internet and music integrated phones. With the phone industry becoming a booming business, Steve saw the opportunity he needed to power Apple up beyond the success of the iPod. In secret meetings with AT&T, his tablet team re-designed it to be a smaller device that could also make phone calls. They expanded on the innovative UI of the iPod, adapting it to touch screen technology and a GUI. The team even introduced features like ear lock-out (so you don’t press buttons with your ear as you talk), gyro synchronous positioning, and GPS maps. In January 2007, the clean, sleek, simple, and elegant iPhone was introduced to the world. Not only did the iPhone (and 3 years later the iPad) jumpstart a whole new industry standard, Apple again, opened another new media platform for design professionals known as Mobile App Design.

A bulk of a professional digital designer’s work is either for the web or application UI elements. All of these will be viewed and experienced through a variety of media devices all originally created or influenced by Apple; the Macintosh with its GUI leading to future print and web design opportunities, the iPod which initiated personal device UI and the Digital Hub Strategy which in turn led to the development of the iPhone and iPad leading to the massive mobile device market and thereby, giving designers even more creative opportunities.

By reading his biography, I learned how Apple, driven by Steve Jobs, has molded and formed the design industry so completely, that it is not only influenced by the media and devices they make, but also by the high quality, successful Apple product advertising and marketing itself. Their marketing always showcases and leads the trends that designers strive to mirror. Apple’s direction is no longer driven by the powerful ideas and motivation of Steve Jobs but let’s hope his legacy of innovation remains strong and constant for the creative industry, giving it many more opportunities to grow and thrive.

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Tim Potter's picture

Good one, Vicky.  Yes, it will be interesting to see where Apple goes in the next decade.  I think Steve Jobs' partner in design, Sir Jon Ives will continue to amaze and delight us. 

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