I truly hope that Steve Jobs is in heaven. In many ways, he certainly deserves it. For tech fans, I don't think anyone has brought more joy to the world than Mr. Jobs and his Apple Computer colleagues. However, he ruined my life.
I'm an industrial designer who has been working since 2002. For people who measure time by Apple products, that's right when the 2nd generation iPod was launched. As a designer, you might think that I would be inspired by Apple. Maybe even in awe of their awesome design might. I am, but they've also made my job so much harder. Unfortunately, I don't mean in terms of raising the standard of design.
Talk to any design consultant in the world and they will all have a story about the client(s) who walked in the door and said, "I want to make the iPod/iPhone/iPad of my industry." The first time they heard this, their eyes widened. Their pulse quickened. Finally, could clients have come to realize how industrial design adds real value to their products? Could 100 years of design history finally lead to this? Would we actually be left to concentrate on the core design abilities, like creativity and form development instead of fighting clients to let us actually give their customers what they wanted?
"Yeah, I want my widget just like an iPod. Well, in plastic because we have six injection presses in the factory. Oh, and the finish has to be matte, because we don't have time to adjust the mold to eject quality glossy parts. Oh, and we need huge draft on the parts and huge part lines, because, again, we don't have time or budget to work out high tolerances. Other than that though, just like an iPod."
So, no, the design world didn't change. A new golden age didn't begin. In fact, I think it was retarded. Remember the gay ’90s? When Rubbermaid was on the cover of Business Week as an example of a brave American company letting designers find new market opportunities? When a struggling Iomega company listened to designers to create the Zip drive? Herman-Miller had the guts to launch the radical Aeron chair? Business has really started to listen to designers. Then Steve Jobs returned to Apple.
All of a sudden, business stopped listening. Now they "understood." They didn't need to pay designers to do research into what people wanted. People wanted Apple. Initially, that meant that people wanted translucent plastic. After Apple moved on to chrome and glass, that meant people wanted boxes, but molded in plastic because business needed to amortize the cost of their tooling.
After that initial misunderstanding, I hoped that for the sake of good design, Jobs would say something. A sermon on design from a balcony, a letter to the Wall Street Journal, even a tweet. Anything to straighten out these confused businessmen.
The genius of Jobs and Apple wasn't the product. It was the vision, the process and the people.
The vision was his ability to step back from the semiconductors and programming code and see their value from the point of view of a user. They don't care about features or amortizing your tooling costs. They care about what the product does for them. In some cases, like the iPod, the product did less than the competition (iPods never had radios, while all of their competitors did). In all cases, they were willing to drastically changed tooling if it would give the user a device that felt higher quality.
The process and the people go together. Steve Jobs was not a designer, or a good programmer. He was good and finding them, inspiring them and giving them the tools to succeed. He did it with Wozniak on the Apple II. The Mac programmers in '83, when he insisted that command line computing was dead. And again when he made Jonathan Ive the head of design. The exact process they used is a secret, although we can have some educated guesses. For example, the Apple Mac Book Air was followed by many other similar computers (Intel Core2 Duo processor, flash memory hard drive & designed to be thin) in just a few months. Anyone familiar with product development will understand that they weren't copies, they were developed in parallel to the MacBook Air, but the Air got out first. That leads me to believe there was a ruthless phase-gate process where the design gets frozen very early to allow the whole development team to focus on delivering a product rather than argue over specifications.
I can only hope that in the long awaited Steve Jobs biography, it will all be explained. Perhaps Mr. Jobs will revolutionize design from the grave in the way he revolutionized computing while alive. I can only pray.