Macintosh 512K. Photo: Steve Garfield

Steve Jobs’s Unified Field Theory

In his truncated life, Steve Jobs exerted a measure of influence in design that few architects have managed to achieve. As an architect in the most general sense, Jobs helped to shape the desktop worlds we occupy on a daily basis; his design interests encompassed all scales from typography and product packaging, to furniture and retail stores. Working with Jobs on the new Apple campus in Cupertino, Norman Foster noted how he “encouraged us to develop new ways of looking at design to reflect his unique ability to weave backwards and forwards between grand strategy and the minutiae of the tiniest of internal fittings. For him no detail was small in its significance and he would be simultaneously questioning the headlines of our project together whilst he delved into its fine print.”  


Jobs promoted a minimalist aesthetic as a principle, arguing for the deep integration of computing devices, incorporating the operating system, software applications, user interface, hardware design, and exterior form into a single unified entity. This was different than a John Pawson type of minimalism, which distills shapes to sculptural abstractions; Jobs instead concentrated how the different artifacts in the Apple universe related to one another.


Personal computers in the seventies were designed by Silicon Valley engineers accustomed to the boxy anonymity of bent sheet steel and Phillips screws; the first Macintosh computers with its rounded corners, plastic surfaces, and integral handle implied an intimate relationship between user and machine, and presaged the move of computing devices from the clean room to the living room. (An Apple computer was an ongoing presence on the Jerry Seinfeld television series, and episodes could be dated by the particular model sitting at the rear of Jerry’s living room).


Jobs did not hold to any particular aesthetic, but the legacy of his work reveals an intense determination in drilling down to the essence of a thing; as with Louis Kahn, Jobs wanted to find out what a thing wanted to be. The number of discrete concepts Jobs focussed on was relatively small, but it was the continuous reiteration and reinvention of these ideas—the personal computer, the laptop, the handheld device—that revealed his obsession with refining and uncovering what something was. He did not invent, but he integrated. He saw how different existing artifacts—fonts, music, computing, digital content, industrial design, retail, telephony—could be connected together into a holistic and expanding universe. It was an insight that could perhaps only be seen with the help of LSD-fueled perceptions of the world.


Apple mice and iPhones

Generations of mice and iPhones. Photos from left: Christopher W. and Yutaka Tsutano


The initial Apple products were produced internally by its industrial design department, and looked to household consumer goods as a basis of inspiration. Design work was later commissioned out to Hartmut Esslinger’s firm Frog Design, which moved from Germany to California but remained an independent consulting practice. Esslinger brought with him a particular strain of second generation Bauhaus design thinking from figures such as Max Bill and Dieter Rams, whose works packaged complex technologies in self-contained reductive forms that promised functional transparency and ease of use. Esslinger’s relocation to Palo Alto further helped to refine an emergent design sensibility that was less about function and more about understanding the animate connection between people and things. In the face of the blandly innocuous beige palette of most personal computers during the 1980s, Esslinger’s minimally populist ‘Snow White’ design language employed for Apple’s product lines inaugurated a sea change in American product design, in everything from household appliances to medical instruments.


Dierter Rams's T3 Radio and Apple IIc
Dierter Rams's T3 Radio and Apple IIc. Photos from left: Steve Collins and Christopher W.


Frog Design’s last projects for Jobs was the NeXT cube, along with a second generation slab which was the black descendant of the earlier white pizza box form of the Apple IIc. As consumer-friendly as the design of the Apple and Macintosh computers aspired to be, NeXT’s prismatically sculptural forms implied power, complexity and sophistication inside a cool platonic solid. Embossed with one of Paul Rand’s last major logo designs, the NeXT cube was the winner of multiple design awards but failed to lower its manufacturing costs enough to attract a competitive share of the academic and research market. Interestingly, the NeXT cube’s internal software platform was eventually bought by Apple, and drove the reinvention of the company from the inside out.


NeXT Cube
Frog Design's NeXT Cube. Photo: Toby Thain


The cube reappears continually in Apple’s later products, from the G4 cube to its iPod charger. The cube became such an icon that the company tried to trademark its flagship New York glass cube entrance (though the idea was obviously borrowed from I.M. Pei’s pyramidal entryway to the Louvre). This kind of symbolic repetition denies any kind of functionalist design credo, nor is it a simple branding strategy; it is a formal means to develop a design language that connects disparate parts into a larger whole. Jobs saw all things great and small as participating within a greater taxonomy of related elements.


Apple G4 Cube and USB power adapter
Apple G4 Cube and USB power adapter. Photos from left: Carl Berkeley and muffypunch


Jobs held certain predilections for geometric purity which overrode more functional considerations. Circles, squares, cubes abound in Apple products as essential elements of a recurring design grammar. They were not as rigidly geometric as Rams’s work for Braun, but had wide radiused corners to soften the appearance of technology’s ergonomic impact on the user. The incorporation of basic geometric shapes also inferred the sense of simplicity and straightforwardness, though at times they had little relation to ergonomic requirements, as in the case of the oft-maligned ‘hocky puck’  mouse.


Apple mouse
Apple's 'hockey puck' mouse. Photo by Aleksandar


The radiused corner continues to appear as a leitmotif for virtually all of Apple’s products—from its graphical icons, to its keyboard keys, and to its computing devices—including those that have little to do with each other functionally, other than the fact that they participate within an Apple-centric world.


Apple keyboard, Apple TV and Mac Mini.
Apple keyboard, Apple TV and Mac Mini. Photos from left: Toshiyuki Imai, Carl Berkeley, and Christopher W.


Jobs’s thinking was his persistent drive towards the minimal, which, though neatly meshed with engineering and financial desires to reduce parts and costs, was not the source of his reasoning. Instead his thinking was rooted in a zen belief in clearing out and simplifying, and returning the technological to a state of nature. Jobs believed in ‘less is more’ not in a Miesian sense, but rather in a Shinto sense of cleansing or purification. Mies believed in being precise about the relation of parts to the whole; Jobs wanted to make the parts disappear.


This kind of obsessive reductivism is visible in Apple’s logo, which eliminated its original rainbow hues in favor of a stark monochromatic stamp, and in the refinement of the glazed cube marking its Fifth Avenue store in New York, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ). According to reports, driven by Jobs, BCJ reduced the glass panels composing the cube from 90 to 15, and eliminated their metal fixing clips and surrounding light bollards in the process. There was no economic or building rationale behind the reconfiguration of this relatively new design; as chief architect and client, Jobs had the fiat and ability to reimagine the cube as he wished, which was to take the form to its purist essence. One could easily imagine him wanting to take it to five panels if the technology were possible. Reductivism was a mantra for Jobs, as a means to make an idea clear.


Apple's Fifth Avenue Store in New York
Before and after, Apple's Fifth Avenue store in New York. Photos from left: Antonio Ruiz Garcia and Michael Allen


Ironically this philosophy lead at times to more complex, non-intuitive interactions.For instance, the insistence on the one-button mouse and the banishment of dedicated function keys meant the substitution of the obscure set of fn, control, option, and command keys. The current operating system appears to be geared towards two different sets of users: a majority who are only knowledgeable enough to use the most elementary point and click set of instructions, and a smaller subset of expert users who are able to manipulate the system using arcane Unix commands.   


English-trained Jonathon Ives, Apple’s present design head, carries on Jobs’s object philosophy; British industrial design is indebted to the Bauhaus, but has its own legacy of industrial inventiveness and bespoke components. Ives’ influence can be seen in his use of materials such as translucent polycarbonate, strengthened glass and routed aluminum, and in such details as the thin steel band in the iPhone 4/4S that acts as an integral antenna, and serves to fomally unite the front and back glass panels into a monolithic block (a third plastic intermediary element serves to seemlessly conjoin and hide the glass edges). In this approach, industrial design is not simply sculpture, but a microcosm of an attitude that sees objects as self contained, autonomous, yet interrelated entities.


iPhone 4
Iphone 4. Photo: John Karakatsanis


Jobs’s legacy left a unified field theory of design, in the staunch belief that everything—real and virtual, inside and outside, small and large—was connected to everything else, where form becomes the common denominator. Form here follows other forms, repeating its patterns like fractals throughout its ecosystem.


Apple remote control and new headquarters campus

Apple remote control and the company's new headquarters campus by Foster and Partners. Photo: Adam Bartlett

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