Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Less Human Than Human: The Design Philosophy of Apple

The late Steve Jobs is known to have been very keen on "taste." Microsoft has absolutely no taste, he said, going on to explain that by this he meant that "they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product." Great products, he said, were a "triumph of taste." The exquisite taste of Jobs himself has long been a matter of doctrine in the tech world. Kevin Kelly's remarks after his death expressed the general sentiment: "Steve Jobs was a CEO of beauty. In his interviews and especially in private, Jobs often spoke about Art. Taste. Soul. Life. And he sincerely meant it, as evidenced by the tasteful, soulful products he created over 30 years."

The widespread admiration for Apple's design ethos is in two parts: one functional, the other aesthetic. The functional aspects of Apple's products can indeed be magical and thrilling. But the vibe of Apple's product design is uniformly cool and impersonal, and the monolithic sterility of their glassy retail palaces is really something shocking. So far as design goes, it's an imperial aesthetic, entirely lacking a human dimension—or a potted plant. And this remains so, no matter how much the marketers have tried to soften things up with the aid of Justin Long, John Hodgman and sassy dancing silhouettes. Bow down, Apple seems to say. And in the cold, Big Brotherly sway of uniformity that it holds over millions upon millions of people, Apple seems to deny or even thwart the natural world, and with it the individual, the mutable, the unscientific, the instinctive, the flesh and blood. It won't surprise me a bit when they provide snow-white Matrix plugs to poke tidily into the back of your head. Or maybe even the heart plugs from Dune.

(Fortunately, the content borne on all those chips and wires in their hard, glossy cases comes exclusively from that sweating, untidy, mutable world, from real people, who have not as yet been kitted out with ports, and whose voices and playlists and book collections are full of idiosyncratic riches.)

For someone who thought that taste was connected to originality, one can't help noting that Jobs's taste was derivative in the extreme; he attempted a mid-century minimalism very much in the mold of Dieter Rams, for many decades the chief designer at Braun. (Rams' influence came to Apple largely through its own chief designer, Jonathan Ive, who has long acknowledged the debt.) It's not clear that taste borrowed at two removes can be characterized as exquisite, let alone visionary. And both Rams and Raymond Loewy, that other titan of mid-century industrial design, displayed such absolute originality that one can't help thinking that the efforts of Apple haven't quite reached the bar they set.

Still more strikingly, there is a huge disconnect between the ethos of Rams and that of Jobs—and Apple. Rams is an instinctive meliorist who believes that design can influence the world in a positive way: that is to say morally, not only aesthetically.

[T]he years around the end of the 50s, beginning of the 60s — there was a movement at this time to make things in another way, yes? To forget the war and all these terrible things — so, especially in Germany, we had to build cities in another way, so it was a movement to make things better and today we have lost this movement to make things better. And I am a little bit [shrugs] about our behaviour and our thinking about the future. And the future is in danger. If we don’t find new ways, new structures for education to start with, then I’m not sure if in 20 or 50 years we still can say that this planet is our home.

Rams is a hands-on craftsman, a carpenter and an architect, a trained landscape designer. He has always styled himself a team player rather than a visionary or "genius", and yet he really did originate in large part what became the mid-to-late 20th century's house style of product design. His work is pared-down, but rarely feels inhuman. There are knobs, for example, places where real hands might go. A shot of organic color, a plane of warm blond wood. In 2011's As Little Design As Possible, he said, "Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design." Rams is also a very gentle man, a pacifist who, when asked to respond to the Proust Questionnaire for designboom in 2000 had no response for many of the questions, saying memorably, "I don't like heroes."

This irresistibly calls to mind Apple's absurd appropriation of Einstein, Jim Henson, Dylan, Gandhi, John Lennon et al. in order to flog its wares, another indication of the stark contrast between Jobs' approach and that of Rams. "Think Different", those Apple ads demanded in 1997, but what they really meant was that everyone think, or at least buy, the Same. "It's not the consumers' job to know what they want," Jobs once said, and this boggling remark went completely unchallenged by the hagiographizing press, no, it was widely praised. But wait—weren't the little people supposed to be Thinking Different?!

This contrast between Rams and Jobs is symbolic of a long struggle in the West, like a pendulum that swings back and forth between the imperatives of art and commerce. The characteristically utopian tendencies of craftsmen have thus been supplanted by a freshly depersonalized vision of a world full of "geniuses" and plutocrats, and of underlings who are there to consume their "genius" on command. (In response to the Proust question "the reformation I appreciate the most," Rams responded, "the one which would make the world a better place to live in for everyone.")

Characteristically, Rams never minded a bit about Apple's biting his style.

Some colleagues of mine, for example Philippe Starck, I met him in a furniture showroom in Los Angeles, and he said, "What do you think about Apple, the iPod? It's a copy of your work!" I never feel that it’s a copy, it's a compliment. Jonathan Ive sent me one of his products and I think it's so similar to what I tried in the beginning with the brothers Braun what he now is doing with Steve Jobs—it must be a wonderful combination. Without this combination, we as designers… we cannot do it alone, we need entrepreneurs, working together with good engineers.


Steve Jobs was not a cultivated man in the ordinary sense of the word; in describing his favorite reading Jobs's biographer was reduced to padding out the meager list with diet books:

The books and authors important to Jobs include Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma which apparently "deeply influenced" Jobs, Shakespeare's King Lear, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Dylan Thomas' poetry, and the following self-help books: Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Chogyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi (the only book on Jobs' iPad 2) [!!!!], as well as Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass, which sparked Steve Jobs to try LSD for the first time.

He also enjoyed dieting books, including Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe and Arnold Ehret's Mucusless Diet Healing System

His favorite musicians were Dylan and the Beatles.

Jobs likened The Beatles' creative process to Apple's own. While listening to a bootleg CD from one of the band's recording sessions, Jobs remarked, "They did a bundle of work between each of these recordings. They kept sending it back to make it closer to perfect … The way we build stuff at Apple is often this way."

He also framed his motivations and the principles that drove him forward in terms of Dylan and The Beatles.

"They kept evolving, moving, refining their art," Jobs said of the artists. "That's what I've always tried to do — keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you're not busy being born, you're busy dying."

(None of this is to knock Dylan or Mucusless Diet Healing, but just to observe that what drove Jobs was clearly not a personal obsession with the products of art or culture.)

Noticeably, Jobs affiliated himself with no charitable cause, made no public attempt to harness his power in the service of solving even one social or political problem. In public, at least, the disadvantaged did not interest him. In the Times last August, Andrew Ross Sorkin recounted conversations on this subject with Jobs' associates: "Two of his close friends, both of whom declined to be quoted by name, told me that Mr. Jobs had said to them in recent years, as his wealth ballooned, that he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple than on philanthropy, especially since his illness. 'He has been focused on two things—building the team at Apple and his family,' another friend said. 'That's his legacy. Everything else is a distraction.'" (Jobs's fortune was recently estimated by Forbes to be well in excess of eight thousand million dollars.) This behavior is of a piece with Jobs's permanent elimination of Apple's corporate philanthropy programs when he regained control of the company in 1997. (There was one tiny (RED) project, a limited-edition Nano in 2006, and that is it, for the company with the biggest market cap in the US.)

Steve Jobs was, in short, too much a plutocrat and too little a craftsman to produce an ultimately satisfying appropriation of the warmer, more humane minimalism of the mid-20th century, which was rooted in a vision of a more egalitarian, fairer world. To what degree do "good design," or "taste," depend on human values?


"The greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere."—William Morris, The Beauty of Life

The connections between aesthetics, work, craftsmanship and politics have been evident from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. If we look to England, perhaps the first place in the modern world to suffer the terrible downside of capitalism, immediately we find John Ruskin yipping about the debasement of the working man's character owing to the rise of the Machines, and lamenting the loss of beauty in the daily life of ordinary people and the ruin of the land. Ruskin thought that a restoration of art, of taste and craftsmanship, could rescue England from the ravages of industrialism.

Unfortunately Ruskin was plumb loco, as well as being a great art historian and social theorist. (Tthough it turns out that he never did burn those erotic drawings of Turner's, as had been supposed for over a hundred years. He'd just hidden them, is all.) He was at heart a conservative who approached every question, whether of art or of social justice, from an unabashedly elitist, Christian moralistic perspective that is a little bit difficult to square with modern ideas.

His disciple William Morris, a secularist, polymath and expert craftsman of nearly incredible gifts, was another kettle of fish entirely.

Morris is possibly best remembered as one of the founders of England's Arts and Crafts movement, a principal figure of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and as founder of the Kelmscott Press. He also designed and produced textiles, wallpapers and tapestries; he was a painter, a medievalist, a poet and novelist, a co-founder of the still-extant Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and an early and dedicated Socialist and political activist. His novels gave a certain medieval flavor to the nascent genre of fantasy fiction that it still retains, even today; both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis claimed him as an influence. He also managed to translate stuff from Icelandic, somewhere in all that, and to conduct a really terrifying-sounding marriage and love life.

These capsule-biographical details don't begin to cover what Morris was really up to, though, because all his efforts were based on a single goal, resting on a single set of principles. He sought nothing less than the reform of English society: to reclaim his country from the soul-crushing depredations of the industrial age. He wanted to restore beauty (particularly, the making of beautiful things), human values and a love of nature to the life and surroundings of the English people as a whole. He thought that a return to making and enjoying beautiful things would right social wrongs, would equalize people and ennoble them.

There has been a tendency to trivialize Morris, to call him naively utopian, to suppose that he wanted to turn everybody in England into tapestry-weaving, flowing-haired hobbits or whatever. He and the rest of the English aesthetes are all too easy to mock, as Gilbert and Sullivan did so charmingly in Patience, and as the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti did in a blind fury in his "Futurist Speech to the English," delivered at the Lyceum Club in London in 1910.

When will you disembarrass yourself of the lymphatic ideology of that deplorable Ruskin… With his morbid nostalgia for Homeric cheeses and legendary wool-gatherers, with his hatred for the machine, steam and electricity, that maniac of antique simplicity is a like a man who, having reached full physical maturity, still wants to sleep in his cradle and feed himself at the breast of his decrepit old nurse in order to recover his thoughtless infancy.

Here is the big disconnect of the industrialized world, then and now. On the one side we have the futurists, clamoring for faster, better machines, for progress, capitalism, competition and the creation of wealth. On the other, William Morris, who quoted Ruskin in his lecture "The Beauty of Life" in 1880: "Art made by the people and for the people as a joy to the maker and the user." What faint, clumsy little echo of this message can be heard, or seen, rather, in the hand-knitted iPod covers on Etsy!

Morris mastered the techniques of manufacture personally, as a political act. He learned to weave tapestries, to make carpets and wallpapers, inventing new designs for these techniques that are still in use today. The Kelmscott Chaucer is widely reckoned to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced. Note that Morris wasn't anti-machine, per se, but he wanted machines to free people, not enslave them. He thought that making things can empower each of us, give us a sense of agency and meaning. In his (really good) book Dreams of an English Eden, Jeffrey L. Spear might be speaking of our own times as he delineates the problems Morris faced in realizing this vision. "The function of the machine should be to free the workman from drudgery, not to displace him nor to reduce skilled to unskilled labor, an aspect of mechanization Morris attributed to the competitive need to make the cheapest possible product."

The urgency of these difficulties in the 19th century was nothing compared to what it is now, when industrialization is threatening the stability not only of societies, governments and institutions, but of the planet's capacity to sustain life. Add to this the possibility of improving the lot of ordinary people, and despite all the "forsooths" and "verilys" with which Morris's work is liberally peppered, he acquires the visionary quality lacking from our own most prominent titans of "design". It says something very scary about our own times, that it is almost impossible to think of any great designer, artist, politician or industrial potentate who would dare to make concrete proposals for improving the lives of ordinary people, let alone imagine how to create an earthly paradise, as Morris did in his News from Nowhere (1890).

It is blisteringly obvious that the present age, in which influential patrons of the arts are to be found quarrelling over vagina-shaped bits of cake whilst wearing white hospital coats, is deficient in this area.

The aim of Morris and his associates, people so original, energetic and imaginative, was to create as much beauty as they could for as many people as they could. To fill their whole nation and people with beauty; to show that everyone craves and deserves and can himself be a maker of beauty, and a participant in culture; that everyone has some stake in maintaining a commons rich in beauty, in art, music and literature. From such guys comes the idea that beauty, the operation of taste, can elevate humanity.

In a scathing 1992 New York Review of Books essay, " Art, Morals, and Politics," Robert Hughes disparaged the idea that art, or taste, can ennoble:

Nobody has ever denied that Sigismondo Malatesta, the Lord of Rimini, had excellent taste. He hired the most refined of quattrocentro architects, Leon Battista Alerti, to design a memorial temple to his wife, and then got the sculptor Agostino di Duccio to decorate it, and retained Piero della Francesca to paint it. Yet Sigismondo was a man of such callousness and rapacity that he was known in his life as Il Lupo, the Wolf, and so execrated after his death that the Catholic church made him (for a time) the only man apart from Judas Iscariot officially listed as being in Hell—a distinction he earned by trussing up a papal emissary, the fifteen-year-old Bishop of Fano, in his own rochet and publicly sodomizing him before his applauding army in the main square of Rimini.

Hughes is quite right. The difference between William Morris and Sigismondo di Malatesta (or Steve Jobs) is that Morris wanted to share the making and appreciation of beautiful things. Taste by itself doesn't ennoble anyone, but sharing it does.


Aesthetic values are inescapably interwoven with the political values of a period. When machine-age, Futurist or Constructivist or Space-Age aesthetics have taken the reins, you're looking at a period dominated by moneyed interests; one side of the pendulum swing. Progress, in the form of machines. Then people get to longing for a little chaos, dirt, a flower or two. This happened in the 1980s, for example, a time of truly frantic wealth-worship, the Reagan years, when Republicans began to succeed in their efforts to dismantle the New Deal. This too was a quite chilly era, designwise; the years of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, the black-and-white world of Calvin Klein. It was a revival of machine-age Italian futurism; hard surfaces, stainless steel, sharp corners; everything black, grey or white, with the occasional shot of red or some other unnaturally concentrated, acidic color. (Quite a lot of the one percent, meanwhile, were lounging around in plushy chintz-stuffed apartments decorated by the likes of Sister Parish.)

The horrors of Memphis furniture alone might have been a big reason for the relief felt by millions at the sight of the hopelessly scruffy, howling Kurt Cobain. Too much machine makes us miserable. His plaid flannelly uncombed unshaven genius was a welcome reminder that we aren't machines.

The same strain of exasperation can be heard in the yodelings of the many "Apple haters" among us. Maybe what they really dislike isn't just consumerist conformity or the inexorability of technological "progress." Maybe what they dislike most is being made to serve The Machines.

These days, instead of Cobain we have got the bearded Brooklynites, like the Mast brothers with their beautiful chocolate. Painters and musicians looking to make a decent living at their art, rather than to get rich. People who want to grow their own food, or crochet their own bedspreads. To use less and have less, but to have more beautiful things, and more mindfully. Again, there are growing indications that the craftsmen are trying to bring things back to a more human, manageable scale.


William Morris was celebrated in his lifetime, but he suffered a profound political disillusionment, as visionaries and revolutionaries often do. The thing is, though, his vision really kind of succeeded, because Morris's influence is in part responsible for the fact that there are so many unspoiled places left in England, so many unbutchered buildings and carefully preserved works of art. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has got a website now; I wonder what he would make of that. He influenced countless collectors and patrons, curators and policymakers (to say nothing of Prince Charles. Oy.). But for the influence of Morris, England might be as carpeted in mini-malls as Los Angeles is. Being the visionary he was, Morris dimly foresaw this turn of events.

I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

—William Morris, A Dream of John Ball

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

Top photo by vpisteve. Photos of Rams designs by Dontworry, Benjamin Heinecke and Burpelson, via Wikimedia Commons.

58 Comments / Post A Comment

LondonLee (#922)

I don't know, England has plenty of ugly box stores and countryside-destroying suburban developments. You should read this.

I used to have a Braun travel alarm clock. Lovely little thing it was, black with just two buttons. Lasted me 25 years before it broke.

"… the years of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo …"

And that's supposed to be, uh, bad? Because the frankly embarassing amount of disposable income I continue to pipe directly into Mr. Yamamoto's pockets would like to disagree.

And yes, I still want to grow up to be a glossy Bjork-video robot. Shit was aspirational.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

Well, not for nothing, but "Think Different" meant that people should do something different than buy a Windows PC and buy a Mac instead, which at the time only had 3.5% market share. If they'd been at 60% market share and going for 100%, as they are with the iPad, then your reading would track a bit closer.

And I'd argue that the original bondi-blue iMac was a very human-scale design. I don't think that Apple, and I don't have any evidence that Steve, had much of an overlap with art, soul or life, but I'm giving them taste, particularly considering that a typical computer at the time Apple introduced the iMac looked like this.

bestestuary (#8,955)


Anarcissie (#3,748)

It seems to me that taste and originality are in opposition.

In any case, Steve Jobs chose mid-century Modernism, I am pretty sure, because he grew up at the tail end of that period, and was pretty square — that is, aesthetically unoriginal. Something like the iPhone is really at the very apex of the Modernist spirit, smooth, functional, glossy, and totalitarian. You don't tell it; it tells you. His taste and inventiveness were not remarkable; what carried him forward was his combination of enthusiasm and engineering skills. His squareness helped him recognize and promote the cool things that would appeal to the masses, although it did take him awhile to get his business feet on the ground.

We are talking about tools, and a smooth, functional aesthetic comports well with tools and their culture whether they're hammers or computers.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)


I find it curious that the only color on Apple product I ever liked was the red of the (RED) Nano, which I have now learned was the only humanitarian gesture from Apple of the entire Jobs era.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Taste by itself doesn't ennoble anyone, but sharing it does.

This is why "hipsters" (if you know what I mean) have that "soulless" aura about them.

Brian Lam@facebook (#182,625)

your lead writes about jobs as if jobs was responsible for the design. it's a small point but it's important to mention that Jony Ive was the lead designer (and he worked with a team of many designers who remain anonymous to the public.) This is a little bit like speaking about the architecture of a building and attributing its design to the person who paid for it. It's not quite that separate, because jobs knew design. But it does a disservice to the original designer.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Hello @Brian Lam (Maria here.) Media have consistently characterized Jobs as the "creator" of Apple's products, is the thing; it's this media reputation I meant to revisit, but from a sociopolitical perspective. Plus, as Rams said in the remarks I quoted, product development at this level of complexity is necessarily a team effort (you also pointed this out); it wouldn't be any closer to the truth to credit Ive alone.

FBar (#182,642)

Written by someone who, I would bet, hasn't built a product real humans actually enjoy using. Ever. Haters gonna hate, I guess.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@FBar And you have built what?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Haha @FBar!! You lose that bet!! I was a designer and product developer for years. But maybe nobody enjoyed using my stuff, not really enjoyed, that is.

Jasons_Johnson (#3,341)

@FBar I think the article goes a little deeper than that. I would also like to point out that, they author just wrote something humans actually enjoy reading. Can't say the same for your comment.

Nelson Trautman (#9,077)

It would take a paper as long as this one to explain everything that's wrong with it, but I'll summarize.

1. You misunderstand what "taste" means. You don't really seem to understand the roles of originality, quotation or imitation in art & design either.
2. You are just as reactionary to the neo-modernist design of Apple as the modernists were to Beaux-Arts.
3. You compare unlike things in absurd ways.
4. You demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the reasons people exalt Jobs.
5. The philanthropy angle is a total red herring and moot point in the context of taste.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Nelson Trautman You misunderstand what "taste" means.

Oh, don't leave it at that!
What is taste? What is it, what is it, what is it? I'm dying to hear!

You are such a tease!

deepomega (#1,720)

Wonderful wonderful, even though I disagree with a bunch of it. (As ever.)

I'd hasten to add that the interesting problem apple is facing now is that a monolithic, triumphal aesthetic has a hard time growing or changing. They've attempted to push a new look in iOS4 and 5 apps, with this faux-leather desk blotter thing happening, and it feels incredibly internally contradictory because the entire aesthetic of the iPhone and iPad is one of scorn for the un-sleek. Not sure how they'll cross this bridge, especially when they've mostly been biting other looks for so long. Would need actually innovation?

SeanP (#4,058)

@deepomega Absolutely. This skeumorphic thing they've been doing with interfaces lately is 1) kind of gaggy and 2) totally clashes with the overall aesthetic of their stuff.

walker@twitter (#183,155)

@deepomega I've noticed this point on skeumorphic design too. All the matte backgrounds, vintage-object icons on the iPhone, high-gloss effects, and the ridiculous "Compass" utility on the iPhone, which makes me feel like I'm in the hull of a 19th century warship.

I don't think it's a smart design path to go down.

max bread (#5,970)

I'm kind of stuck on the characterization of Apple design as "cool and impersonal," "imperial," "lacking a human dimension"—I suppose I can see the argument that these are accurate descriptors of Apple's aesthetic. But then I'm not really sure what a "warm and personal" or "human" computer, MP3 player, laptop or tablet might look like. If Apple, with its rounded corners and anti-aliased fonts—with its famous smiling face, admittedly since abandoned—"lacks a human dimension," how do you characterize Dell and H-P and Apple's other cheap-plastic, jagged-edged competitors? (Or does this speak to yr point that Jobs and his team lacked the "absolute originality" of Dieter Rams? And if that's the case, can't we at least give him points for trying to make his products seem like something other than a circuit board in a case?)

& I think that the "impersonal" or "imperial" description of Apple loses all of its force if you only go back, say, a decade, and look at Jobs and Ive's first design coup, the iMac, which not only debuted in a bizarre color ("Bondi" blue, after the Australian beach) and odd shape, but also represented a return to the thing that Apple had made its name on: making a computer for "real" people; people who couldn't, or didn't want to, do anything besides buy the damn thing and take it out of the box. To me—to a lot of people, I think?—this is Apple's "design legacy": not the glass and unibody platinum (which surely would have passed out of Jobs and Ive's favor in a few years, just as the plasticky iMacs did), but the user experience: in the 1990s, Apple's were the only computers that felt as though they were made for people.

(I'm not going to take that claim a step further and say he was operating in the same mode as design democrats like Morris or Gregor Paulsen—Apple's price points would preclude that—but it seems worth remembering that the specific aesthetics of the stores or the hardware is only one part of Job's design philosophy, and that his products' intuitiveness, their ability to act as though they were to be used by humans, is as, if not more, important.)

But given that this is an article about taste, maybe it's better to chalk up the question of "human" vs. "impersonal" to the most true, and boring, thing anyone's ever said about taste: de gustibus non disputandum est.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@max bread how do you characterize Dell and H-P and Apple's other cheap-plastic, jagged-edged competitors

You should really free your mind from that capitalist box inside of which you are thinking.

max bread (#5,970)

@Niko Bellic Don't leave it at that! You're such a tease!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@max bread You seriously need me to tell you how incredibly pointless would it be to write about "design" of Dell and HP machines?

If you are a "business person", then yeah, all you would care about is where Apple sits relative to it's competition (so you could presumably decide where to invest your money, or whatever).

This was written for the designer, thinker, and philanthropist in you, where you are concerned where does our celebration of Apple as the triumph of design sit relative to what our aspirations for ourselves and humanity as a whole should be… in terms of how it's affected by design, of course.

max bread (#5,970)

@max bread Ha, okay. So leave out that part if it bugs you! I am still interested to know more about what Maria finds "inhuman" about Apple design, and what things being made (in 2011) are… "Morrissian" in spirit. Why is Apple imperial and Braun democratic? What makes Rahm original and Ive not? Three photographs of (gorgeous) products do not convince me! For an essay about design, there's rather little about its specific manifestations.

Alex Pareene (#278)

@max bread this is wildly overstating the case, but I've always found the "only computers made for real people" line to be infantalizing and condescending. Real people can't change their own laptop battery without the help of a "Genius"? Part of the Apple philosophy involves placing restrictions on what the real person can do with their machines in order to make sure that the perfectly working out-of-the-box closed system isn't disturbed by the tampering of real people.

This is just semirelated but when it comes to "cheap plastic jagged-edged competition" I think it should be said that IBM made, to my mind, the best PC hardware for "real people" ever with the Model M keyboard, which is an absolute tactile delight to type on, and I've never used a Mac laptop that felt as "solid" as a ThinkPad (with its similarly wonderful keyboard).

Alex Pareene (#278)

@max bread IN OTHER WORDS "impersonal" doesn't just mean "lacking personality" (that fuckin smiley face) and a "human dimension" can mean prioritizing use by humans as opposed to making it SEEM more human?

barnhouse (#1,326)

@max bread There's all kinds of manifestations of the "superior" in Apple's relation to people. As M. Pareene points out, there is no provision for DIY of any kind. They're not open-source products that you can hack for your own use.

ALSO and this is strictly a design matter. In each of the three products pictured above, Rams created an interface that gives pleasure by creating anticipation, by showing where you are going to put your hands. This is a literal, visual invitation. By contrast, the iPhone is a slab of glass. This to me is a message of superiority; a closed face, like the velvet rope at a nightclub. "You have to be smart to come in," it's saying; they stay relentlessly on this message in every particle of advertising and marketing, that by buying this expensive product you can associate yourself with the "geniuses" and "creatives" (or "patsies") who are likewise willing to spend double for this dubious privilege. (I could go on!! lol.)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@barnhouse If you purchase an IBM, that will have to be only the begging of showing your worth, where if you purchase an Apple, you are ready to show off coming out of the store (you don't even have to take it out of the box!). Great good does that do to the society. Did you ever go into a house of a tailor, only to be shown a sawing machine instead of a dress? Well, if they ever made a sawing machine "for the real people", you bet you would be.

max bread (#5,970)

@Alex Pareene @barnhouse I don't know! I think I really disagree with you about their marketing image: The message of the advertising (to me!) has never been "you have to be smart"; in fact, it's been the exact opposite. "Even morons can use an iPhone, and look cool doing it!" Compare the iPhone ads, which are all goofy music and people using their phones ("look how easy it is for me to look up a sushi restaurant!" [LOL]), to the Android ads (sorry Niko!), which are these horrible, intimidating three minute third-Wachowski-brother things that never make a case for the product's relationship to human beings. Apple stuff "just works"; it's intuitive (isn't it?); it's pleasing to the eye. (This is what I mean by "human," not the smiley face!) This, to me, is deeply democratic. (I mean, prices aside. Heh.)

I get that if you're a certain kind of person this seems "infantilizing" or "condescending." I suppose it is. I'm trying to think how to respond to this, because it doesn't really bother me? A lot of people are still intimidated by computers and smart phones. The Genius Bar is a place for them to go when they need help! You can think of its prohibition on DIY as a manifestation of "superiority" or you can see it as a (necessary?) trade-off for an ease-of-use-and-repair that allows it ("the computing experience) to be pleasing for a wider audience. (So part of the issue here is the question of how "necessary" Apple's "bad" stuff, i.e., its closed loop-ness, its "condescension," is for its "good" stuff, i.e. its works-right-out-of-the-box-ness. I don't really have an answer.) (The "real computer for real people" stuff, I should note, was a feeling that seemed a lot more "real" in the 90s, when Windows was way worse, and also I was in middle school and got in fights about this all the time. :-/)

Anyway! W/R/T the iPhone vs. the radio/shelving/LP player, Maria: I think you're selling the iPhone short! Off, it's a black slab; on, it's about the most inviting phone I can think of–rows of buttons to press! Everything responds to your touch! Maybe the fact that, qua object, it isn't inviting is enough to mark it a failure for you? (I'm curious: what modern technological objects do you think exist in the spirit of Rams or Morris? Do any?)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@max bread We keep having this misunderstanding: iPhone is definitely a better designed phone that any of it's knock-offs (and yes, I have one). The question is not whether Apple is the leader (it is), it's whether it's leading in the right direction (it is not).

Alex Pareene (#278)

@max bread Max!! Have you read this? http://worrydream.com/ABriefRantOnTheFutureOfInteractionDesign/ I'm curious about your thoughts, in re. designing things so that you can immediately tell that they're "meant to be used by humans."

The most inviting phone I can think of is actually this: http://www.mitchmagee.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/phone.jpg

The last time in my life when I actually had long phone conversations with anyone I was using a phone only marginally updated from that design. Rows of buttons to press plus it's actually shaped correctly for a human face!

The iPhone is a nearly perfect little content-delivery device but as a TELEPHONE it's less intuitive than a Model 500, as a text-based communications device it's less intuitive than even a BlackBerry, and as a gaming device it's less intuitive than a GameBoy. (Nintendo, actually, is my go-to example of a company that does this Apple "real people" devices thing right, for the most part? Tho I don't play video games so I could be way off base.)

SeanP (#4,058)

@Alex Pareene "Real people can't change their own laptop battery without the help of a "Genius"?"

You've always been upset by this? Non-removable batteries have only fairly recently come to the Mac laptop line. They've been around a little longer in the iPhone/iPod line, but I've owned several of all of these products (including an iPhone 3G that I used daily for around three years) and never noticed any falloff in battery capacity, nor was ever away from a power source long enough for that to be an issue. The point of that design choice was that a non-removable battery could be made bigger, giving you longer use times.

"but I've always found the "only computers made for real people" line to be infantalizing and condescending. "

Dude, it's advertising copy. Sure, it's kind of dumb, but my response to that is to pay less attention to it.

SeanP (#4,058)

@barnhouse "@max bread There's all kinds of manifestations of the "superior" in Apple's relation to people. As M. Pareene points out, there is no provision for DIY of any kind. They're not open-source products that you can hack for your own use."

Maybe this is obvious, but if you want an open source product you can hack for your own use, I guess an Apple product isn't for you. They're not serving that market (which is exceedingly small in any case). I don't really feel that that's a giant hit against Apple.

I will grant that the idea that you'll buy what Steve tells you to buy, and like it… is annoying. I continue to be maddened in particular by the App Store model, where only Steve-approved products are sold.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Alex Pareene "The iPhone is a nearly perfect little content-delivery device but as a TELEPHONE it's less intuitive than a Model 500, as a text-based communications device it's less intuitive than even a BlackBerry, and as a gaming device it's less intuitive than a GameBoy. "

Ok. And as a camera it's less intuitive than my Canon. As a recipe holder it's less intuitive than a cookbook. As a navigation device it's less intuitive than a dedicated GPS. But… for a device that has to do all of those things… it's pretty damned intuitive. It's a general purpose device, which means you have to do certain things with the design. I actually think they did a great job of doing this.

Alex Pareene (#278)

@SeanP hah, dude, it's actually the company's entire philosophy, which is the why people are having this little discussion in the comments. (the point of the design choice of the nonremovable battery is also to ensure the obsolescence of the product — lithium-ion batteries have finite lifespans — in time for the new model, but whatever.)

my original example of the thing that's ALWAYS bugged me about macs is fucking one-button mouses but it seemed less relevant.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@SeanP Thank you for these interesting responses. The thing is, we'll never get anywhere arguing over whether or not this or that device is "intuitive" or "good design"; these are subjective judgements. My thing here is just to look at the sociopolitical assumptions underpinning Apple's approach. I find it so ridiculous, though, how successful they've been in kind of owning the concept of "good design" in people's minds. There is no oxygen left in the room for alternatives; it's simply given that Apple's design is "the best". Moe Tkacik wrote a tremendous post addressing this a few weeks back. This stuff is worth talking about a lot more.

p.s. @Alex Pareene (omg you beat me to the black bakelite phone!! I've always loved the Ericofon, too.)

Frank L. Dockery (#182,672)

Another well-written piece, Maria.

As others have noted, it will be one of many challenges for Apple to maintain _any_ unified aesthetic as it now goes forward under new and less-insistent leadership.

As with many things that are unique successes, there are many routes to the pinnacle, but once there, it's easily to fall in any direction.

NFK (#8,747)

Apple critique from another era:

"Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.
DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment."
Umberto Eco

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Good piece as always, but I was disappointed Maria didn't go into more detail about what separates "humanistic" midcentury modernism from Apple's soulless version. "A shot of organic color, a plane of warm blond wood" — Would a beige iPhone or a MacBook Air made of bamboo obviate Apple's totalitarian qualities?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@NFK That's amazing, but the article it comes from is more so. I could only find an (admittedly rather long) excerpt from the Italian version in English, you don't have a link to a full translation by any chance?

NFK (#8,747)

@stuffisthings I haven't been able to find the full essay online. This is the longest excerpt I've found. The Italian publication that ran it only archives Eco's columns back to 2001.

joeclark (#651)

And another solid piece from Ms Bustillos ruined by jarring plugs for her oddly-named self-published books. Stand on what you write here, Maria.

barnhouse (#1,326)

You're very kind, @joeclark, thank you. But I am not looking to be a brand, that's just the thing.

joeclark (#651)

I am telling you that what you are becoming known for is your essays on the Awl, not your jarringly-named self-published books. Reminders of the latter in footers of the former mar the former. Keep this up and you’ll have enough for *another* book just collecting these essays. Obviously you’ll want an outside editor in that case.

Fearlessleeder (#2,618)

I have to disagree on your Bearded Brooklynites as counter cultural crusaders for the cause. On closer inspection of what's in their pocket or bags, you'll find a consumer lifestyle stamped with a silver apple. Don't fall into the trap of romanticizing a surface aesthetic that is really just cultural appropriation ala carte, from past counter cultural movements, plucking and removing cultural artifacts out of their time, place, and cultural, contextual meaning. They are carnivores of past counterculture.
There's a reason someone brought up the accusation of their soullessness. They are the embodiment of the mindless consumerism mentality that you rail against.

Each time a new iPhone comes out, it's a slight improvement over the last. Let’s go down the memory lane and figure out the people and technology.

MrTeacup (#4,677)

What the focus on industrial design misses is that Apple only became great at aesthetics very recently. Subjectively, I'd say around 2006-2007. But Apple has always been great at interaction design, and I think this is what makes people fans more than the industrial design. The fact is that the high modernist aesthetic is not very popular – it is seen as sterile, impersonal, imperial, etc. The humanist aspect of Apple is in the interaction design.

Regarding openness, here's my view: some segment of the software developer demographic resents the fact that they work in an esoteric field. They feel that what they do is very important, but they are marginalized as geeks and nerds, and the public does not appreciate it. The efforts by interaction designers to make software easy to learn and to use is perceived as a way of concealing the underlying complexity, and by extension, a way of concealing the significant work of software programmers. Open platforms are necessarily designed in a way that foreground the programmer role, and that's why they are valued.

Officially, open platforms are better because they allow ordinary people the right to use their computers (or phones, etc) to their full capacity. In reality, if you don't have a 4-year computer science degree and several years of programming practice, these capacities are functionally useless to you. The formal, technical openness of platforms and software conceals the enormous gulf that separates the average person from those who have the education and experience to meaningfully contribute.

The unofficial purpose of openness is to expose the system's true complexity so that you are struck with awe at the prowess of software developers who can master it. You are encouraged to become a dabbler in programming yourself, but only as a way to learn the significance of what real programmers do.

This resentment was on full display when Steve Jobs' death was followed a week later by the death of Dennis Ritchie, who is essentially a "household name" among computer programmers. The lack of media coverage of his death compared to Jobs was a sore point for many in the developer community, who felt that he had more important contributions to the field.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MrTeacup Fascinating comment, as ever. SO great. I would guess the aesthetic credit of Apple correlates exactly with the tenure and rise of Jonathan Ive. I disagree some, that the mid-century flavor of modernism is uniformly cold. You could hardly accuse e.g. the Eameses of that. So, yes and no to your first points; you're very right about the excitement that people feel over the interactive properties of Apple products, I think.

I can't agree with your assessment of programmers wishing to be appreciated as high-caste experts. That hasn't been my experience at all. The best ones I've known and worked with were exactly the opposite way–Rams-like, in fact, in their egalitarianism and willingness to learn from anyone, and to teach anyone. This is not to say that there aren't prima donnas in the programming world, of course there are. But when I was developing an e-commerce site in Florida many years ago with this Oracle/Cold Fusion brainiac, it was the most insanely fruitful, multidisciplinary amazing relationship, so full of discovery and invention, exactly because of this guy's incredible generosity, openmindedness, total willingness to learn and to teach.

That kind of openmindedness is still what makes all the best programmers tick. It doesn't take much work, if you are trying to build something (and they all seem to want all of us to build things) you can very, very easily find teaching, help, ideas, all for free, via this open-source ethos, on many thousands of listservs and blogs and forums all over the web. I have benefited from that generosity so much, just myself. And it has made me a better sharer, too, I think.

MrTeacup (#4,677)

@barnhouse I would be the first to admit that not all programmers are like that. There are probably many exceptions – I am one of them. But your experience doesn't contradict what I said. It doesn't surprise me at all that a programmer would be flattered and willing to teach a non-programmer who is interested in what they do. In fact, that's exactly what I think many programmers want.

You are right that when it comes to learning, the programming community is very generous with sharing knowledge. But when it comes to open source software projects, they are much more authoritarian and hierarchical than they appear. A common structure for open source projects is the "benevolent dictator" model. Far from being inclusive and welcoming, the openness of the code is a way of excluding people. If you would like a feature to be implemented, the code is open source, so you can program it yourself. This excludes the vast majority of people who use the software. Even if you do know how to program, if your feature is not accepted by the benevolent dictator, you are "free" to fork the code – which means the impossible task of maintaining a separate version by yourself without the dozens or hundreds of volunteers who continue to work on the original project.

The function of these so-called freedoms is to deny access by providing access that is so costly, it can't be used. This is to make it seem like someone who is denied access is really choosing it, because they are lazy or it's not that important to them. This is the same as some Republican talking points: health insurance is available on the market, the formal option exists, so if you don't have health insurance, it's because you chose to go without it.

The desire of open source advocates to "empower" the public has the opposite effect of disempowering them, because it is a refusal by software developers of the role of the expert. Doctors, academics, civil engineers, lawyers, etc., also have esoteric knowledge that is inaccessible to the lay public, and because of that, they have some responsibilities to the rest of us, to use that expert knowledge in a way that's beneficial to society. With the false open source freedoms, developers can claim that they have no responsibility to society because individuals are "empowered" to do it themselves, so there is no need for institutions or processes that ensure that the technology that is created is in the best interests of society.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MrTeacup In practice, there are more layers to this than you're acknowledging here. For example, I used to use this open source mail client. There is a fairly lively listserv for this software, in which I was able to discuss a great deal of stuff with the "dictators"; they were gracious, always available, helped me with a lot of things, listened to me and to others and made use of our advice and suggestions. There was an ongoing conversation between dictators and fellow-citizens, you might say. That's a better state of affairs than what we have with most institutions.

I have known a lot of software developers very conscious of their roles as experts or originators. Such people are downright revered, sometimes; I have seen many of them handle the adulation (for it can scarcely be described any other way) with awareness, with tact and humility. Others, not so much …

How can we accomplish really complicated tasks without some kind of hierarchical structure? If we have to have hierarchical structures, how to avoid "dictatorship"?? I don't think we can. But the pressure to act right has to be cultural, I don't think it can be political.

So far as feeling a responsibility to society is concerned, much depends on the individual characters of the "dictators", as ever. That is true in every human institution, though, including all the ones you name. It's not the institution, it's how you inhabit the institution.

Oh and thank you again for the wonderful comments.

Maria, thank you for this column. Today is Thanksgiving and Sunday's my birthday and this is such a good gift for both.

One quibble. I think you are too harsh on Ruskin. Perhaps not too harsh, but smoothing out some of what makes him so great and so fascinating. While he grew up in an evangelical Christian home, he seems to lose his faith as he ages, and Queen of the Air seems downright pagan. Ruskin's slow onset insanity likely came from his repressed sexuality (his horror of Effie Grey's pubic hair and his later idealization of/obsession with the child Rose LaTouche) and his torment about the ebbing of his Christian faith.

Wolfgang Kemp's biography quotes Ruskin calling himself both a Conservative and a Communist, though he seems closest to Christian Socialism: the Working Man's College, the protests against the dark Satanic mills, the (legitimate!) concern over the automation of everything, and the price that would exact.

You are quite right that he was paternalistic. Also, his attitude toward women was also quite weird, even by the standards of the time. But I must forgive him all this, and his rather frequent histrionics because of his incantatory writing style and his honest struggle to feel, and to make others feel, what it means to be alive.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@enchantclovissangrail Oh, we certainly agree about all of the above. I especially loved your describing his writing as "incantatory"; that is just right.

It's unfortunate that one can't really bring up Ruskin as an advocate in a modern argument, because instantly the conversation will turn to The Problem of Rose LaTouche. There are still people arguing about exactly what it was about Effie Gray that he found so upsetting (I believe the word "malformed" came up in there somewhere during the legal proceedings, so I have privately concluded that she had a third nipple, or maybe like, gigantic labia?)

Anyways, thank you so much for this lovely comment.

I always though Jobs got far too much credit for dehumanized minimalism, but never bothered to properly investigate his inspirations, thanks for that little history lesson. Also regarding the cult of mac, I was thinking much of what was described here while talking to one of the macolytes at the local Apple shrine, who had nothing but rabid, foam-in-the-mouth praise for her beloved company. Wonderfully revealing article. The comments are surprisingly reasonable too, I was expecting major fanboy whining as I scrolled down.

joeclark (#651)

OK, having had time to lie down with iPad and really read this fucker, I have a few comments. (Incidentally, some kind of Chevy Volt ad completely takes over the screen in Mobile Safari and makes reading, let alone commenting, impossible on iPad. The Awl has its own severely debatable design decisions.)

Bustillos is articulating a minority viewpoint on Modernism, a criticism of its ostensible coldness, overrationality, and inhumanity. But clean rationalism was its entire purpose and was a response to the visceral horrors of the Great War. I would recommend reading Natalia Ilyin on this score: The faster you get your hands on _Chasing the Perfect_, the better your life will be as a design critic.

Modernist architecture always emphasized the use of natural materials in what are meant to be plainly unnatural forms, i.e., straight lines and 90° angles. A really well-done Modernist house may have concrete floors, but it will also have stone and wood walls and vast expanses of glass. Of course you see the same treatment of materials in Modernist appliances and consumer products. But, to reiterate a term already in use in this thread, it would be skeumorphic (skiamorphic) to insist on the same mixture of materials in a virtualized computer product.

The reason a Braun turntable or amplifier is equipped with knobs is because you need to manipulate them in an analogue fashion just to run the device. These appliances are orders of magnitude bigger (run the numbers – I am not exaggerating) than even very large Apple products like Thunderbolt Displays and Macs Pro. As such, they include large surfaces that need to be that big just to house the interior mechanicals. A Modernist designer looks at any large expanse and immediately tries to think of a way to use a natural material for it. Hence the wooden tops and front panels of mid-century products.

None of this applies to an object with almost no mechanical controls, like an iPod (any model, including Shuffle and Touch), iPhone, or iPad. Virtualization of controls *removes* a reason to include large-scale surfaces, which in turn *removes* a reason to make them out of wood, in any event an impractical material for this kind of device. (Though I do love the wood and bamboo iPhone *cases* sold by Root Cases.)

Now, the other point here is that Jonathan Ive truly *has* understood the lesson of Rams to its very core, which Ive has characterized as “surfaces that [are] without apology.” Surfaces Without Apology is the simplest distillation of Modernism I’ve ever read. Braun appliances and Apple computing equipment both adhere to this philosophy.

Since I work in accessibility, I will also point out that virtualization means you can do virtually anything, including making the entire interface accessible to a disabled person. Try that with an appliance equipped with immutable physical knobs.

Further on Rams: I have borrowed _Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible_ from the library. It’s a nice object in its own right, but it’s 390 pages, and I question whether Bustillos has actually read the book she’s quoting from.

I think this article is a bit hyperbolic, as is characteristic of many reactions to Apple and Steve Jobs. I think the chief goal of the Apple design philosophy has precisely been to engage a sense of delight, a sense of emotional response, as well as a sense of utility on the part of the people using their tools. Whether the design aesthetic is "original" is hardly relevant to this; Jobs freely admitted that he stole ideas left and right; his point was he stole good ideas. I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that alternative designs which are less inspired by modernism might well be superior; but no other large tech company or organization does any sort of coherent design, certainly not Microsoft or Google. Apple's design may not be the ultimate expression of humanism in technology, but it incorporates human sensibility far better than other attempts by other large companies.

Anyone who has tried to build interactive interfaces knows that making something that is easy to use and emotionally appealing is incredibly difficult. Google attempts to do this scientifically, by A/B testing the hell out of everything, without a truly human insight into WHAT they ought to be A/B testing. Testing isn't enough without instinct, and Apple at least embraces instinct. They *care* about design, which is not to say they do it perfectly. The idea, however, that Apple's design represents the triumph of the machine over the human is patently ridiculous; in order to design something people not only can use but enjoy using, you can't apply a purely technical approach, as Google attempts to do. There has to be an appreciation for the human, which is to say, a feeling, an intuition, which can only come from human designers. And Apple has a LOT of designers. For every feature they come up with ten alternative designs. That's a hell of a lot more human attention than any other tech company puts into their products, and it shows in the end product.

Sure, it would be great to see some company doing clever design with a different flavor; something less modernist, perhaps more organic or postmodern— or something entirely new. Jobs wasn't a visionary in the sense of being the most original. He was a visionary in the sense that he cared how people responded to the products his company made, he cared about their human impact. For him, Apple was his philanthropic work, not giving money to charities. He once famously challenged Sculley to join with him in liberating all beings from suffering; you may or may not agree that his work was a step in that direction but to attribute purely monetary or "machine" motives to him I think is manifestly inaccurate. The man had many flaws, not the least of which was his tendency towards building too much of a closed system; but in the end I believe it was ultimately because of his obsession with design, rather than control, and he did moderate his views on this multiple times in his career.

In the end Jobs was neither a saint nor a devil; I think such hyperbolic hate or adulation is senseless. He was a driven man who cared deeply about the impact of what he was doing for humanity, with derivative but decent taste, who built something which no one else has, yet: a big tech company which cares about the feel of their products, across the entire range of products. That's an accomplishment which ought to be appreciated. Now, we can move on and try to do better.

Norman Todd@twitter (#184,630)

I thought different and purchased one of the early iMacs. It had a modern minimalist feel to it. Personally I thought it was ugly. However, it worked, did what I needed it to do without fuss and allowed me to get on with my life. Steve Jobs had got it right. I reckon William Morris would have approved because the machine enhanced the quality of my life. Far better that I spend my time in the company of friends instead of struggling with the shortcomings of the PC's that were available at the time.

mxg (#185,488)

Wonderful article. This is why I don't like touchscreens — they make me feel like my fingers are an insult to the beautiful touchscreen by leaving smudges and all.

It's interesting to read this piece, and point out a number of things that are kind of ahistorical, because they are looking at Apple a corporate behemoth with a stock price over $300 a share, while citing examples from Jobs' return to Apple – like the "Think Different" ad – which occurred when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1997 and had a stock price of $5.

The "Think Different" ad featured Lennon and Einstein, but also Richard Branson. And while Lennon has become a counterculture symbols of hippie peace, he and the other Beatles were all materialistic. Lennon and McCartney literally used to say to each other before writing a song "let's write ourselves another swimming pool" and Lennon had a Rolls Royce painted in psychedelic colours. They all lived in stately mansions and George Harrison wrote several songs (Taxman, Only a Northern Song) about how he felt he wasn't getting his due.

The choice of Morris as a paragon of design virtue is also interesting. There is no denying Morris astonishing talents as a designer and writer. He was a key part of the arts and craft movement, and the pre-raphaelite sentiment of the Victorian age which hearkened back to pride in a craftsman's work.

But Morris was also independently wealthy. His father made a small investment in a mine that provided the family with an income great enough that Morris, as a child, had his own toy suit of armor fashioned out of copper.

This piece also faults Jobs for being inadequately literate, which he probably was. He was obsessed about the business he was in.

As for design, and Apple products, Jobs realized that showing a new product, not telling them about it, is the best way to engage with customers. This is actually a fundamental rule of storytelling: show, don't tell.

He learned this lesson from laserprinters. Nobody knew they wanted one until he showed them they could print out a sheet that looked typeset. And he strove for that experience – of instant recognition coupled with desire – in his product demonstrations.

And a lot of that design is about making things simple and elegant, which is a much more difficult task.

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