Last week I found John Gruber’s post, Only Apple. It’s a relatively long but insightful post on why only Apple can do the things they do. It’s defintely worth the read.
Meanwhile, as I made my way through the pages of Steve Jobs’ autobiography, I came across a particular section that gave me a slight bit of de ja vu.
In 1999, Adobe decided not to create a Mac version of their popular video editing application, Premiere.
Jobs, in his old fashioned way, was furious beyond himself.
But as expected, shortly after the fallout, Apple started to produce application software for the Mac. It was the origins of Final Cut Studio, iMovie, iPhoto and many other.
Together with the computer, software, applications and a FireWire cable, the full potential of the camcoder, for example, could now be unlocked. Instead of having hours of raw footage locked up on your camera, you now had the ability to create your own movies with iMovie.
A digital hub was born and Jobs became even more of a believer in providing end-to-end solutions.
From Steve’s autobiography comes a piece that was beautifully echoed by Tim Cook at this years WWDC:
The beauty of this realization was that there was only one company that was well-positioned to provide such an integrated approach. Microsoft wrote software, Dell and Compaq made hardware, Sony produced a lot of digital devices, Adobe developed a lot of applications. But only Apple did all of these things. “We’re the only company that owns the whole widget – the hardware, the software and the operating system,” he explained to Time. “We can take full responsibility for the user experience. We can do things the other guys cant do.”
And here’s the echo by Tim, 16 years later:
Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together. We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do.
It’s like a symphony… Beautiful.
With the long awaited announcement of iOS and OS X’s new symbiotic relationship, Apple are now even more able to do what no one else can…
This is a major step into the future for Apple. The seamless relationship between iOS and OS X will now not only allow them to create a more unified experience for their current product line, but also for whatever they announce in coming WWDC’s…
Just after Steve took over from Amelio as iCEO, Jony Ive was about to quit:
Amelio had little appreciation for design. “There wasn’t that feeling of putting care into a product, because we were trying to maximise the money we made,” Ive said. “All they wanted from us designers was a model of what something was supposed to look like on the outside, and then engineers would make it as cheap as possible.”
The most challenging environment a designer can work in, is an environment such as this. One where there is little appreciation for design. But, the slowest death a designer can die is to ignore it and decide to do nothing about it.
The world is crammed with these kinds of environments. It is our responsibility as designers to be a change agent. Sometimes we are saved by a Steve Jobs that walks through the door, other times we need to be the Steve Jobs…
Throughout his whole life, Steve Jobs’ houses remained as simple as the products he envisioned more than 30 years ago. I had the privilege to take a selfie at one of them while spending time with the invi team in Palo Alto.) It wasn’t fancy in any way. As Walter Isaacson recollected in his autobiography of Steve:
…the homes were not ostentatious and there were no high hedges or long drives shielding them from view. Instead, houses were nestled on lots next to each other along flat, quiet streets flanked by wide sidewalks. ‘We wanted to live in a neighborhood where kids could walk to see friends,’ Jobs later said.
As I wandered through Isaacs’ carefully woven pages, I bumped into a paragraph reminiscing the process Jobs and his family went through to choose a new washing machine for their new home:
It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out they wash them with about a quarter as much water and clothes end up with a less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer and they last a lot longer. We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also a lot about the values of our family. Did we care more about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spend about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.
They ended up getting a Miele washer and dryer, made in Germany.
The story speaks about a form of intentionality that is quite extreme but never the less gives a brilliant portrayal of how Apple was created. With intent – asking very specific questions in order to end up with the best possible conclusion.
What struck me most in this story is how Steve and his family weighed their options against their values to end up with a product that would work and fit their values better.
We recently went through a similar decision making process where we decided not to split our production and account team into two different offices, purely because one of our core values at Mabua is family, and the rift would have compromised this and some of our other values.
At Mabua we believe that great products are not only a result of intentional designs and great strategy but also about being very intentional about the values we stand for.
And sometimes it means saying no to what seems like a great opportunity…
Even though he was one of the richest men in the world, Henry Ford remained a simple man who loved a home cooked meal and some afternoon work on his farm. But as the T-Model grew as a dramatically successful car, news headlines multiplied as well:
His money didn’t change him but he started to believe the headlines and it became very evident as well…
There is a particular story in Ford’s history after which he returned from a European jaunt to find a new prototype built by one of his ace production men, William Knudson. It was supposed to be a successor to the model T. His mechanics reported how he would go berserk at times, including this time.
Ford had his hands in his pockets, and he walked around (the) car three or four times. Finally, he got to the left-hand side of the car, and he takes hold of the door, and bang! He ripped the door right off! He jumped in there, and bang goes the other door. Bang goes the windshield. He wrecked the car as much as he could.
Ford loved his T-Model so much that he barely wanted to change a bolt on it. He refused to change until competitive necessity forced him to create the A-Model.
It’s a compelling story. But it’s more than that. It’s a story that speaks about us as designers and developers and how we lead those who follow us. Like Ford helped shape the future of transportation, we are busy creating the future of digital interactions; a future that will be a result of change. Or a lack of that.
I’ve come to see over the past few months that the best designs does not come by waking up one morning, thinking that a client’s website needs to change. Or by just reading another article or copying the latest one-page-flat-parallax trend?
As I wrote in my previous article about the rise of genius design, the best designs come through collaboration and collaboration doesn’t happen until I change into a collaborative person. And that requires personal change first.
Refusing to change will result in creating what Happy Cog calls yet another site that looks just the same.
I’m deeply moved by Howard Hendricks wisdom on change from his book, Teaching to Change Lives:
“How have you changed lately? In the last week, let’s say? Or in the last month? The last year? Can you be very specific? Or must your answer be incredible vague? You say you’re growing. Okay… how? ‘Well,’ you say, ‘In all kinds of ways.’ Great! Name one. You see effective teaching only comes through a changed person. The more you change, the more you become an instrument of change in the lives of others. If you want to become a change agent you also must change.”
Yes, I’m a designer in Durbanville, Cape Town, but I also want to be a change agent in my community. And in order for me to be that person, I have to change first.
I hope you will change with me…
But 2 months ago I read Frank Chimero’s book, The Shape of Design. *And there it was again; the story of Miles Davis and how he and a few other musicians reinvented jazz in one day. But what placed Rian’s article in a completely new light was the poetry analogy Frank used in the beginning of the chapter.
Renga is a form of collaborative poetry where I would write the first 3 lines of a poem, pass it on to you to write the next 2 lines, after which you pass it on to me again. This back-and-forth collaborative approach would then give rise to something completely different than what it would have been without the collaborators.
This exact same thing happens in improvisational theatre as well, except a new role player is introduced into the process: momentum.
Frank explains it like this:
”…if you and I are improvising a scene on stage, and you say something I wasn’t expecting, I cant pull you aside and ask you to change your line. The continuity would be broken, so I must accept what you offer and then build on top of it.”
Now what’s interesting is that this same thing happened when Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue. He and his team build on top of each other’s sounds (without criticizing) to create a type of Jazz that didn’t exist before.
And that’s exactly how genius design is born as well. Together. Through improvisation. One idea is build on top of another to give rise to fresh and unexpected solutions. But what needs to be in **place in order for this to happen is what Frank calls the, “Yes and…” maxim.
“Yes” dictates that each contribution is valid and accepted. It prevents us from editing too early and thereby loosing momentum. The “and” part of the maxim, dictates that improvisation is an additive process that builds itself up with each decision made.
If we were put together to design a form for a website, I would, for example, start off and draw the first iteration with no field labels and only placeholders. You would now ask “Yes and what else can it look like?” You would now have the opportunity to change something. Perhaps keep the placeholders inside the fields and add a label to the top of it. In return I would now ask, “Yes and…” and remove the labels outside the field but add a layer of interaction design to give rise to something like this:
I’ve recently tried this approach alongside one of our designers and it’s been one of the most fruitful design sessions yet. It enabled us to keep momentum and build on top of each other’s ideas to give rise to something I would not have been able to come up with on my own.
And this is exactly what we want and need in design.
The opening paragraph of Frank wraps it well:
”When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs… These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others…”
What can you add to the pool?
*I was a bit stuck after my first sentence so I decided to just write what came to mind, even though I was hesitant. What felt like the wrong sentence to continue the article, kept the momentum and lead characters into words and words into sentences to form this post…
** To keep this post a bit more simple, I will refrain from going into how a framework and criticism affects this process.
David Chang is an award-winning chef and is currently the head chef at Momofuku, a New York based restaurant. What makes him remarkable is not the amount of awards he has managed to mount on his kitchen wall, but his approach to prepare food: the long, hard, stupid way.
Where some restaurants may use cheaper ingredients to have a higher markup but still remain in that sweet spot where the customer is happy enough to come back, David would, for example prepare his own stock to ensure that the customer is not only happy, but have an incomparable experience.
Frank Chimero puts it into a different context:
Commercial logic would suggest that Chang stop working once it no longer made monetary sense, but the creative practitioner feels the sway of pride in their craft. We are compelled to obsess. Every project is an opportunity to create something of consequence by digging deeper and going further, even if it makes life difficult for the one labouring.
The same applies to design. Every designer has a choice: She can either take the easy route by copying and pasting design trends, willfully do whatever the client tells her to do, or only put in the minimum amount of effort that would be sufficient to keep the client smiling. And paying.
Or, alternatively, we can choose to be the designer that takes the road less traveled. Fixating over the three pixels, spend another 15 min on a subtle transition, or do sufficient user research to understand our target market better.
Yes, designing the long, hard, stupid way is more difficult. We might have to stay up a bit later or produce more piles of rejected ideas in the process, but it will also kindle a deeper love for our work and the people who are moved by it…
In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero, with his beautifully crafted words, tells about an encounter with a Mockingbird:
I remember one specific night where I found myself on the tail end of a long, fruitless stretch. I took to gazing out the window to search for inspiration, to rest my eyes, to devise a plan to fake my death for forty-eight hours while my deadline whooshed past. I looked at the tree before my window and heard a sound rise from the leaves. It seemed misplaced, more likely to come from the cars than one of the trees next to them.
“Weee-oooh, wooop, wwwrrrlll. Weee-oooh, wooop!”
This was not the song of a bird, but the sound of a car alarm. He mimicked the medley of sounds with skill, always pausing for just the right amount of time to be in sync with the familiar tempo of the alarms that occasionally sounded on the block…
And in that moment, a brief little glimmer of insight came to me from the bird’s song: his efforts were futile, and to a large extent, mine were too. We were blindly imitating rather than singing a song of our own.
He continues to use this story as an analogy for why designers need to ask Why more often:
The relationship between form and purpose – How and Why – is symbiotic. But despite this link, Why is usually neglected, because How is more easily framed. It is easier to recognize failures of technique than those of strategy or purpose, and simpler to ask “How do I paint this tree?” than to answer “Why does this painting need a tree in it?”
My path as a designer has lead me to this insight multiple times before (for example when I wrote about design patterns) but the more I mature as a designer, the more evident it becomes to me that the quality of my work is in direct relationship to exactly this: how often I can ask Why in relationship to What.
Sometimes asking What takes a lot less energy. It’s easier to ask what kind of navigation needs to be used, like, does it need to be a left navigation, a top one or maybe collapsed into a menu icon? This question has a lot to do with the form of the website. But asking Why unearths purpose: Why do we even need navigation? Or a mega dropdown? Because the Information Architecture is too complex? Because that’s what Facebook does? Or maybe because the Nielson/Norman Group found a better answer?
One question isn’t more right than the other. They both fulfill a specific purpose: What creates skill and Why forms the bedrock of learning and improving. The moment these two aren’t in balance anymore, blocks will start to arise. We will either have an idea, but lack the skills to execute it; or we will have the skills, but lack the purpose for the work.
So, what you read in this post is equally as important as why you read it…
I’m proud to say that 3 weeks ago I joined the “Married Man’s League”. We had an unforgettable 2 weeks on honeymoon! Writing about the Mozambican beaches or the 2600km road-trip we did, won’t do it any justice but it has been without a doubt an amazing time of rest for both Lindl and me. Especially after 3 months of crazy planning to make the wedding day run as smooth as possible.
Hence also the reason I haven’t posted anything to MOVD for nearly 2 months. Not because I didn’t had the time, but because my mind was occupied by what felt more important then. It was almost as if there was no more space available in my brain to write.
By nature I’m quite an intense guy and many times that intensity will result in putting an immense amount of pressure on myself. I’m not talking about the good pressure that propels us forward. I’m talking about the kind that spoils the moment. Pressuring myself to write during this time almost spoiled it.
That’s also one of the most important things I’ve come to realise over the past few months: our wedding was a once in a lifetime moment and now that I’ve started to write again, it makes perfectly sense to rather enjoy the moment for what it is than placing this ton of pressure on myself to write when I can’t even think of something to write about.
In a way this realisation feels liberating because our life is filled with numerous once-in-a-lifetime moments. Accept they will all look different; I will have my first-born (maybe twins.), family might pass away, move to the other side of the world (like my friend @rianvdm. Read his blog post on this experience. Hats off to him…) or have a great coffee with someone. And adding too much pressure on ourselves in these moments might spoil them.
The great thing about not spoiling these moments is that they will result in more vivid and beautiful stories. Stories we might want to write about…
I’m not an avid camper, but now and then I actually like to get out into the wild. About 2 years ago, we went to a camping place called Beaverlac. A beautiful place that’s definitely worth it. But I found it a bit weird that they don’t take any bookings. You just pitch up and pitch your tent. If they’ve run out of camping spots. Well… then you need to find another place.
In my search for a camping place for next weekends outing with my dad, I went to the old trusted Beaverlac website. But this time only to be greeted with a new booking form. Things has changed. You now need to book a place. Which, under normal circumstances, would be okay. But this form is a bit different… Apart from the normal name and date fields, there’s a few very odd ones that almost made me feel that I’m applying for a new job.
See if you can spot them:
Im not sure why they need my occupation, employer, and me to name 3 camp rules, but I assume they had quite a few problems at the camp site and now need to do more quality control. But now also to the cost of bookings…
Lesson learned: Make you’re form only do what it needs to do. Anything more than that and people might not fill it in.
Over the past few months the concept of Progressive Reduction has started to emerge all over the web. In short what it means is that an interface will start to reduce itself based on how someone uses a specific application; unused features or design elements that isn’t used, will start to disappear in favour of a better user experience
A lot has already been said about this concept, so my intention with this post is hopefully not to rephrase these articles, but rather to add a thought that was sparked by one of my work colleagues…
A while back we were talking about how individual profiles is build up over time as we navigate ourselves around in the digital cosmos and how ads are served based on these journeys. What started out as a very casual conversation grew into a very interesting topic: How will these digital profiles of ourselves one day be used to serve different versions of the same website? In other words, user interfaces that are served based on an individual’s digital profile…
Let’s use a middle aged, medium to high income, black man from South Africa who has already purchased both a Samsung Galaxy, iPad and an Macbook Air on Kalahari.com, as an example persona. He’s an experienced Internet user and love to browse sites like The Next Web and Mashable.
In the context of this idea, the next time he visits Apple.com, he might be greeted with a different version of their home page featuring the latest iPhone 7 held by a black hand and complimented by imagery that supports his profile? Maybe even give him an interface stripped of design elements that would normally only be there for less experienced users…
It’s almost like google ads, accept that it’s a targeted user interface.
Sure, I have reduced this case to make it sound much more simple than what it probably is. There are more complexities and consequences to it than what I can think of right now. But I wanted to keep it simple for illustration purposes.
However, the same idea that might be able to cause people to have a better web experience, might now also be used to drive more sales. Which I guess is fine but in a way makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Not sure why. Maybe because there are so many anomalies that we haven’t explored yet. Stuff like security, privacy and ethical issues.
Perhaps we will never even see this idea take shape. But if this does, I hope that we have applied enough time and wisdom to figure out how it will pan out over a period of 10 or 20 years.
Let’s see how it goes…