Deconstructing Steve Jobs through the triple F model: function, functionality and form
Steve Jobs is remembered as the iconic founder of a company, where ingenious bursts of creativity catalysed extraordinary feats of engineering. He is considered to have transformed half a dozen industries — personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. He was a conduit for both — the creative arts as well as cutting-edge technology; Apple’s singular achievements were made possible because he possessed a unique meld of many abilities.
As he himself put it, “Tech companies don’t understand creativity. They don’t appreciate intuitive thinking, I’m one of the few people who understands how producing technology requires intuition and creativity, and how producing something artistic takes real discipline.”
In order to review products, I have created the Triple F model, deconstructing a product into three different aspects — function, functionality and form. For the purposes of this piece, I am going to apply this model to Apple, under Steve Jobs. It would be illuminative and instructive to measure Steve’s contribution in each area. That would teach us just how Apple became the most valuable company in the world (by the Forbes ranking of 2011).
For the purpose of clarity, particularly with reference to computers, I have defined ‘function’ as being what a product, such as a computer, can do, the tasks it can perform and how well it can perform them.
‘Functionality’, I define, as how the user gets it to perform those functions — or to put it differently, how quick, simple and easy it is for the user to get the computer to perform those functions.
‘Form’ is, of course, the aesthetic design of the product. This has a larger context, that will become evident in the following pages.
Let’s study and analyse some of Apple’s products, and Steve’s contribution to them, under these heads. Jobs is a difficult subject to research — there is a multitude of sources (including the comprehensive, authorised biography by the brilliant Walter Issacson), but there is also a multitude of contradictory opinions. For the limited purpose of this essay, if a certain piece of information has not been challenged or disputed, I am assuming it can be relied upon.
The assessment is based on this material that is available; the standards of the assessment, and the conclusions that I draw from it, are my own. I have tried to show that a clearly discernible pattern emerges from the facts; the recognition and study of that pattern could be very educative.
Function and Functionality
Apple II was the primary launcher of the personal computer industry. It was to continue to sell for well over 16 years, and a total of six million pieces would be sold. But it is Job’s partner, Steve Wozniak, who deserves acclaim for its jaw-dropping circuit board and operating software; this should be, and has been hailed, as one of the greatest contributions by a single individual in the computer industry.
But it is equally true that it was Jobs who put together Wozniak’s boards into a user-friendly package, from seemingly insignificant details like the power supply to the smooth and glossy case. He also created the company that grew around Wozniak’s machine; Woznaik, himself, would have been the first to admit that he would not have been able to create Apple alone. Regis McKenna, a trusted Apple advisor for many years, put it rather bluntly, “Woz designed a great machine, but it would be sitting in hobby shops today were it not for Steve Jobs.”
The Apple ‘theft’ of the Xerox PARC bitmapping concept is oftentimes described as one of the biggest raids in the chronicles of industry. Jobs occasionally accepted this, and not without some degree of pride. As he once said, “Picasso had a saying — ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ — and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”
Steve Jobs could never claim credit for the bitmapped screen (nor did he). But, Jobs, and the team of engineers he led, greatly improved on the graphical interface they saw at Xerox PARC, in terms of functionality, and they were able to execute them in ways that Xerox, perhaps, never could accomplish. For example, the Xerox mouse had three buttons, was far too complicated, didn’t move around smoothly and, at $300 a piece, was outrageously expensive. Jobs got a local firm to make a simple, single-button model that moved effortlessly and cost just $15.
The improvements were more than just in the details. The mouse at Xerox PARC could not be used to drag a window around the screen. Apple’s engineers devised an interface so you could not only drag windows and files around, you could even drop them into folders. Apple allowed the windows on a screen to overlap so that the “top” one clipped into the ones “below” it. In terms of its pure function, the product was clearly Xerox’s; in terms of its functionality, however, Apple had taken it to a totally new and different level.
Jobs loved the notion of a ‘desktop’. “People know how to deal with a desktop ‘intuitively’. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on the top is the most important. The reason we model our computers on the desktop is that we can leverage the experience people already have.”
He motivated his team to make the Macintosh boot up 28 seconds faster. When they started to explain that it couldn’t be done, Jobs cut them off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave off the boot time?” he asked. “If five million use the Mac, and it takes 10 seconds extra to boot up, that adds up to some three hundred million or so hours in a year, which is the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes…”
iTunes and the iPod
Jobs’ limited contributions in the domain of the essential functions of a product and his very significant contributions in the area of functionality seem to be replicated in almost every product category. Other companies were already making music-management applications, but they were unwieldy and far too intricate to use. One of Jobs’ unique abilities was to identify product categories where the existing players were less than first-rate. When he examined the music apps available — including real jukebox and windows media player — he concluded that they were so complicated that only a prodigy could wade through and figure out most of their features. They scored extremely poorly on functionality.
After he had set up iTunes, Jobs realised that Apple had the opportunity to design a portable music player device to sync with the iTunes software, allowing it to be far simpler. He would sacrifice function for functionality — easy functions would be executed on the device, more difficult ones on the computer. This led to the creation of the iPod; and it was truly this device that converted Apple from a computer manufacturer into, in the words of Forbes, ‘the world’s most valuable company’.
But, like most of Apple’s products, the iPod originated elsewhere — in this case, at Toshiba. The engineers there mentioned to Apple that they had a new product — a small, 1.8-inch drive that would hold five gigabytes of storage (potentially, about a thousand songs). Jobs immediately negotiated with Toshiba for exclusive rights to every one of the disks. Jobs then became obsessed, as always, about its functionality. His standard was rigid but clear — if he wanted a song or a function, he should be able to access and operate it in just three clicks. And he needed to be able to do it ‘intuitively’, without being told or having to read a manual on how to do it.
Those two standards — being able to access the function in three clicks and being able to do it intuitively — summed up, in essence, the functionality that we find, not just in the iPod but in all of Apple’s products.
Of course, the most stunning of all the functionalities on the iPod, (and, again, most Apple products) was that it did not have an on-off switch. Most Apple devices would go off, on their own, when they lay unused, and switch on, almost magically, with a gentle touch.
The iPhone and the iPad
With the iPhone, functionality seemed to attain an almost lyrical level. The iPhone offered the user a numerical pad when he wanted to make a phone call, turned it into a keyboard when he wanted to type, and all of these simply vanished when he was watching a video clip, offering him the maximum display possible.
Where the iPad was concerned, Alan Kay, the Xerox PARC pioneer, had envisaged a “Dynabook” tablet computer 40 years before. But with his version of the tablet computer, the iPad, Steve Jobs seemed to have taken functionality to its final intuitive level. A poor six-year-old stable boy in Columbia, with no experience of computers or gadgets at all, was found using the iPad; he was playing games on it without having had any instructions on how to use it. Steve Jobs could look on that as the final tribute to perfecting a product’s functionality.
Jobs extended his questioning of functions and functionality to products in his home. “We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years,” his wife, Laurene Powell, reminisces. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’
Appliances, such as a washing machine, were also subject to long analysis before purchase. “We spent hours talking about the trade-off we wanted to make. Did we care about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour-and-a-half? Or, did we care about our clothes feeling soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water…?”
We now enter the area and domain where Steve Jobs left his most important and most indelible legacy.
Mike Markkula, the first chairman and one of the first major investors in Apple, had put down the company’s philosophy, emphasising three principles. Heading the list was empathy. “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.”
Next came focus: “In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.”
The last was impute. “People DO judge a book by its cover,” he wrote. “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.” And it was this last that Steve seemed to take most to heart and was to prove to be his unique strength.
The brand name and the logo
The name Apple Computer had been suggested by Steve Jobs. There were long periods, in his twenties, when he would eat nothing but fruit. The name sounded fun, spirited and not intimidating. Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer’. Plus, it would get us ahead of Atari in the phone book!”
His instincts would prove to be right. During a period when computers were still seen to be intimidating, meant to be used by people who were “intelligent” and “skilled at that kind of thing”, Apple disarmed the average person. It was as American as you could get. The logo linked Apple to the tree of knowledge, which most Americans would know about, and had a whiff of the rebel about it.
The mass production of art
He once took his Apple team to see an exhibition of Tiffany glass at the museum; he wished them to learn that great art could be mass-produced. Steve was slowly adopting the Bauhaus aesthetic; he liked the notion of simple and clean modernism, produced for the masses. And he believed that there should be no distinction between fine art and applied industrial design.
As a matter of fact, the Power Mac G4 Cube, released in the beginning of the 21st century, was so alluring that it was exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. An eight-inch perfect cube, it was the pure expression of the Apple aesthetic philosophy.
Minimal, yet playful
As Jobs’ design sensibilities were evolving, his early tryst with Buddhism spilled over onto his sense of design (his black turtleneck was a creation of the Japanese designer Issey Miyake — he had more than a hundred of them). ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’, ‘real artists simplify’, were quickly becoming his design mottos. In Jony Ive, Jobs met his soul mate in the quest for true rather than surface simplicity. Ive believed that, “To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. Deep enough to understand the essence of a product…”
But Steve and Ive were careful that their sleek designs would not become slick, over-powering or unapproachable; they kept it, on the other hand, warm, passionate and playful. Steve’s own leaning towards Zen tilted him towards minimalism but it was never clinical.
Jobs would constantly stress that his products should look friendly. One of the fascinating changes that one can observe as a direct consequence is that, as the design evolved, the Macintosh began to resemble a human face. Taller and narrower than most computers, it suggested a ‘head’. The base reminded one of a ‘chin’, and Jobs reduced the plastic at the top to make the ‘forehead’ more appealing. The designers were later to confess, “Even though Steve didn’t draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is. We didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”
That was the basic philosophy that both Jobs and Ive believed in. In an interview with Fortune, he said, “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
On one occasion, Jobs and Ive once wandered into the sunflower garden that Job’s wife had planted. Ive asked, “What if the screen was separated from the base like a sunflower?” He grew excited and started sketching what he had in mind. Ive thought all design should have a story behind it; he hoped that the sunflower shape would suggest that it was alive and that it could reach up towards the sky.
Almost as a playful afterthought, the iMac had a handle that rested on top of it. Its use was doubtful, it was unlikely that the desktop computer would ever be carried around but when Ive suggested it, Steve immediately warmed to the idea — both of them understood that it would make the computer less intimidating to its target audience.
In most corporations, form follows function. The engineers created the innards of the machine and then it was put into an aesthetic shell by the designers. The Apple philosophy was almost iconoclastic, in this regard. Jobs had already finalised the design of the original Macintosh, when it was handed over to the engineers — they had to fit the insides of the computer into it.
At NeXT, his very own company, he could indulge himself even further; he had set his heart on a cube design and the circuit boards had to be reconstituted to snuggle tight into the cube.
The Apple design philosophy was, perhaps, best expressed by Hartmut Esslinger, a German designer, selected by Jobs. His guiding principle, he said, was “Form follows emotion,” a clever play on the familiar principle that form follows function.
On the screen
Jobs’ obsession with aesthetics extended to all that would appear on the screen. When he had dropped out of college at Reed, he had opted to attend classes in calligraphy. Jobs had studied a great deal about typefaces — knowledge that most of his ‘tech’ contemporaries lacked. “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” he later said of that class. Thanks to Xerox, the Mac was bitmapped, and it was now practical for Steve to design an almost unlimited range of fonts, from the formal to the wild.
The others at Apple could never understand his passion for it. “His knowledge of fonts was remarkable, and he kept insisting on having great ones,” Markkula remembered. “I kept saying, ‘Fonts? Don’t we have more important things to do?’” But, as a matter of fact, the array of Macintosh fonts, along with laser-writer printing and the strides in graphics, kick-started the desktop publishing industry (and, of course, added significantly to Apple’s profitability).
When the Apple engineers came up with a brilliant algorithm to draw circles and ovals onscreen quickly, Jobs responded by asking for rectangles with rounded corners. When they seemed to think it was inconsequential, he pointed out to car windows and billboards and street signs. “Within three blocks, we found 17 examples of rectangles with rounded corners,” said Jobs. Subsequently, dialogue boxes and windows on nearly every Apple computer, were created with rounded corners.
Apple worked on the icons too, such as the trash can for deleting files. Jobs lavished similar attention on the title bars atop windows and documents. He had them done over and over again. “Can you imagine looking at that every day?” he explained to his tired team. “It’s not just a little thing, it’s something we have to do right.”
What you don’t see is as important
Jobs inherited his love of pure craftsmanship from his father; Jobs Senior had been obsessed with the idea that quality should carry over to every part of a creation, even if it would never be seen. A good carpenter wouldn’t settle for poor quality wood for the back of a cabinet, merely because it would be hidden. The quality of the aesthetic had to be perfectly consistent.
Jobs found nothing unusual in criticising the printed circuit board inside the Macintosh — on grounds of pure aesthetics.
That no consumer would ever see it was irrelevant to him. “That part’s really pretty,” he would say. “But look at the memory chips. That’s ugly. The lines are too close together. I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box.”
In his factory to manufacture the Macintosh, Jobs’ aesthetic passion almost ran the factory aground. When Jobs was inspecting the factory, he ordered that the machines be repainted in the colours he wanted. His engineers objected; the repainting would impair the precise running of the machines. They were right -one machine, painted a bright blue, never did function at its best and was christened “Steve’s folly.”
But while his obsession with form was misplaced at the factory, it worked miracles for him in the marketplace.
In the very early years of Apple, Mike Markkula had stressed that they needed to “impute” — to comprehend and accept that yes, people do judge a book by its cover. So the Apple philosophy, quite apart from Job’s own, meant that the outer box and wrapping that their products came in sent out powerful messages about the quality of the products inside. This is fairly common for products such as jewellery but less common for more utilitarian products — Jobs’ unique ability lay in taking a practical piece of machinery into a plane where none of his competitors existed.
“When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product,” he said. “Mike taught me that.”
“Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,” said Ive. “I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theatre, it can create a story.” All Apple customers were to learn to be part of and to love that ritual.
Reset and start over
Quite often, even as he neared the end of a project, Jobs would call a halt and then ask for changes that would turn the clock right back. This happened with his first Pixar film, Toy Story, with the Apple stores and with the iPhone as well. One morning, when the iPhone project was almost nearing completion, Jobs went over to see Ive. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, “because I realised that I just don’t love it.” Ive was upset and then, to his own consternation, found Jobs was correct.
The design was re-done; it meant that they had to re-work the circuit boards, antenna, and processor placement inside, but Jobs was fine with that. “Other companies may have shipped,” said an old Apple hand, “but we pressed the reset button and started over.”
Backfire: design versus engineering
Conflict between designers, who want to make a product look aesthetic, and engineers, who need to make sure it fulfills its function, is fairly common in many companies. At Apple, Steve always weighed in with the design team, ignoring the objections of the manufacturing engineers, who raised practical considerations when confronted with Ive’s artistic creations.
There were, sometimes, minor hiccups. The iPod Nano, for example, was liable to getting scratched because Ive thought a clear coating would mar the elegance of his design. But that was not a disaster.
On occasions, there were more serious consequences, however. Antenna gate was one of them. Jobs and Ive insisted on a solid piece of brushed aluminum for the edge of the iPhone 4 though the engineers were nervous that it would affect the antenna.
To function as an antenna, the rim had to have a tiny gap. But if the gap was covered, for instance, with a finger, there could be signal loss. The engineers recommended a clear coating over the metal as a solution but Ive vetoed this. When the engineers complained to Jobs, he brushed aside their objections, saying, as always, that they could solve it.
The engineers did get it to work — almost all the time. When the iPhone 4 was released, it looked splendid, but the signal problem did surface, though it occurred, perhaps, only once every long while. Consumer reports did tests of its own and refused to recommend the iPhone 4, citing the antenna problem; it became known as “Antenna gate”.
“The store will become the most powerful physical expression of the brand,” it had been predicted. That forecast never did come true — but that the Apple stores became one of a kind retail outlets is certainly a fact.
Jobs had been advised to build a mock-up of a store near the Apple campus, furnish it completely, and then to spend time there, tinkering with it till he was completely happy with it. He did do just that — he rented a vacant warehouse in Cupertino and then, every Tuesday for six months, they held meetings there, talking about their ideas for retailing and building the store around their concepts. “I loved to wander over there on my own, just checking it out,” Jobs would remember later.
Jobs’ unique signature style is very much in evidence in Apple’s Manhattan Fifth Avenue store: it was almost the visual embodiment of his design philosophy — a cube, a signature staircase, glass, making a “maximum statement through minimalism”. It is open 24/7, it justified Jobs’ policy of creating unique signature high-traffic stores by drawing 50,000 visitors a week during its first year. “This store grosses more per square foot than any store in the world,” Jobs said in 2010. “It also grosses more in total-absolute dollars, not just per square foot-than any store in New York. That includes Saks and Bloomingdale’s.”
As the number of stores grew and they thrived, Jobs stayed immersed in every minute detail. In one meeting just before a store opening, Steve agonised for half an hour about the precise shade of gray of the restroom sign. An architectural firm had been hired to design the stores, but Jobs made every major decision. The floors of most major Apple stores, for instance, would be made of sandstone that came from the ll Casone quarry near the Tuscan town of Firenzuola. Jobs had seen this in Florence, twenty years earlier.
He was also able to create great hoopla and excitement over the store openings, the same way that he did with the product launches. Men, women and children would travel to store openings, spending the night outside so they could be among the first in. The stores became part of the entire experience of Apple products and by opening their own stores, Steve could have complete control, from how it was designed and made to how it was sold.
Summing up Steve
It is said that you will never need an Apple, but you will always want one. “Steve understands desire,” said Alan Kay, who had conceived the tablet computer nearly 40 years before the iPad was launched.
Fortune magazine has rated Steve Jobs as the greatest entrepreneur of our time. There will be those who would argue with that rating — but it is unlikely that anyone will quarrel with the thought that he has had a great influence on several industries during his lifetime.
By applying my Triple F model to Steve Jobs, I have demonstrated that there is a clear pattern that emerges when we study his work and his achievements. Steve Jobs had an extremely tumultuous career — it might, therefore, come as a surprise that the pattern that emergesis a fairly consistent one. Throughout his life, his major contributions came, not in the functions of the gadgets he produced; his permanent and greatest contributions were consistently in the functionality and in the form of the products he produced. And in the technology space, he was undoubtedly, the first to recognise the importance of these areas. He was playing to his strengths, of course, in doing this — there were few others in the intersection of the arts and the sciences where he stood. He was almost alone where he was and he knew best how to leverage that position.
The passage of time will, perhaps, show us more clearly where Steve Jobs stands in the history of industry — particularly and more specifically, industry in the technology space, but in the two areas of functionality and form, it is unlikely that his bequest will be challenged. That, in the end, could be his enduring legacy.