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10.31.2011
Editorial> Good for Apple, Good for Architects
Sam Lubell on the design genius of Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs.
Ben Stanfield / Flickr

We all knew it was coming, but the news of Steve Jobs’ death still shook most of us as if a close relative had passed.

We all have our own reasons for grieving this man that we had never met. But one factor we all have in common is that for better or worse, Jobs had more of an impact on many of us than presidents and Nobel Prize winners. His products, and the culture they created, touched us every day, and, more accurately, every minute.

It’s this aspect of his legacy that can be a lesson to architects and to anyone in the creative fields. The greatness of Apple’s products, honed immeasurably in Jobs’ second stint at the company since the late ‘90s, is that they are designed to make the user experience as pleasurable as possible.

Architects often forget this cardinal rule of production. I’ve heard several tell me that they’re happy if they’re pleased with their designs, even if their clients or neighbors are not.

Architects don’t make spaces for themselves, but for others. In the hyper-competitive world of technology design, this plays out quickly. If people aren’t happy with their products they shift to something else. Even if it’s not as apparent, the same goes for architecture. If they don’t listen to what people want, architects will fail and lose the business.

Jobs, like the Eameses and other innovators before him, separated himself from the pack by combining Apple’s legendary functionality with a perhaps more legendary sense of design. It’s the reason that people wait in line for Apple’s products, that iPads are the subjects of museum shows, and that Apple’s stock price has reached ridiculous levels. It’s not flashy design—in fact the products are minimal to the extreme—it’s their beautiful, sophisticated design merged seamlessly with functionality.

“The details are not the details. They make the design,” said Charles Eames, who along with the rest of his office is currently the subject of several shows as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions.

And this seamless, detail-obsessed design, of course, was combined with Jobs’ other genius: marketing. He was not only a technical and design wizard, he was a promotional genius, combining the cool of his products with ads that were equally hip—another seamless transition. Marketing sense is a talent that so many architects lack. But no design can flourish without being properly sold, and the business end of design is at least as important as the creative end.

While it’s true that in architecture and design less is often more, in marketing more is always more, and it’s something that Jobs knew from the beginning, when he launched Macintosh with an inspiring Super Bowl ad.

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” said Mies van der Rohe, the master of minimalism. Jobs taught us that in this age of distraction and short attention spans, functionality merged with striking design in an equally seamless package still stands out above the rest.  If architects and designers shortchange any of these elements, they will probably take the same path as the Zune did against the iPod. Ever heard of Zune?

Sam Lubell