From a spoon to a city

An architect must be able to design everything from a spoon to a city.

I have always been fascinated by people who display a broad range of creative output. Our culture pushes us towards specialization and labels, hence it can be a bit hard to explore diverse interests. But when people do, they create great products.

(I explored this idea 2 years ago in the post Maximalist Careers)

In last few months I have been gobbling up information about Steve Jobs, and I am still gawking at the range of his interests.

Here I explore a few ‘things’ which he explored, experienced, and designed.

The Pixar Office

“The Pixar building was Steve’s own movie.”

John Lasseter

Steve Jobs designed the Pixar Office Campus down to the last details. He wanted to create a place which felt timeless, one which would last for more than 100 years. He was inspired by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which was built in 1900, both in terms of a common area, where people could meet, and the bolts which connected the steel in the building.

The central area at Musée d’Orsay in Paris . Source

He insisted on having an open place where unplanned encounters could take place. This is how diverse ideas got together.

Pixar Atrium – Designed for people to meet.
People in line for food. Chance encounters probably happening.

He demanded the specific shades of bricks to be shown on the walls. And he wanted a specific ‘random’ pattern on them.

The bricks on Pixar Office
Pixar Office Entrance

The inspiration for the color and the pattern of the bricks came from the Hill Brothers building in San Francisco.

Hills Bros Coffee building. Source

According to the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs:

Because the building’s steel beams were going to be visible, Jobs pored over samples from manufacturers across the country to see which had the best color and texture. He chose a mill in Arkansas, told it to blast the steel to a pure color, and made sure the truckers used caution not to nick any of it. He also insisted that all the beams be bolted together, not welded.

From brick shades to steel welding – he did the whole banana.

Apple Retail Stores

The architectural firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed the signature stores, but Jobs made all of the major decisions.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Inside an Apple Store. Source

He got his inspiration again from – Paris.

When on vacation to Italy or France, he would insist that Laurene join him in visiting Valentino, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes, Prada and the like… While Laurene browsed distractedly, Steve would buttonhole the salesclerks and bombard them with questions: Why had they chosen to devote so little space to their merchandise? How did people flow through the store? He’d look at the stores’ interior architecture, wondering how the interplay of wood, arches, stairways and natural and unnatural light helped set a mood that was conducive to spending outrageous sums of money.

Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender
Products inside a Gucci Store in Paris. Source

He got help of course. The CEO of Gap Mickey Drexler joined the Apple board of directors in 1998. And in 2000, he hired Target’s VP of merchandising Ron Johnson. They had a simple design brief:

“Create the ideal store.”

Ron Johnson had the responsibility to design the Apple store.

Steve pushed for a minimalist, clean feel, with easy navigation around tables featuring Apple’s laptops and desktop computers.

Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender

And not only did they think about the look, feel and navigation, they also thought about the location and the training of the salespeople. Generally, stores where customers buy once-a-few-years products are located farther from a city, but the Apple stores would be in the centre of the action.

Jobs decided that Apple stores should be in Malls and on Main Streets-in areas with a lot of foot traffic, no matter how expensive.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

The salespeople were not incentivized on commissions, so they did not get pushy. They were highly trained and were given salaries. Their work was more tailored around helping people understand the Apple products.

The Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotel were seen as the best service experiences by Ron Johnson’s team.

So, for the ‘Genius Bar’,

Ron Johnson sent his first five store managers through the Ritz Carlton training program and came up with the idea of replicating something between a concierge desk and a bar.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
The Ritz Carlton lounge with a bar – in Washington D.C. Source

And Steve Jobs being Steve Jobs, was obsessive to the last detail:

In one of our marketing meetings just as the stores were opening, Steve made us spend half hour deciding what hue of gray the restroom signs should be.

Lee Clow in Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Graphic Design

The most popular (or ridiculous) story here is the story of the NeXT logo. After he was forced to leave Apple, he started NeXT. He was fairly young, and had deep pockets – he made 256 Million dollars from the Apple IPO in 1980. He wanted to spare no expense in the design and branding of NeXT.

The black cube – NeXT

Hence he hired one of the most famous names in Graphic Design – Paul Rand. He was famous for the design of the IBM logo, among others like UPS and Enron. (IBM’s CEO Thomas Watson was also someone who understood and cared for good design, but fewer people know about this.)

IBM Rebus, from original poster by Paul Rand

The computer would be a cube, Jobs pronounced. He loved that shape. It was perfect and simple. So Rand decided that the logo should be a cube as well, one that was tilted to a 28 degree angle. When Jobs asked for a number of options to consider, Rand declared that he did not create different options for clients.

“I will solve your problem, and you will pay me,” he told Jobs. “You can use what I produce, or not, but I will not do options, and either way you will pay me.”

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

And Steve Jobs agreed to pay $100,000 for one option. And this was in the 1980s.

But even in this case, the obsession with details showed through. Steve Jobs wanted a brighter yellow for the ‘e’. while Rand preferred a darker shade. Paul Rand did not comply.

However, when Paul Rand agreed to design a business card for Jobs, he wanted to put the period (.) after the “P” to the right of the letter “P”. But Steve wanted it to the left, under the curve of the “P” and this time Jobs won.

Business Card at NeXT. Source

Steve Jobs not only cared about logos, he deeply cared for product packaging too. And even the graphic design on the product packaging.

Jobs chose a full-color design and kept trying to make it look better.

“He got the guys to redo it fifty times,” recalled Alain Rossman, a member of the Mac team.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Packaging of the 1984 Mac. Source

The colorful, open shapes on the box clearly communicate the playfulness of the brand.

For contrast, here is the Commodore 64 packaging from 1982:

The Commodore 64 Package. Source

Even in the 1980s, Mac packaging was way ahead of its time. It had a simple, clean and fresh, even timeless look. But more than that, it did not show the product or the benefits of the product, but the idea behind the product.

With the Mac box, you can’t tell when the design was done, but the with the Commodore 64 box, you can. And it was the same story with the other computers of the time, like the Atari 800.

Apart from logos and packaging, Steve Jobs also had deep interest in typography, but that is already quite known, so let us look at other areas of human creativity.

Industrial Design

While initially he was a fan of Sony’s design, that changed when he attended the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1981. Here he learned about the Italian designers, as well as the German Bauhaus movement. He saw the works of Mario Bellini, who is famous (among other things) for the Olivetti Typewriters.

Olivetti Typeriter. Picture By Austin Calhoon –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bellini also designed the Fuji DL 100 Camera (1983).

Fuji DL 100. Picture By Austin Calhoon –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He also met Sergio Pininfarina, the designer of Peugeot cars.

Peugeot 504 Cabriolet designed by Sergio Pininfarina. Source

And Pininfarina also oversaw the design of – Ferraris.

But Steve Jobs was even more influenced by the Bauhaus aesthetic.

“What we’re going to do is make the products high-tech, and we are going to package them cleanly so you know they’re high tech. We will fit them in a small package, and then we can make them beautiful and white, just like Braun does with its electronics.”

Steve Jobs from his talk in the 1983 design conference

Braun’s Bauhaus style was a huge influence on Apple products – from the calculator app to the iPod.

Braun T3 Transistor Radio (1958) – inspiration for the iPod? Source

When designing the first Macintosh, he would go and study appliances like the Cuisinart, and make a lot of new suggestions to the team about lines, curves and bevels.

The patent for the design of the Apple case was issued in the name of Steve Jobs as well as Manock and Oyama (Mac Industrial Designers).

“Even though Steve didn’t draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is,” Oyama later said. “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us”

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Apple Mac case, patent D285687. Source


While not a photographer per se, Steve Jobs had a strong interest and taste for good photographs. He had a special liking for Ansel Adams prints.

Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park (1942) by Ansel Adams

When setting up his home…

The one piece of art that Jobs bought for the vaulted-ceiling living room was an Ansel Adams print of the winter sunrise in the Sierra Nevada taken from Lone Pine, California.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine (1944), by Ansel Adams

This passion for photography manifested in the now iconic Apple ‘Think Different’ campaign from 1997.

… he [Jobs] became involved in making sure they had the perfect iconic portraits.

“This is not the right picture of Gandhi,” he erupted to Clow at one point. Clow explained that the Margaret Bourke-White photograph of Gandhi at the spinning wheel was owned by Time-Life pictures and was not available for commercial use. So Jobs called Norman Pearlstine, the editor in-chief of Time Inc., and badgered him into making an exception.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel by Margaret Bourke-White (1946). Source

The campaign featured other pictures of iconic people too – people who were creators – from scientists to singers. It included Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

All the images were in Black and White, just like the Ansel Adams prints.

Maybe the passion for good photos also made it’s way into the popular biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Where he insisted that he have a say in designing the cover of the book.

His only involvement [with his biography] came when my publisher was choosing the cover art. When he saw an early version of a proposed cover treatment, he disliked it so much that he asked to have input in designing a new version. I was both amused and willing, so I readily assented.

Walter Isaacson, in Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

The Apple PR team reached out to the photographer Albert Watson for the cover image, which was taken in 2006. In this endearing video, Watson talks about how that photograph was taken.

Cover image of the official biography of Steve Jobs

What is this all about?

I could go on about he was also involved in designing electronics, materials like glass, and the hiring process at Apple. He designed everything.

But this is not about Steve Jobs. Other creators, like Marc Newson have also designed radically different, unrelated things – from clocks to shoes.

Klepsydra clock by Marc Newson. Source
NikeLab Air VaporMax by Marc Newson. Source

And I worry when creators put labels around them like UX Designer, UI Designer, Visual Designer, Industrial Designer, Service designer, Information Architect, Researcher, and the like. I understand we need labels for practical reasons, but labels should not end up defining or limiting your creativity. The ultimate goal is to make great products, after all.

From a spoon, to a city.

One thought on “From a spoon to a city

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s