According to QZ, retired industrial designer Harmut Esslinger’s new memoir, Keep It Simple, sheds light on Steve Jobs’ true role as a design visionary at Apple.
Hint: Jobs was no Picasso.
Esslinger, founder of Frog Design, submitted a “Red Book” design portfolio to Apple in 1982, hoping to land a contract with the fast-rising computer company.
In those days, Jobs was deeply appreciative of design and knew that attractive packaging would bring computers to the next level in society, but he was still “no design genius.” Jobs and his team of designers/engineers fought hard within Apple to implement Esslinger’s work into the products, and Frog Design’s “Snow White” design language was eventually incorporated in the Apple IIc.
Esslinger claims he explained to Jobs the importance of leadership in design — the idea that the person at the top of the organizational chart should be as deeply obsessed with aesthetic details as a lowest-level artist. Jobs, always famous for his attention-to-detail, had no problem taking this advice to heart. According to Business Insider, he once spent 30 minutes debating the shade of grey to be used in Apple Store bathroom signs.
Many parts of Esslinger’s book seem to be taking credit for Jobs’ overall philosophy. Esslinger writes that, “Steve didn’t really know much about design, but he liked German cars. Leveraging that connection, I explained that design like that has to be a complete package, that it must express the product’s very soul.”
Esslinger, it seems, may be just as megalomaniacal — and eager to take credit — as his former boss. At one point, Apple was paying Frog Design $1,000,000/year for an exclusive contract, and all of Apple’s internal designers reported to Esslinger.
Apple Senior Vice President of Design Jony Ive is the man to thank for many of the products we millennials are familiar with — the iPad, iPod, iMac, etc.
With his new book, Esslinger seems to be making a grab for a slice of Jobs’ public glory, but his claim as the father of Apple’s design-centric culture may only boost Jobs’ image. As a business leader, of course, it was never Jobs’ role to sit down and draw product blueprints himself — he just needed to hire the right people. Whether or not he was ever a “design genius,” I’m more impressed with the managerial prowess Jobs showed in handling an ego like Esslinger.