The transformative power of the creative spirit
Much has been written about the genius of Steve Jobs, who passed away on October 5. Comparisons to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other 20th century innovators have flooded the media. For the Apple faithful, grieving will be of the same magnitude as that accorded to rock stars and presidents. For those not smitten by the devotion Apple can elicit, his passing will nonetheless be marked as a milestone. I will remember him as someone who helped me better appreciate the transformative power of creativity.
In my blog posts over the years, I have focused on brand management issues from which I have gained insights worthy of sharing. I deviate here slightly to a more personal tone to remember the impact of a man whose character, vision and beliefs touched and changed my professional trajectory.
Throughout my career, I spent thousands of hours using Apple technologies to execute my creative efforts as a designer and communicator. From those interactions, it is easy to discern Steve Job’s ideas about creativity and culture and their relationship to technology. I can also see strands of his beliefs woven through my professional development by virtue of such intense interaction with them. Looking back across that history, I see three sets of experiences in particular where those values rose to the surface and made a difference to me and to others.
Close encounters of the Mac kind
My first real encounter with Apple was during a stint in the 80s as art director of Progressive Architecture, one of the leading journals in the field. As with most of my peers, an average day would swing between the ridiculous and the sublime – the slavery of pasting up galleys and the joy of working with editors and photographers to showcase the most exciting architecture of the time.
John Morris Dixon, the PA editor, was mildly amused by my desire to ask Apple to lend us a few Macintoshes “to play with.” While I wasn’t really sure why I was asking, I sensed that along with salvation from paste-up tedium, there was massive creative potential to be unleashed, and I hoped to be one of the first to unleash it.
Our wish was fulfilled a month or so later. I can’t recall exactly how many Macs we received from Apple, but I do remember pushing my humble 128K machine and the dot-matrix printer close to meltdown as I explored the wonders of MacPaint, the original design software. There was something visceral and sensually satisfying in all the humming and clicking that the little beige box and its companion printer were pumping out.
The more I explored, the more I realized that the technologies I was “playing with” were extending design possibilities like nothing I had experienced. I remember feeling what it must have been like to have discovered graphite or invented the rapidograph. There was only one possible outcome that could be unleashed by a hungry, creative mind: technology as a weapon of mass innovation.
With a trust I still marvel at, John agreed that I should design the May 1984 cover of the magazine – a special issue on computers in architecture ¬– using the Mac. From today’s perspective, that Progressive Architecture cover (left), possibly the first magazine cover designed on a Mac, was a crude set of scratchings.
But that original 128K computer, neolithic by today’s standards, opened up creative possibilities that were inconceivable even a year earlier. While it is the nature of the design process to explore, what Jobs made possible was the ability to accelerate and deepen that creative exploration. Every subsequent hardware and software product that he and his teams have created, not only helped democratize creativity, but also enriched the modern design process, taking it to levels that continue to stimulate creative professionals today.
Taking others there
Several years later, in 1987, I was recruited to head the Graphic Design Department at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. My experience moving from a design director job in New York to the world of academia in the Middle East was both exhilarating and challenging. It was exciting being granted the opportunity to shape the development of so many potential designers. It was also a frustrating period given the highly politicized, old guard environment that characterized this academic department.
But I did have one powerful ally – my Mac. After embracing it, wrestling with it (and arguing with my wife over who got to use it), this little machine began to push my creative limits. I sensed that this transformative experience could also matter to the 100+ students I was responsible for.
Politics in the department went from bad to worse. I knew that I would not have the patience to manage the department for a second year, which probably sharpened my resolve to make a mark by introducing the Mac to the department while I was still there. After several rounds of negotiations with the head of the academy, I managed to secure funds and a commitment to a lab to ensure the proper integration of the computers into the curriculum. In mid-1988, I watched my students flood into one of the first design school computer labs in Europe and the Middle East.
But it was not until a chance meeting 20 years later that I understood the magnitude of what this meant for the hundreds of students who have graduated since. I met Oded on a visit to the academy four or five years ago. It was another poignant contrast – he had taught me to set type in lead by hand a decade prior to my being head of the department and was now responsible for the computer lab. He remarked, “You probably don’t realise how much you changed the world here when you introduced the Mac.”
Steve Jobs was out to change the world. His vision always saw creativity as a fundamental tool to that end. So in a sense, I was simply passing my enrichment from this onto the next generation of designers. The credit for introducing those Macs into Bezalel is entirely his.
A crisis of faith
For the next 13 years, I counted myself among the “Apple faithful.” My position as Creative Director and then Managing Director in a global brand consultancy afforded the opportunity to test and use almost every product that Apple introduced. But ten years ago, I lost that faith on the way to a new business meeting.
Travelling from London to Tel Aviv to pitch to one of the country’s largest companies, my laptop crashed and I lost most of the data. Fortunately, a backup provided minor salvation. However, when the same thing happened again within the space of a month, with the same potential client, I knew our business could not tolerate such losses given my critical role in securing new clients.
I had never used a computer with a Microsoft operating system. So our IT head, Jake, agreed when I ordered him to lock me in a room (not a metaphor) and not let me out until I knew how to use it. It was a painful experience, illuminating every reason why no one on the planet should be forced to use a Microsoft product. But within two days, my IBM ThinkPad had the beginnings of my next new business presentation and my relationship with Apple was history. I eventually won the client engagement, duly supported by my sturdy and stable IBM laptop.
Ironically, it was three years later when I read about IBM’s proposed divestiture of its laptop division to Lenovo that caused me to rethink my newly formed allegiance to Microsoft. I had seen evidence in the design studio of the improving stability of the Apple operating system, that had resulted from Steve Job’s return to Apple in 1996 and was tempted by the recently launch iPod, the darling of the music world.
Only today, eight year later, have I realised that my return to the “Apple fold” then was a direct result of Jobs’ return to Apple in ’96 and the new energy he brought back into the company. Many speculate whether Apple would have survived, if Jobs had not “brought its soul back”. His vision was that much richer by having been away and striking out in the new directions he pursued (Pixar and NeXT.) And on his return, that vision became clearer and more tenacious – design must be integral to the technology we employ if it is to be relevant and human. It has been a key pillar that has enabled Apple to thrive.
The significance of this for me was perhaps deepened by my own return. The day before he died, I returned to the SF Bay Area where I grew up, after living for 24 years in Europe and the Middle East. It is a personal change with huge professional implications. I realise that having been away from the US for so long, I return with a broader perspective that has value, which I hope to share with others. His passing crystallizes something all too obvious, but never overtly considered amid our frenetic lives: acknowledging where we have been, knowing where we are going and knowing why is a prerequisite to changing the world.
Reflecting on the professional values of the very private person that Steve Jobs was, it is striking that so many of us who never met the man, considered themselves close to him. It is clear that Steve Jobs’ death has NOT elicited such an enormous outpouring at personal level because he helped create the world’s largest company (by market capitalization.) It is clear his strong belief and admonition to have the courage to follow your heart has touched many. That belief shaped Apple as a company, influenced those of us who rely on its products for exploration and connection and bonded a community of like-minded individuals.
For me, the legacy of Steve Jobs and the values he espoused will remain lodged forever between grey matter and heart. I will miss his presence as a powerful reminder that creativity, combined with vision and courage, is the most powerful way to change the world.