Designers Who Read

Needing Jobs by Ralph Caplan

1000 words
5 mins
Originally published 4/11/2011

Catch up on the article

Yes, this link is to one of the many tributes from the time of Steve Jobs' death, but it's a reminder of how design can win the recognition it deserves in the mainstream, when handled with impenetrable charm.

Although Caplan's claim that, through the thousands of sincere laudations Jobs received, that perhaps the recognition that design = good business sense was finally getting through, I cannot agree. For me, it reiterated for clients that design is best in the hands of big business, Jobs being the modern Walt Disney — a visionary, larger than life, with words of good design advice that were absorbable to anyone. This meant the small business manager felt, reading these words, as forward-thinking as he was. The normal, everday mid-size design studio still sits on the periphery.

Or you may disagree entirely!

Reader discussion

Oct. 10, 2014, 5:31 p.m.— Rachel

Nevertheless, he will go down in history as a personality and advocate for design in everyday life (life being technologically-driven) and someone we can always quote when trying to get a point across about design's value.

Oct. 10, 2014, 4:31 p.m.— Anonymous

Yes, designers of the future will quote Steve Jobs like moral hysterics quote hitler :)

Oct. 10, 2014, 3:31 p.m.— aidnco

I'd contend that Jobs brought design recognition, per se. I think Jobs' true innovation was to transform design (the industry, the process) to 'Design', a consumable product. This is hardly the first time in history this has happened—think back to the International Style—but Jobs' placement of it in tech, a field far more inclined to fiat than cultural capital, explicitly placed it in dollar value terms. Jobs' specific design ideology matters less to designers in mid-size studios, who usually have their own ideas about their business, than it matters towards Apple's brand as a whole. To be attractive, exclusive, human-oriented, powerful—not only did these elements of Jobs' attitude towards design inform Apple's branding, they also served as key tenants of 21st century capitalism (whether Apple is the chicken or the egg is debatable). This has the flow-on effect, I believe, of causing (some) small business owners—and almost all large ones—to see design as an add-on to enhance business.

It is interesting, though, to see where this idea of graphic design as a consumer product fails. On one side, it runs up against the very old belief in the meaninglessness of surface (in the West, inherited from Christian thought on the eternal soul and virtuousness, and before that, Platonic thought). This conflict—where the possession of a design becomes more important than the act of designing—results in solutions like 99Designs. Here, 'having a design' is more important than the quality, and is supported by the old suspicion that someone selling something very expensive is simply trying to con you. Especially when, for a fixed price, you can add on a design to your business, much as you would add a premium to your insurance. It is a conflict that would not exist—certainly not to the same extent—without Jobs' conflation of the cultural and real capital.

Oct. 10, 2014, 2:31 p.m.

Interesting reading, aidnco!

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