There’s been a lot written about Steve Jobs in the past week, a lot of it worthy of reading, but one piece you probably didn’t see is David Galbraith’s piece on Jobs’ similarity to architect Norman Foster. The essay is a bit all over the place, which replicates the experience of talking to David in person, but it’s littered with insight and goodness (ditto).
The answer is what might be called the sand pile model and it operated at Apple and Fosters, the boss sits independently from the structural hierarchy, to some extent, and can descend at random on a specific element at will. The boss maintains control of the overall house style by cleaning up the edges at the same time as having a vision for the whole, like trying to maintain a sand pile by scooping up the bits that fall off as it erodes in the wind. This is the hidden secret of design firms or prolific artists, the ones where journalists or historians agonize whether a change in design means some new direction when it just means that there was a slip up in maintaining the sand pile.
And I love this paragraph, which integrates Foster, Jobs, the Soviet Union, Porsche, Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga, and even an unspoken Coca-Cola into an extended analogy:
Perfecting the model of selling design that is compatible with big business, Foster simultaneously grew one of the largest architecture practices in the world while still winning awards for design excellence. The secret was to design buildings like the limited edition, invite only Porsches that Foster drove and fellow Porsche drivers would commission them. Jobs went further, however, he managed to create products that were designed like Porsches and made them available to everyone, via High Tech that transcended stylistic elements. An Apple product really was high technology and its form followed function, it went beyond the Porsche analogy by being truly fit for purpose in a way that a Porsche couldn’t, being a car designed for a speed that you weren’t allowed to drive. Silicon Valley capitalism had arguably delivered what the Soviets had dreamed of and failed, modernism for the masses. An iPhone really is the best phone you can buy at any price. To paraphrase Andy Warhol: Lady Gaga uses an iPhone, and just think, you can have an iPhone too. An iPhone is an iPhone and no amount of money can get you a better phone. This was what American modernism was about.