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5 Lessons on Simplicity from Steve Jobs

5 Lessons on Simplicity from Steve Jobs

Here are five ideas, quotes, and stories from "Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success" by Ken Segall who worked with Steve to name the iMac and launch the Think Different campaign.

Five of my favorite ideas and stories on simplicity from Steve Jobs:

  1. Start with small groups of smart people—and keep them small.

  2. People will always respond better to a single idea expressed clearly.

  3. “1,000 songs in your pocket” and the power of speaking human.

  4. Good enough is not good enough. Be a ruthless enforcer of high standards.

  5. In a complicated world, marketing is about values.

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1. Start with small groups of smart people—and keep them small.

Apple encourages big thinking but small everything else. Meeting size is a good example.

Once Chiat/Day was installed as Apple’s agency of record and we’d settled into our work, we would meet with Steve Jobs every other Monday.

One particular day, there appeared in our midst a woman from Apple with whom I was unfamiliar. I don’t recall her name, as she never appeared in our world again, so for the purposes of this tale, I’ll call her Lorrie. She took her seat with the rest of us as Steve breezed into the boardroom, right on time.

Steve was in a sociable mood, so we chatted it up for a few minutes and then the meeting began. “Before we start, let me just update you on a few things,” said Steve, his eyes surveying the room. “First off, let’s talk about iMac…”

He stopped cold. His eyes locked on to the one thing in the room that didn’t look right. Pointing to Lorrie, he said, “Who are you?”

Lorrie was a bit stunned to be called out like that, but she calmly explained that she’d been asked to attend because she was involved with some of the marketing projects we’d be discussing. Steve heard it. Processed it. Then he hit her with the Simple Stick.

“I don’t think we need you in this meeting, Lorrie. Thanks,” he said. Then, as if that diversion had never occurred — and as if Lorrie had never existed — he continued with his update.

So, just as the meeting started, in front of eight or so people whom Steve did want to see at the table, poor Lorrie had to pack up her belongings, rise from her chair, and take the long walk across the room toward the door.

What Lorrie experienced was the strict enforcement of one of Simplicity’s most important rules: Start with small groups of smart people—and keep them small.

Every time the body count goes higher, you’re simply inviting Complexity to take a seat at the table.

The small-group principle is deeply woven into the religion of Simplicity. It’s key to Apple’s ongoing success and key to any organization that wants to nurture quality thinking. There’s no such thing as a “mercy invitation.” Either you’re critical to the meeting or you’re not. It’s nothing personal, just business.

When Steve called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome.

2. People will always respond better to a single idea expressed clearly.

Human beings are a funny lot. Give them one idea and they nod their heads. Give them five and they simply scratch their heads. Or even worse, they forget you mentioned all those ideas in the first place.

Minimizing is the key to making a point stick. Though this is Common Sense, it may also be the most violated principle in marketing or any other business. Your point will be more quickly understood, and more easily remembered, if you don’t clutter it up with other points.

Strangely, some of the most brilliant people on earth sometimes need to be reminded.

At one agency meeting with Steve Jobs, we were reviewing the content of a proposed iMac commercial when a debate arose about how much we should say in the commercial. The creative team was arguing that it would work best if the entire spot was devoted to describing the one key feature of this particular iMac. Steve, however, had it in his head that there were four or five really important things to say. It seemed to him that all of those copy points would fit comfortably in a thirty-second spot.

After debating the issue for a few minutes, it didn’t look like Steve was going to budge. That’s when a little voice started to make itself heard inside the head of Lee Clow, leader of the Chiat team. He decided this would be a good time to give Steve a live demonstration.

Lee tore five sheets of paper off of his notepad and crumpled them into five balls. Once the crumpling was complete, he started his performance.

“Here, Steve, catch,” said Lee, as he tossed a single ball of paper across the table. Steve caught it, no problem, and tossed it back.

“That’s a good ad,” said Lee.

“Now catch this,” he said, as he threw all five paper balls in Steve’s direction. Steve didn’t catch a single one, and they bounced on the table and floor.

“That’s a bad ad,” said Lee.

People will always respond better to a single idea expressed clearly. They tune out when Complexity begins to speak instead.

Steve Jobs with Lee Clow

3. “1,000 songs in your pocket” and the power of speaking human.

The technology that drives Apple devices is incredibly complex. One with technical expertise could write dissertations describing how these “simple”devices do what they do.

But Apple never will. It prefers to speak in more human terms.

Apple didn't describe the original iPod as a 6.5-ounce music player with a five-gigabyte drive. It simply said, "1,000 songs in your pocket." This is the way human beings communicate, so this is the way Apple communicates.

Human-speak is a hallmark of Simplicity. It's the recognition that the best way to connect with people is to put things in human terms and use the words that people use in everyday conversation.

The original tagline for the iPod.

4. Good enough is not enough. Be a ruthless enforcer of high standards.

Simplicity has a merciless side. That is, there‘s no “almost” when it comes to making things simpler.

Apple’s longtime agency Chiat/Day is so well known for its clever t-shirts, that it once published a “best of” book. One of its more famous t-shirts attempted to fight off the human instinct to settle for near perfection. It reads, “Good enough is not enough.”

To settle for second-best is a violation of the rules of Simplicity, as it plants the seeds for disappointment, extra work, and more meetings.

Your challenge is to become unbending when it comes to enforcing standards. Mercilessly so.

In Apple’s world, every manager has to be a ruthless enforcer of high standards.

We should all relish that same opportunity in our own work.

Chiat/Day’s "Good Enough is Not Enough” T-Shirt

5. In a complicated world, marketing is about values.

One of Steve Jobs’ most profound speeches, was his introduction to the Think Different campaign in 1997.

At the time, he had just come back to Apple as Interim CEO after NeXT’s acquisition and his purchase of Pixar. Steve knew that the world needed to be reminded of who Apple was and what the company stood for. Especially since he needed 6 months, as he told the team on the campaign at Chiat/Day, to fix the products and make them wonderful once again.

It was a powerful reminder that marketing is all about values. Because in a complicated, crowded, and noisy world, to stand out you first have to be different — powerfully different. And to do that, you need to be authentic and know where you stand and why.

Here’s my favorite portion of the speech:

To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it's a very noisy world, and we're not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. And so we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.

Now, Apple—fortunately—is one of the half a dozen best brands in the whole world. Right up there with Nike, Disney, Coke, Sony. It is one of the greats of the greats. Not just in this country, but all around the globe. But even a great brand needs investment and caring if it's going to retain its relevance and vitality, and the Apple brand has clearly suffered from neglect in this area in the last few years. And we need to bring it back. The way to do that is not to talk about speeds and feeds. It's not to talk about MIPS and megahertz. It's not to talk about why we're better than Windows. The dairy industry tried for twenty years to convince you that milk was good for you. It's a lie, but they tried anyway. And then they tried "got milk?" and the sales have gone like this [up]. "Got milk?" doesn't even talk about the product—matter of fact the focus is on the absence of the product.

But the best example of all, and one of the greatest jobs of marketing that the universe has ever seen, is Nike. Remember, Nike sells a commodity. They sell shoes. And yet when you think of Nike, you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, as you know, they don’t ever talk about the product. They don't ever tell you about their air soles and why they're better than Reebok's air soles. What does Nike do in their advertising? They honor great athletes, and they honor great athletics. That's who they are, that's what they are about.

Apple spends a fortune on advertising. You'd never know it. ... So, when I got here, Apple (had) just fired their agency and was in a competition with twenty-three agencies that, you know, four years from now they'd pick one. And we blew that up and we hired Chiat/Day, the ad agency that I was fortunate enough to work with years ago, who created some award-winning work, including the commercial voted the best ad ever made, 1984, by advertising professionals....

And we started working with that agency again, and the question we asked was: Our customers want to know, "Who is Apple, and what is it that we stand for? Where do we fit in this world?" And what we're about isn't making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. We do that better than almost anybody in some cases. But Apple is about something more than that. Apple at the core, its core value, is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That's what we believe... And that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that actually do.

And so what we're going to do in our first brand marketing campaign in several years is to get back to that core value. A lot of things have changed. The market is a totally different place from what it was a decade ago. And Apple is totally different, and Apple's place in it is totally different.... But values—and core values—those things shouldn't change. The things that Apple believed in at its core are the same things that Apple really stands for today.

And so we wanted to find a way to communicate this. And what we have is something that I am very moved by. It honors those people who have changed the world. Some of them are living; some of them are not.

But the ones that aren't, as you'll see—you know that if they ever used a computer, it would have been a Mac. The theme of the campaign is Think different... honoring the people who think different and who move this world forward. And it is what we are about; it touches the soul of this company…. I hope that you feel the same way about it I do.

All of these quotes and stories are from of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success. I highly recommend it. My copy is dog-earred and filled with underlines.

Buy the book →

Go deeper: Explore all of my highlights and notes from the book →

Until next week,

Daniel Scrivner

Coach to Founders & Design Leaders

Founder of Ligature: The Design VC

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