Since his death, Steve Jobs has been put at the top of many lists of the most important CEOs of our time and also on top many lists of our most creative figures. And deservedly so. Jobs’ contribution was to culminate one era and to help launch another.
The field we call industrial design grew out of the industrial revolution, and our current approach to industrial design originated at the Bauhaus, a school active in Germany between the world wars. The Bauhaus philosophy was that the design of an object—a tea kettle, a lamp, a chair, indeed anything—should reflect how and of what materials it is made, should indicate how to use it, and should communicate the spirit of its time. Jobs recaptured that Bauhaus ideal and brought it to new heights. In so doing, we can say that one of his achievements was a culmination of the industrial age. His other achievement, in the adoption and forwarding of the graphical user interface that is now ubiquitous on computers and mobile devices, was to move us deeper into our emerging era of visual thinking.
Since the Greek adoption of a phonetic alphabet, we have associated thought with words, and the era of print deepened that association. Recall Michelangelo’s father’s desire that he become a scholar, not a sculptor. We can see the ongoing bias against visual thinking in the marginalization of artists, but also in the sciences, where, for example, Niels Bohr objected to the now universally accepted diagrams Richard Feynman developed to present his interpretation of quantum electrodynamics. Bohr stated that quantum phenomena cannot be understood through spatial metaphors, only through abstract formulas.
The mathematician and inventor of fractals, Benoît Mandelbrot, faced similar criticism from other mathematicians who insisted that his fractals were not valid tools for understanding nature—only formulas qualified. And today the mathematician and computer scientist, Stephen Wolfram, faces objections to his use of cellular automata to model mathematical and physical phenomena. But as the visual screen has now replaced the printed page as our dominant means to convey information and entertainment, visual thought is fast becoming our dominant mode of experience. Steve Jobs played a major role in that transformation, so that at the same time he brought one era to a culmination, he helped launch the next.