A new book says Steve Jobs’ obsession with simplicity was his greatest contribution to Apple.
After Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of Steve Jobs and hisHarvard Business Review piece distilling the leadership lessons to be drawn from Jobs’ life, it may be tough to imagine that there is more to be said about Jobs’ leadership genius. But Ken Segall has written a new book, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, that offers some intriguing insights from someone who worked closely with Jobs on some of Apple’s most successful ad campaigns.
Segall is a longtime advertising creative director who collaborated on campaigns at NeXT and at Apple. Part of the team that dreamed up the Think different campaign, he also came up with the name “iMac,” that would lead to the “i” in a series of successful Apple products. In the book, he comes off as one who could withstand Jobs’ unruly temper and frequent outbursts. In fact he claims to have liked Jobs’ directness because, he writes, it led to clear, no-nonsense communication. Segall’s thesis: Jobs’ greatest single contribution was his focus on simplicity. Herewith, some of the leadership lessons Segall says he learned from Steve Jobs.
Simpler is always better. In the book’s opening anecdote, workers in Apple’s package-design unit have slaved for weeks over new packaging for two versions of the same product. Then they go into a meeting with Jobs, who tells them to forget the two different kinds of packaging. “Just combine them,” Jobs says. “One product, one box.”
Blunt communication works. Segall describes how Jobs hated a campaign Segall and his team had pitched for the NeXT computer. The art director had used an old-fashioned, hand-illustrated woodcut style. After Jobs rejected the ads, the team quickly put together a new, more futuristic-looking pitch. Jobs liked it, but insisted on going around the table and giving each team member a grade. He gave the art director an “F,” blaming him for the previous blunder and saying, “If you can’t do a better job than that you’re going to have to replace yourself.” Though many people found Jobs’ communication style offensive, Segall insists there is great value in bluntness because it leaves no room for confusion, distraction or complexity.
Good leaders can compartmentalize. Segall says that Jobs could keep things simple by being immune to attacks. When he came back to Apple in 1997 and banned Mac clones, many customer were extremely upset, and lashed out. Jobs just compartmentalized the criticism and kept on moving toward his goal.
Small groups work better. Although Apple is a huge company with more than 60,000 employees, Segall says that Jobs insisted on keeping meetings small, restricted to people who would be discussing the topic at hand. There are no spectators in Apple meetings.
Keep things minimal and move quickly. Segall also worked with IBM,Intel, Dell and BMW, and he describes the difference between Apple’s mode of deciding on ad campaigns versus Intel’s and Dell’s. When it came to selecting a campaign at Intel, the company would make three different choices, run focus groups, produce all the campaigns, test them with focus groups again, revise them, run them on TV, and test them yet again. At Apple, a small group sits around a table and makes a choice. The contrast with Dell is similar. At Dell, writes Segall, committees pondered possible campaigns for months, with various divisions weighing in and endless conversations about strategies. In Segall’s experience, Apple moved forward quickly, getting approval from Jobs, and putting out a campaign within a month.
Simple names are superior. One of the most intriguing parts of Segall’s book is his chapter on naming Apple products, where he says simplicity rules. Apple does not hire outside naming experts, instead relying on a small internal team and a group of advertising consultants, including Segall, who came up with “iMac.” Jobs preferred “MacMan.” Segall couldn’t stand the name, with its gender bias, its echoing of the Sony Walkman, and the game Pacman. Segall calmly stuck with “iMac” and suggested it in two separate presentations to Jobs, who finally decided he liked it after silk-screening the name onto a machine to see how it looked. Jobs never thanked Segall but Segall sees the triumph of the name as simplicity winning out over complexity.
Simplicity is human. Despite the technological complexity of Apple products, the company always describes them not according to their technical specifications, like, say, a five-gigabyte drive on an iPod, but rather, as “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Here Segall concedes how difficult it can be to find a simple way to describe something complex. But he notes that Apple has communicated in a matter-of-fact, non-technical way for 30 years, so that this kind of accessible language is “burned into the system.”
Simplicity even works in retail. Then there are the Apple stores, which defy big box retailing trends, selling Apple products at full price when Walmart, Best-Buy and Target carry most of the same items at a discount. Segall calls the stores “shrines to Simplicity,” albeit brilliantly designed, made with high-quality materials like Italian floor tiles and stainless steel manufactured in Tokyo. What is simple is the focus on quality, uncluttered and inviting design and fantastic customer service.
In Segall’s view, the legacy of simplicity that Jobs established is already outliving the company’s co-founder. He calls it a “companywide obsession.” Writes Segall, “Steve instilled the religion of Simplicity deep into the soul of the company, so that Apple could continue to thrive for many years to come.”