Design is how it works

John Gruber has written an important critique of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. To me, the following is the most interesting core of the argument:

Prior to Jobs’s return to Apple, design was what happened at the end of the engineering process. Post-Jobs, engineering became a component of the design process. This shift made all the difference in the world.

Isaacson does not understand this.

My impression is that most technologists, journalists, analysts, and certainly the general public do not understand this either. But it is fundamental, and it is indeed the core of what I have always been most interested in doing. I use engineering to solve design goals.

It’s strange that this is a point of confusion, because engineers have always been tasked with creating products that are useful for humans. Perhaps the problem is that as engineering became more complex over time, engineers increasingly focused on their subfields, analyzing the quantitative properties of materials and semiconductors, and were no longer trained in what used to be called “ergonomics.” User-centered design is really just a return to the original intention of engineering — to create technology for humans. It is a reminder that the human side of the equation is just as important as the scientific side, and that these two are intimately connected.

Gruber points out a 5-word Steve Jobs quote that Isaacson should have paid better attention to:

Design is how it works.

In Gruber’s words: “engineering should and can be part of the art of design.”

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