Better Design and LSD: 5 Crucial Lessons Designers Can Learn from Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs took a single idea, and transformed it into one of the most successful businesses in history. In this post we’ll look at five lessons – including quotes from Jobs himself – which designers can use to improve their work (and business).

Much of Steve Jobs’ success grew from seeing things differently: in fact, he cited LSD as “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”.

But don’t worry: popping acid tablets is not a prerequesite to design success. It does, however, tie in with one of Jobs’ most important rules for success which is to…

Combine Existing Ideas to Create New Ones

It happened in an orchard. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were in the middle of an important discussion: they recently developed a computing system which would (as it turned out) change the world.

But the problem was, they didn’t have a name for it. They exchanged ideas during their walk – which just so happened to be an apple orchard – and Jobs named the company right then and there.

The result? Success. A combination of old and new. A product so radically different and ground-breaking, under a name that was immediately familiar to everyone.

Designers can take this lesson to heart. How many times have you seen images which combine two familiar elements into something new and exciting? Furthermore, how can you train yourself to notice these changes and incorporate them into your design?

Jobs himself believes that “creativity is just connecting things.” So the next time you find yourself stuck, take two elements (one closely associated with the market, the other completely unrelated) and blend them together.

That’s how Apple Computers got started. Same with mythological creatures like mermaids, satyrs and minotaurs. Or Travelocity. Or Hipmunk.

And even if your attempts fall flat, remember to…

Treat Failure Like A Teacher

Steve Jobs is unquestionably one of the most successful businessman in history. And like many other giants of industry, he’d had several spectacular failures as well.  But what separates Jobs is his light-hearted ability to learn from those failures, and use those lessons to cultivate future success.

As he once said, “I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year…. It’s very character-building.”

All designers fail. Mockups which don’t work, logos which don’t “pop”, etc. The key is to ask yourself why it didn’t work, and avoid that in the future.

You must be specific. Don’t say “this sucks”; instead, try “this design doesn’t work because…” and fill in the blank.

This lesson – used in conjunction with lesson #1 – will help you grow and refine your design skills faster than you ever imagined.
Of course, you also need to…

Be in Love!

With your work, I mean. Or as Jobs puts it: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”

Designers fall into this trap: they want to design A, but wind up designing B, C and D because “that’s what pays”. Yes, paying the bills is important. But focusing on your passion (be it logos, print or abstract) will grow your skills faster. Plus, you’ll actually enjoy doing it.

Take a look at job boards for designers (here’s 10 to get you started) and see what businesses are looking for. Learn to spot related themes – either by design style or market – and focus on that niche. It will do three things: make you stand out as a specialist, help you focus on your passion and most importantly…

Be Recognized as “Best in Class”

Let’s face it: passion shows. And once you’ve set a high benchmark for yourself, others began to take notice.

Steve Jobs recommends you “be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

In other words: raise the bar for yourself, and others will follow. When you dedicate yourself to the best, your coworkers will step it up a notch as well.

Even more importantly, your clients will recognize this. Being recognized as the best will often gain clients trust beforehand, and allow you to charge higher rates for your expertise (there will also be a market for the best!).
Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Which is why you should…

Never Design for Clients

This may seem like professinal suicide at first. After all, in order to keep doing what you love, your clients need to love what you do, right?

Yes. But that doesn’t mean the client should have their say in every step throughout the process. In fact, if they really want your best work, they should stay out of your way.

Steve Jobs created products no one knew existed, and made people fall in love with them. Could you imagine trying to pitch someone on the idea of an iPod? Tough sell, I’m sure. That’s why Jobs believes…

“It’s hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show them.”

That’s why you should rarely (if ever) show clients your early mockups. If you aren’t fully satisfied with it, don’t show them. Even if they ask.

If they want top-notch design, they’ve got to let you work it out. That is why they hired you, right?

I know, I know… easier said than done. If you find yourself struggling with a difficult client, try following these tips to effectively deal with the situation.

So there you go: five valuable lessons from Steve Jobs. What other suggestions do you have? Let me know in the comments below!

About the Author: Adam Costa is a business consultant who helps companies develop marketing materials, including sell sheet printing and product brochures.

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