A few months ago, I sat with John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple, who described Steve Jobs' primary design principle: "Not what you can add, but what you can remove." It reminded me of the first law I outlined in my book The Laws of Simplicity, that, "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction." This philosophy runs counter to a typical tech company's approach, where the goal is always to upgrade and add as opposed to subtract. It's true, for the consumer to pay more and get less defies conventional wisdom and seems to contradict economic principles. But simplified technology doesn't necessarily mean less functionality.
Apple products aren't simple technologies by any stretch, but there is a beautiful simplicity to them. How does Apple do it? In terms of the design evolution of the controls, the iPod started out simple, with one large button. It got more complex in middle-generation devices, and in the newest versions, it has oscillated back towards extreme simplicity in design , with all of the buttons now integrated into a single seamless control. With the iPhone and iPod Touch, you can't even see that control anymore.
Another thing that sets Apple apart is that the company understands the power of software. My own first computer, the Apple II, was an ugly, wedge-like box that did very little beyond rudely beeping and proclaiming "Syntax Error" when I typed anything into it. It wasn't yet smart. There was no software for it. And then the software industry grew, and grew. But Apple always understood that the platform on which the technology runs doesn't have to do too much. If it does less, others will make it do more.
And the software that Apple creates has always given their gadgets a human element that we can connect with. It was never solely in the spare and minimal lines of their latest industrial design effort. It's the way they have approached software design with the same "less is more" philosophy. Look at the success of their Apps store and at the incredible selection of utilities, games, flashlights, and other assorted digital sundries. You can see the personalities of the people that have produced the content shine through -- what should be mere assemblages of bits and bytes become human magic.
So what's next for technology and design? A lot less thinking about technology for technology's sake, and a lot more thinking about design. Art humanizes technology and makes it understandable. Design is needed to make sense of information overload. It is why art and design will rise in importance during this century as we try to make sense of all the possibilities that digital technology now affords. Apple's done it. Others want to follow suit.
Sitting at my perch as president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I've seen that at RISD, as at Apple, it's about the integrity of the work - from start to finish. It's why Jonathan Ive -- Apple's VP of Design and designer of the iMac, iBook, and iPhone -- made it clear why he accepted our invitation to be an honorary degree recipient but turned down so many others. It was because RISD is one of the few remaining places where making matters just as much as thinking -- where students aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and make something real and human. They are the ones who will drive creativity and innovation in whatever they do.
Right now, our nation sees left-brain thinking, focused on logic and reasoning, as critical to future economic development. You can see it in the emphasis on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects. What's missing from STEM is right brain thinking -- embodied by what I call the key "IDEA" (Intuition, Design, Emotion, Art). We need both both halves of the brain to work together and channel that brilliance through our hands and propagate ideas throughout our world. We all wonder why Apple's products have that je ne sais quoi that draw us in. I'm beginning to think that it's not just that they understand the power of simplicity, or the power of software. It's that you can see they were born from a person, from two dirty hands, from just a little bit of technology, and from a massively powerful IDEA.