10/11/2011 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2011

The Real Innovation of Steve Jobs

With the untimely death of Steve Jobs has come an outpouring of commentary about the role design played in the success of Apple's products. In a country that sometimes seems blind to the value of design, Jobs recognized that humans respond to what good design brings to our lives: beauty, simplicity, clarity, and community. Designers have long argued this point, but there exists no more effective proof of it than the popularity of Apple's products and the profound sense of loss that Apple customers have shown at Jobs' passing.

As the dean of a design college, I hope that good will comes of this loss and that, following Steve Jobs' lead, people will pay more attention to the design; it's certainly in our best interest to do so. Writers about design, like the best-selling author Daniel Pink and the business-school dean Roger Martin have shown how better designed products, environments, and services improve the quality of our lives, and how design-savvy companies regularly out-perform their competitors. But the lessons of Steve Jobs' life go far beyond successful product design.

He showed how design represents an often overlooked and under appreciated form of leadership. We typically look to politicians and elected officials for leadership, something that we have seen far too little of coming from our capitals in recent years. Steve Jobs embodied a different type of leadership, one that entails looking over the horizon to a future that others do not yet see, telling compelling stories about what that means and imagining appropriate responses to it - and then marshaling the forces, attracting the funding, and organizing the people necessary to make that future happen.

Steve Jobs did that incredibly well, as do good designers everywhere when creating things no one knew they needed or ever imagined before. What set Jobs apart, though, was not just his design and organizational skill, but the future that he saw for us and the products that he thought we needed in order to get there. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad are not just high-tech devices that enable us to do things better or more efficiently; those products almost compel us to own them because of what they embody: advanced technology that connects us to some of the most ancient and fundamental human activities.

In that sense, Apple's recent devices counter the sometimes perverse aspects of modern technology. While most such technology allows us do things more quickly, safely, and efficiently than ever before, it has also isolated us from each other and the world around us as never before. Some technologies, like cars, planes, and telephones have held out the promise of re-connecting us to each other and to nature, but they have largely encouraged us to do just the opposite: to live even further apart and have even fewer face-to-face interactions. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad have reversed that. The lightness, simplicity, and intuitiveness of these tools have made them less like other technologies, which tend to come between us, and more like extensions of ourselves, giving us the immediacy of expression, quickness of communication, and information-gather ability that our human ancestors had when they lived in small, tribal communities.

Just look at how we use these devices. The iPod provides us with the music that defines our tribal sub-cultures, the iPhone gives us close-ups of people as if talking with them face-to-face, and the iPad recalls the first slate-like tablets on which ancient people wrote and drew. These products, combined with search engines like Google and social media like Facebook, have helped achieve what media guru Marshal McLuhan called "the global village," unobtrusively shrinking our world in ways that more intrusive modern technologies have not.

The passing of Steve Jobs serves as a kind of passing of the torch to the rest of us to continue working toward a future he saw, in which technology becomes so minimal, so energy efficient and resourceful, and so much an extension and support of ourselves that it almost disappears.

Therein lies the perfect paradox of what Steve Jobs accomplished. He showed us how the most sophisticated technology should not look like technology and that the use of media need not feel mediated at all. It isn't the loss of Steve Jobs, the person that so many people mourn, since after all, most of us never knew him. I think that the grief surrounding his death shows, instead, how profoundly his vision affected us and how much work we still have to do to achieve it. We owe him that -- and ourselves.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.