Whoa! Wait a minute. This isn’t going to be another one of those Steve Job eulogies that claim he was a total genius who changed the world forever. I am not about to claim he has become some technological deity and that we should worship at the Shrine of Jobs. I’m no Apple fanboy. Yes, I do own an iPhone, but that is where my Apple affiliation comes to an end. I use PCs rather than Macs and I am not overly fussed about owning an iPad. I find most of their stuff to be attractive but somewhat overpriced (that’s not to say that the iPhone isn’t overpriced but there are only so many overpriced things you can own). I do think, however, that there are lessons that the coalition government could learn from certain aspects of Apple’s success under Jobs’ guidance.
Before Jobs returned to Apple, they were in serious trouble. Despite its original success, it was close to bankruptcy before Jobs returned to steer the company towards the dominance it enjoys today. It is hard to believe now, but just a few years ago, Apple’s current position was unthinkable. They were far from being one of the biggest names in technology and certainly not a dominant player in the field. But the return of Jobs saw a series of developments that led them to become the largest company in the world. One of the crucial components in this turnaround was the increasingly important role of Jonathan Ive.
Ive is a British designer who attended Newcastle Polytechnic studying Art and Design. In 1992 he joined the design team at Apple and by 1998 had become vice-president of industrial design at Apple. His work led to a number of fairly stunningly designed pieces of equipment from the attractively coloured iMacs to the beautiful simplicity of the iPod and the ‘game-changing’ iPhone. Little wonder Fortune magazine described him as the ‘Smartest Designer’ in Tech during 2010.
What Jobs realised early on was that it is not enough to simply produce clever pieces of kit, they also needed to be attractive to appeal to consumers. This is why Ive’s role was so crucial to the resurgence of Apple. Would any of those devices had sold so many units if they weren’t so attractively designed? Possibly, possibly not. But their success do underline one overriding key factor in their success: the combination of design and technology.
The arts and the sciences have often been seen as separate and distinct disciplines. However, the line (if there ever truly was one) has become increasingly blurred as we have moved into the technological age. There is increasing overlap between the two as technology improves and evolves (I speak, by the way, as a graduate in the arts who is currently studying an MSc). In the technology arena, bringing together the two disciplines brings you very tangible advantages as Apple discovered (or perhaps already ).
So it is with this that it seems strange that the coalition government has stuck to the old ideas around the separation of art and science. The introduction of a new regime for funding higher education has led to massive cuts to funding for the arts. And it is not just university funding that has been slashed, a desire to focus on ‘traditional’ core subjects at secondary schools will ensure that the arts will be further marginalised. The chances of another Jonathan Ive emerging from the system being created by this coalition looks extremely unlikely.
It would certainly appear that our government has not fully understood the developments of the last few years. As Apple have demonstrated, it is not sufficient to simply develop the science without an additional degree of design development. One feeds into the other and they cannot be seen as working in isolation from each other if you want to produce a successful product, certainly not in the field of technology. Surely if we want to have our own Apples we should be encouraging art and design as much as the ‘traditional’ subjects? As Paul Thompson of the Royal College of Art puts it:
“The creativity of a designer takes an invention that might potentially lie on a laboratory bench, adds the design thinking, and that helps commercialise that idea.”
Design is an absolutely fundamental component of the most successful tech companies. Cut funding to art and design and the impact will be felt across the sector.
Sadly, this appears to be typical of the simplistic thinking of the coalition: the destruction of what are entirely symbiotic relationships (see also their assault on the public sector). We live in an age of information and sophisticated information delivery. Science and the arts can no longer be divided between worthy and non-worthy based on the prejudices of a few traditionalists. There is a lesson to be learnt from the successes of Jobs and Apple, unfortunately the coalition have failed to grasp it.