The Parable of the Concept Car

There’s a great article in this month’s Time magazine on Steve
Jobs and Apple’s success, even though the company operates counter what
conventional wisdom dictates.

One bit that really caught my attention was Steve’s “Parable of the Concept Car”:

Ask Apple CEO Steve Jobs about it, and he’ll tell you an instructive
little story. Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. “Here’s what you
find at a lot of companies,” he says, kicking back in a conference room
at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks
something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod.
“You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four
years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What
happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They
grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea.
Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we
can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then
they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build
that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

When Jobs took up his present position at Apple in 1997, that’s the
situation he found. He and Jonathan Ive, head of design, came up with
the original iMac, a candy-colored computer merged with a cathode-ray
tube that, at the time, looked like nothing anybody had seen outside of
a Jetsons cartoon. “Sure enough,” Jobs recalls, “when we took it to the
engineers, they said, ‘Oh.’ And they came up with 38 reasons. And I
said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I
said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.’ And so they
kind of begrudgingly did it. But then it was a big hit.”

I think this is a common downfall of many organizations and projects and it
results from a sort of “design by committee”.  Fred Brooks makes a similar
point in The Mythical Man Month with regards to building software:

Simplicity and straightforwardness proceed from conceptual
integrity.  Every part must reflect the same philosophies and the
same balancing of desiderata.  Every part must even use the same
techniques in syntax and analogous notations in semantics. 

Concpetual integrity in turn dictates that the design must proceed
from one mind, or from a very small number of agreeing resonant minds.

In the case of Apple, Steve Jobs is the bolt that holds the whole
structure together and the success of Apple can be directly related to
Jobs’ vision.  From concept to implementation, he enforces coceptual integrity at all levels of the organization.

think the significance of conceptual integrity struck me when I was sitting in OfficeMax one day as my wife
was looking for some supplies for school.  Christopher Lowell’s Seven Layers of Design: Fearless, Fabulous Decorating
was sitting on a desk that was next to the executive chair that I was
fiddling with.  In summary, Lowell drives each of the project rooms
in the book with his “seven layers of design” to demonstrate how easy it
is to change a room from drab to fab in seven easy steps (yes, that
sounded non-hetero in my head, too).  As I flipped through it, I
couldn’t help but admire how he made his philosophy so succint and consistently applied it throughout the book; it made it seem so easy.

I think the lesson to be learned from this is the importance of
conceptual integrity from design to implmentation.  Good designs
often fall flat in implementation due to poor adherence to the core
concepts and ideas of the designer.

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