Nov 212014

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s “Jobs,” the recently-released bio of the Apple/Macintosh/Pixar pioneer. While I didn’t care much about his personality, his ideas and approaches were amazing. His original iPod Shuffle had no display, little in the way of actual controls, but was as simple as it gets. Jobs built his computer brand around simple operation, a stripped-down interface, around Zen art.

He liked to keep things simple, and maybe even idiot-proof. Although the old SPARC operating system played with the concept of a graphical interface, Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the first to really pull it off with the old MacIntosh. This made computers much more accessible, because clicking on an icon is a lot simpler and friendlier than trying to remember what to type at the command line. And despite what Microsoft loyalists say, the first Windows system looked like a dead ringer for the old Mac interface.

I don’t know if it’s the ease of operation and the art of minimalism that drives Apple’s success these days or its cult factor. I’d say both, but I’ll give extra weight to simplicity.

But Jobs still had his over-engineering (or more correctly, over-designing) moments — the company could have slid down the toilet while he vacillated between a pure white or smoke-gray computer housing. Even in the name of simplicity, the wheels sometimes fall off.

Keeping things simple. That in itself is an art. Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist put it well:

“Making the simple complicated is easy. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Think about it. It’s like the hoary tale about the public speaker who said if you wanted him to talk for 15 minutes he could have it ready in a couple of days. If you want him to speak for two hours, he’s ready now.

Anybody can come up with a convoluted mess. The real art is in trimming it down to a manageable size and simplicity.

Notice this. Mingus did not say anything about making things easy. As a bandleader he was a taskmaster with an explosive temper, and he liked to change timing structures right underneath the soloist. His piece “Passions Of A Woman Loved” shifts through multiple time signatures, and the band really had to be on the ball.

But if you can get something as densely-packed as a Mingus composition or as wide-ranging as Apple’s computing concept and make it simple, that’s creating.

(Video: Charles Mingus, on a 1964 concert tour. He wrote this song for his alto sax player Eric Dolphy, who was the second sax soloist.)


If you’re so inclined …

You can get Jobs for your Kindle here. I think I rated this book four stars out of five.

Disclaimer: I get a small commission for copies sold through this site. If enough of y’all order, you might even defray the cost of my own copy. But it’s a good read.