The Ultimate Lessons From Steve Jobs, Teacher

The well-deserved attention paid to the design of Apple products has tended to obscure the creative energy Steve Jobs invested in designing other elements of Apple. So what can we learn from Steve Jobs, Teacher? He was a great designer, all right. But his talent only began with the design of the product.



[Editor’s note: As we consider the legacy of Steve Jobs, we wanted to look at some of the greatest lessons he taught us as businesspeople and designers. Click here for more stories about Steve Jobs.] 

In search of clues to explain the “genius” of Steve Jobs and his success at the helm of Apple, people have analyzed practically every element of his personal history, from his youthful love of the rock music of the sixties to his experimentation with Buddhist teachings and psychedelic drugs.

It’s probably a stretch to connect some of these details with Jobs’s business acumen. But one connection Jobs himself made was to his lifelong infatuation with great visual design. In fact, in his classic Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs talked about how a calligraphy course he attended at Reed College left a deep imprint on the esthetic sense he brought to Apple products. (At the very least, it ensured that Mac computers would all be outfitted with multiple type fonts and variable character spacing, artistic niceties once reserved for designers and other specialists.)

Whatever the source of Jobs’s esthetic inspiration, there’s no question he set a new standard for design in technology. Where computers once were boring boxes, he made them anything but.

However, the well-deserved attention paid to the design of Apple products has tended to obscure the creative energy Jobs invested in designing other elements of Apple. So what can we learn from Steve Jobs, Teacher? He was a great designer, all right. But his talent only began with Design¹–the design of the product. Equally important are Design², Design³, and Designx4–though those are much more rarely commented on.


Design²: The Customer Experience

Even the casual visitor to an Apple store is certain to encounter a unique cultural experience that is carefully orchestrated, from the design of the space to the array of devices within easy reach to the friendly greeters to the helpful experts at the genius bar. The environment creates a positive emotional tone that customers come to associate with Apple and Apple products, transforming millions of them from browsers into first-time customers and then into lifelong aficionados.

The Apple store is just the start of Jobs’s artful design of the customer experience. There’s the product experience itself, beginning with the moment a person opens the box (the packaging itself is notably elegant), turns on the device, and is immediately greeted by a welcome video.  

And Apple devices, of course, are famous for the fact that they just work–easily, glitchless, bugless, crashless, and practically devoid of malware, spyware, and viruses. Every Apple user has a story or two about how the devices gracefully insinuate themselves into every corner of life. A favorite of ours: A colleague recently remarked that he potty-trained his triplets using an iPad: “We bought a heck of a lot of games for that thing in the course of two months, but they loved it–and no price was too high to get rid of those diapers.”

Design³: The Message


Like many makers of truly magnetic products, Apple doesn’t have to invest as much in paid advertising as most consumer companies do. Word of mouth and free publicity do a lot of the marketing work. But when Apple does advertise, the message always captures the essence of what makes the company and its products unique. An Apple ad is never about the device. It’s about what the device represents and what it enables someone to do. Thus, the message is part and parcel of the customer experience, and both work together to reinforce and amplify the meaning of Apple for consumers.

Design³ is a powerful reflection of Teacher Steve’s mind and personality. From the legendary “1984” ad that introduced the original Mac (and which everyone knows despite the fact that Apple paid to broadcast it exactly once) to the famous “Think Different” campaign to Jobs’s own personal introductions of new Apple devices before rapt audiences, the Apple message is simple, powerful, poignant, and consistent.

Steve Jobs was a master at selling an idea as well as a product–the idea that digital technology should make life easier, more creative, more free, and more fun. This Apple message helps to emotionally differentiate the products and make them stand out in customers’ minds–and hearts.

Design x 4: The Business 

Design¹, Design², and Design³ would mean very little if Steve had not also been a master of business design–the artful orchestration of the hundreds of interconnected elements that are necessary to make an organization run smoothly and powerfully to produce great benefits for customers as well as revenues and profits for the company.


Here’s just one example: Think of how much of the appeal of the iPhone or the iPad can be attributed to the apps that run on it. Now think about how many of those apps Apple programmers actually created. Just a small handful. Yet Apple made the entire app universe possible, not only producing the device platform but also working with outside developers and designers to create a consistent, appealing interface that gives millions of customers confidence whenever they download a new app. In return, Apple gets thirty percent of the revenue from every app sold, adding billions of dollars to Apple’s bottom line. It’s a spiral of interlocking effects that benefits everybody–Apple customers, app developers, and Apple itself.

The app universe is only the latest illustration of a business design strategy that Apple has practiced for years. The intense focus on partnerships has long been at the heart of Apple’s business strategy. It was only after the music companies were on board and iTunes was launched that iPod took off. And where would iPad be if it didn’t run Netflix or Hulu?

Those who want to emulate Teacher Steve should think about how all four types of design–product, experience, message, and business–apply to their organizations.  The happy news is that you don’t have to be a creative genius to make Design¹, Design², Design³, and Designx4 work for you.  

The evidence is all around us.  Great product design?  Look at the latest Kindle device, a fresh sandwich from Pret A Manger, the Bloomberg screen, or the simple yet stylish furniture on sale at IKEA.

Great customer experience design? Think about Zipcar, which (in the words of a colleague) makes car-sharing “stupid-easy,” or the ways Wegmans makes grocery shopping fast, affordable, creatively stimulating, and even fun.


Great message design? There are brilliant B2B players like Ecolab and that are just as effective as Apple in managing their message.

And as for great business design, there are many examples–and ARM, maker of high-performance low-power chips, has an even more ingenious business design than Apple’s.

So you, too, can harness the power of Design×4…whether or not you have an artistic bone in your body.

Adrian Slywotzky is a partner at the global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman and a best-selling author. This article is based on material from his new book, Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It (Crown Business), released on October 4. Follow the Demand blog at

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[Image: Flickr user Neon Tommy]

About the author

Adrian Slywotzky is a Partner of Oliver Wyman, a leading global management consulting firm. Since 1979 he has consulted to Fortune 500 companies from a broad cross-section of industries, working extensively at the CEO and senior executive level for major corporations on issues related to new business development and creating new areas of value growth