Monthly Archives: November 2011

Steve Jobs on Design: Explicit vs. Implicit Authority, Authority is Earned

He’s (Jony Ive) not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.
Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been reading the new Steve Jobs book by Walter Issacson. I came upon the passage above and it hit a nerve.
One of the long standing debates is how to integrate design into large organizations, and how to use design more effectively. When I read that passage above, it resonated in a big way with respect to why design is so dysfunctional in companies both big and small.
I read all the time that companies are trying to be more design-centric. They bring in consultants, read all sorts of books about people like Steve Jobs, hire design firms – they get all sorts of roadmaps and then try to implement them….and fail.
While I could go into the multitude of reasons on why design fails in companies, I’d like to focus on those brought out by Steve’s quote.
Explicit Authority vs. Implied Authority
It is well known that Steve Jobs uses design like an expert swordsman yields a fine blade. However, he’s not a designer himself; he just has incredible design sensibilities. So he needs help in the form of Jony Ive in whom he has found a kindred spirit in executing his design initiatives.
BUT – Steve was smart enough to understand that in order to make sure Jony Ive could function, he made it organizationally explicit what power he had. This is a big problem faced by many orgs. They say design is important. They say they want it integrated into everything they do. But organizationally, designers are not given explicit authority in the org to be able to make it happen. Their managers may be given the authority, but they do not know how to advance design themselves and so they just say “make it happen.” But they do not know how to argue for support or resources; designers have the best knowledge about their own discipilne to argue for it. Thus Jony Ive reported directly to Steve and was his right hand man and everyone knew it, and knew not to mess with him.
Therefore, the first message of this post is, if you really believe design is important to your company, then make it explicit, through the organization (ex. design has C-level representation, reports to CEO, etc.), and through explicit, constant vocal support by tthe CEO (ex. “why are you asking me? I said, the designer has complete responsibility and I trust him to make the right decisions on this matter.”).
The worst thing you can do is give weak, implicit responsibility. You push designers far down the reporting chain, make them work with those who have more responsibility and power in the org, and then expect them to advance design? You give lip service to its importance but you have setup the organization to fail. So what’s the problem? Trust? Naive knowledge? Unsure of exactly how to proceed? If you’re the leader, you need to figure out what the problem is in you and solve it.
Ability Needs to be Demonstrated and Authority Earned
BUT (another but!) – great power wields great responsibility. You cannot give such power to just any designer. In this passage, Steve describes Jony:
He is a wickedly intelligent person in all ways. He understands business concepts, marketing concepts. He picks stuff up just like that, click. He understands what we do at our core better than anyone. If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony. Jony and I think up most of the products together and then pull others in and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” He gets the big picture as well as the most infinitesimal details about each product. And he understands that Apple is a product company.
This is the second message: designers, if you expect to get authority in your company, you have to demonstrate that you are worthy of it. It was clear that Steve trusted Jony in all aspects of his abilities to be able to entrust him with the authority. That means you need to build up your abilities too. You need to understand not only design and user experience, but also a multitude of aspects, like engineering, marketing, business development, strategy – everything – and its relationship to design. You need to demonstrate that you understand it fully and gain the trust of company management in order to earn at least the capacity to wield such authority with some level of confidence of not messing up.
With the ascendance of Apple through design, everyone is talking about how to integrate design into their strategies better. Both management and designers need to change and grow in order to make this really happen.