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Understanding Steve Jobs 
How the arts transformed technology.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, Pixar Animation, and NeXT computers, died of pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, at 56 years old. In eulogies he was honored for his innovations that transformed the lives of people around the world, but I don't think they quite grasped the essence of his success.

A tribute in Time magazine noted the irony that he had no training as a technician or an electrical engineer or even in product design. With so many people today lamenting the lack of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) training, Jobs had none of that.

Jobs is perhaps best known for the mouse driven Macintosh computer with the graphical user interface (GUI). Jobs originally opposed the Macintosh but eventually announced that it revolutionized computing in a SuperBowl commercial that was a masterpiece of distinguishing this new product as an escape from the confines of existing technology.

The Macintosh began as a backroom concoction of Jef Raskin in 1978. Raskin had actually written about an all graphics computer interface in his 1967 thesis. In Linzmayer's "Apple Confidential 2.0" Raskin described the Macintosh development: "Jobs hated the idea. He ran around saying 'No! No! It'll never work.' He was one of the Macintosh's harshest critics, and he was always putting it down at board meetings."

Raskin also taught music at a community college. In an August 1984 Byte interview he said: "And nobody, especially Steve Jobs, believed that we could do anything useful. Maybe a few clever ideas may come out of this group but certainly not a product. They were not going to get a product out of Raskin, Tribble and Howard... people who play music." But they did develop the Macintosh, with Jobs eventually championing it.

The significance was not lost on Jobs: the Macintosh came from "people who play music." In his commencement speech at Stanford University, Jobs made a very compelling revelation. He said he had officially dropped out of college after 6 months, but he stayed in the college community, bumming off of other students in order to take a class in calligraphy.

As Jobs told it: "Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."

And in the Macintosh, designed by people who play music, he found the opportunity to utilize his aesthetic knowledge of calligraphy to create typography in computing. Something that he characterized as "beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture."

In other words, it wasn't STEM. STEM was the Lisa, an engineering marvel that Jobs worked on at Apple that became a commercial failure. Jobs was pushed out of the Lisa project and he ended up pushing Raskin out of the Macintosh project. In turn, Jobs was soon pushed out of Apple.

Jobs had to sense from his own experience that it was music and art that held the true secret to technology. It wasn't the engineers that made Apple a computing powerhouse, it was people who played music, and it wasn't his college classes that created the entirely new desktop publishing industry, it was the "artistically subtle" class he took after he dropped out of college that revolutionized the world.

There is an echo of this philosophy of infusing art into technology in Jobs' transformation of Pixar. The technology to use computers to make movies was pioneered by George Lucas for making the exotic scenes in the Star Wars movie trilogy. When the Star Wars trilogy was completed, Lucas sold off this computer graphics division. Steve Jobs bought it and renamed it Pixar. Pixar sold the hardware and software for Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).

The technical genius behind Pixar was Ed Catmull, who as a child wanted to be an animator but realized he was not good at it. Instead he had joined a seminal computer science program at the University of Utah. There he developed some of the mathematical techniques behind computer graphics before being hired by Lucasfilms.

Stanford computer graphics professor Pat Hanrahan, a former Pixar employee who worked with Catmull on Pixar's acclaimed RenderMan rendering software (for which they share a Scientific and Engineering Oscar) interviewed Catmull in 2010 for the Association for Computing Machinery ACMQUEUE.

Hanrahan began: "At Stanford we have an arts initiative in place right now, and one reason it's popular is not because everybody is going to become an artist, but because everybody should learn about art and the processes that artists use, such as drawing and sketching and brainstorming. We think that even if you're a mechanical engineer or a computer scientist, if you get exposed to the arts, you'll be more innovative. Art adds so much to technology and science just by encouraging a few different ways of thinking."

Catmull responded: "Here are the things I would say in support of that. One of them, which I think is really important-and this is true especially of the elementary schools-is that training in drawing is teaching people to observe.

Hanrahan: "Which is what you want in scientists, right?"

Catmull: "That's right. Or doctors or lawyers. You want people who are observant. I think most people were not trained under artists, so they have an incorrect image of what an artist actually does. There's a complete disconnect with what they do. … there is a notion whereby creativity is applied only to the arts. Those of us who are in the technical areas realize the creative component in those areas. The things that make people creative are very much the same in both fields. We may have different underlying skills or backgrounds, but the notion of letting go and opening up to the new applies in the same way."

In 1983, John Lasseter was recruited by Ed Catmull at Lucasfilms to do an animation short. Lasseter was an animator, hand-drawing cels at Disney, who had almost no computer experience and felt "Coming in, my approach was that I was going to need to learn computer programming. But all these other guys have master's [degrees] and PhDs in computer science - I'm never going to know what these guys know. Then I realized, wait a minute, I was taught by the great Disney animators how to bring a character to life, and give it a personality and emotion through pure movement. That's what I know, and they don't know that. So instead of trying to learn what they know, I'm just going to sit next to them and we're going to work in collaboration. That was totally unique at the time - to have a traditionally trained artist working side-by-side with these gifted computer scientists. That really became the foundation of Pixar and how the studio works: The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art."

With Pixar struggling to sell software and hardware, Catmull and Lasseter approached Jobs about making a full length computer animated feature film. They had done short films before in promoting their software. Catmull had even made a computer animation of his hand while in college that had been used in the movie Futureworld.

In their eulogy to Jobs, Catmull and Lasseter said: "Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply 'make it great.'" The result was Toy Story and a series of successful computer animated films.

Jobs returned to Apple when Apple bought the technology company NeXT that he founded to expand desktop publishing. His NeXT computers sold well to universities and publishers. One ended up at the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN) where Tim Berners-Lee used it to invent the World Wide Web.

Back at Apple, Jobs continued the infusion of art into technology fulfilling Lasseter's vision: "The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art."

Mp3 players existed long before Jobs developed the ipod, but it was the user interface and design that made the ipod superior. Later he developed the ipad, a small touch-screen based computing platform, and also the iphone employing a touch-screen to bridge the cellphone to the handheld computer.

In every case, the technology was superb, but what distinguished these products was the artistically subtle design and human interface. More than anything else, Jobs' infusion of art into technology transformed both into something that exceeded either alone.

Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda in an interview with the Providence Phoenix commented on Jobs: "He took this idea of technology as core to innovation - the STEM approach, science, technology, engineering, mathematics...STEM created the IBM PC idea. It was art added to STEM - STEAM - that made those kinds of things happen, like the MacIntosh, or the iPod, or the iPhone, or anything in that category. It brought humanity to what are traditionally very rational fields."

That was the essence of Jobs success: STEAM rather than STEM. STEM was the Lisa, STEM was the mp3 player, STEM was the tablet. They were all technical marvels of limited commercial success. They were novelties that didn't transform people's lives. What Jobs understood was that there is no shortage of STEM, but the shortage is in STEAM. What Jobs learned that transformed the world was the importance of the arts: people who played music, people who studied calligraphy, people who knew "how to bring a character to life, and give it a personality and emotion." If we remember that, Steve Jobs will rest in peace.


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