Last week’s news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence led many people to wonder whether the company truly has a vision that will sustain it in his absence. I happen to think that in the short term, at least, Apple will be just fine, but it’s interesting to note that implicit in this worry is whether Apple’s singular attention to good design will continue to prosper. Which is to say, perhaps the paramount anxiety surrounding Jobs’ leave — and his inevitable departure, whenever that is — is whether it represents the point at which Apple’s ability to design wonderful products went on the decline.
It’s true that when visionaries leave a company, a lot can go wrong, though of course right now it’s impossible to know for sure what will happen. But by the same token, major shifts in leadership are also an opportunity for a company’s design acumen to improve.
This is what I’m hoping happens over at Google where, as also reported last week, Eric Schmidt is handing over the reins to co-founder Larry Page. Page is an engineer, of course, and quite private, so I have no particular insight as to whether he has any meaningful appreciation of design. But as a founder he has a unique power to influence the priorities at his company, and as the new CEO he has a unique opportunity to imbue his organization with a new design sensibility. If he wants to.
And hopefully he does. Few companies seem to understand the concept of design so cannily and yet so incompletely as Google does. It’s abundantly evident that they pay exceedingly close attention to usability and they slave over getting that right. And yet the total, intangible effect of their hard work is little more than the sum of its highly efficient parts. Google products are rich with design intelligence, but they also suffer from a paucity of design inspiration. They could be so much more than they are — they could be surprising, witty, fun and, yes, they could be truly beautiful. (Read former Google designer Doug Bowman’s notes on this for added perspective.)
We tend to think that design is a function of good process, well-structured organizations, and copious time and budgetary resources. But design is just as much a function of leadership. Who’s in the top seat matters very much to whether a company can design well. If the leader cares passionately about producing amazingly well-designed products, then you can get a string of indelible successes that capture the popular imagination like we’ve seen at Apple for the past decade-plus. We haven’t seen that kind of result from Google during that same span of time, though. Beyond the iconic minimalism of the original Google home page, not one of their subsequent products has truly inspired us. I hope that Larry Page realizes that, with the resources and design talent he probably already employs, there’s no reason that has to continue to be the case.