Steve Jobs and Values

Steve Jobs stands looking at a heap of old laundry.

Inside are shirts with stains around the collar, yellowed by long walks up and down Waverly Drive near his home in Palo Alto, or strolling along the paths just outside of Pixar, where he’d step into the sun with John Lasseter or Ed Catmull and discuss the latest iterations in RenderMan — the computer animation software engine — or character development. 

Inside, also, are the world-famous black mock-turtlenecks designed by Japan’s famed Issey Miyake; an emblem now as much as a style.  Steve has a closet full of them—or did; now that closet is mostly empty and the clothes are here, piled high in a hamper with the usual dirty socks and worn jeans.  In need of a wash.  But— 

Steve Jobs needs a washing machine.  And NeXT, his software company, doesn’t make washing machines.  Neither does Pixar.  He’ll have to buy someone else’s product.  At first glance this is an easy choice.  Find the proper balance between price, features, and reliability. 

But to Steve Jobs, nothing is an easy choice. Here’s just a handful of factors:

  • How much water it uses
  • How much detergent it uses
  • How much power it takes
  • How long it takes
  • How rough — or easy — it is on clothes

Using these criteria, Jobs narrows it down to two basic options: a more standard washing machine available on the American market, or something a bit different from Europe. Different would seem the most natural choice for this most unnatural of choosers, but it’s not that easy.

Jobs sits his family around the dinner table, a long wooden plank obliquely jammed in the kitchen, and over spare plates of pasta and fresh herbs from the garden, he dissects the case: 

The American washing machine is faster at getting the job done, but the European one is more efficient — using less water and less detergent.  In fact, its efficiency pays off; the machine is much gentler on clothes, so in theory they’d last longer.  Fewer edges frayed and less lint to clean out of the dryer filter.  Jobs looks around the table; one child under ten and in a few years, two more to come.  What do they value?

Kids dirty their clothes pretty fast, so a fast washer might be a good choice.  But kids also climb trees, fall off bikes and play in the mud: kids are harder on clothes — so a gentler washer may make the garments last longer. 

Then again, kids grow out of their clothes in just a few months—fewer months than it might take for even a rough washer to wear those clothes down.  But, of course, clothes don’t end their journey at the first child; sometimes they’re passed down to a younger sibling or dropped off at a clothing drive.  

The issue of detergent raises more questions.  Less chemicals to damage the environment is a good thing when you have kids.  And less wasted water matters a great deal in a state—California—that suffers frequent water shortages. 

Jobs and family run down the options over dinner, night after night—for weeks.  What’s the argument for either side?  What’s the argument against?  What are our values? Finally, they settle on an answer:

  • We value quality over speed
  • Conservation over price
  • Design over immediate convenience

German Flag Jobs.jpg

But it wasn’t just about how they looked or even how they worked that made the difference: “We ended up talking a lot about design,” Jobs said, “but also about the values of our family.” 

Values motivated Jobs and his family and the choices they made on a washing machine back in the mid-1990s.  And it’s driven the success of Apple through its remarkable turn from near-bankruptcy to the most successful company in the world.  Values underlie our decision-making, and in turn they underly the decisions of creators and innovators like Jobs and John Lasseter and Jony Ive.  

Ive, Apple’s Senior VP for Industrial Design, furnishes a classic example.  In designing the first iMac, he took the value of approachability seriously.  He recognized that the boxy, server-like towers used in desktop computers at the time—and their jungle of wires and peripherals—made the entire desktop experience intimidating.  Computers back then seemed like complicated and fragile devices that at the sound of one wrong keystroke or tap might self-destruct.  This intimidation and fear was an emotion, and emotion was something usually left to marketers writing advertisements.  Tell people it’s nothing to be afraid of and your job is done.  It made for compelling ad copy.  And that was that. 

But for Ive that wasn’t that.  Because fear is a corrosive emotion, and the idea of approachability is more than an idea, it’s a value.  Something that should be expressed in the design itself.  Ive decided that everything was on the table.

  • Shape. 
  • Size. 
  • Color. 

He toured candy factories to select just the right shade.  He exploded the idea of the old PC tower and realigned the circuit-boards to fit inside the CRT display.  But still it wasn’t enough.  A computer might be the same color and even suggest the same shape and smoothness of candy, but a bulky piece of hardware just wasn’t something you could snatch up off the table like candy.  Until it was: Ive added a handle.

The handle on the iMac wasn’t there to be functional; in fact, it was a headache for Apple’s engineers to manufacture.  The number of customers who carried the iMac from room to room as they went about their day could probably be counted on one hand—but the handle wasn’t meant for their hands or the hand you counted them on. 

It achieved the value of approachability so well that Apple sold 800,000 in the first 5 months—a third of them to first-time buyers who for the first time, weren’t intimidated by the idea of a desktop computer. Jony Ive was once one of them.  

Values underlie the best innovations, even those that seem like incredible leaps:

Why do you put a handle on a desktop computer?  Why do you design a car with three doors?  Why do you fund a space program?  The standards we usually measure things by break down:

Is it profitable, the businessman asks?  Is it going to get us votes, the politician asks?  Will it sell tickets, or books?  Will it sell at all?

These standard measures fail to explain exceptional cases.  But the application of values suggests that every success is an exception.       

And yet, values are rarely quantified in theories of innovation and creativity.  Here, in this realm, discussions of brain science by writers like Jonah Lehrer or concepts from psychology by Malcolm Gladwell dominate the field.  In the arts, muses and medication—or spirituality and meditation—are the supposed fountainhead. In the business canon, influential thinkers like Clayton Christensen focus on disruptive innovation and its effect on industry entrants vs. incumbents.  Where do values appear in these contexts?  Perhaps the closest comes in fact from Christensen, whose theory predicts that all great innovations fulfill specific jobs-to-be-done.  To be successful, he suggests, a business shouldn’t slice its customers into segments like soccer-moms, it should find out what job it’s helping them to get done. 

Values go one step higher, asking not just what job needs to get done, but why; what’s the core belief or concept motivating that need?  Because when values change, it’s usually more than a few features that need to be refined; often, an entire category of life must be re-imagined.

Farm Quote.jpg

Air travelers are more interested in convenience and price than they are in speed, and yet the airline industry is still based on relatively fast aircraft operating in an inconvenient and aging infrastructure.  Grocery store shoppers measure value by food quality and ease of purchase, and yet maximum variety still dictates the basic store as a sprawling metropolis of aisles and checkout-lanes.  

These gaps still remain between what people could—and should—have, and what currently exists.  Few have ever had a really good bank.  Or a really good wireless service provider.  Or a really good public transportation system—even a really good commute.  What about a good government?  Most of the time, these areas aren’t broken, they just fail to “delight” the customer, as Apple is apt to say.  When was the last time you were excited by an announcement from your car insurance provider?  This isn’t failure, it’s just less than optimal—and will continue to be as long as businesses, management, and citizens and consumers alike accept incremental innovation as improvement.     

Comcast introduces new cable channels and DVR interfaces all the time; these innovations sustain the business, but they’re not the kind that have people excited about Apple’s rumored TV.  That product is repeatedly said to be “revolutionary.”  Of course this gets people excited, as anything new does; but the goal of innovation is not revolution, which generally changes the way we see the world.  

Instead, innovation is about re-imagining the world to better align with the values that already mean the most to us.  “Better” can mean faster.  Cheaper.  More efficient.  But sometimes it can mean slower.  Expensive.  And less capable.  Just like Steve Jobs’ washing machine.  Both options would have cleaned that dirty laundry.  But only one put a spring into his step: “They did such a great job designing these washers and dryers. I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.” 


Notes and Sources

For more on John Lasseter’s innovations, listen to this compelling interview Charlie Rose conducted late last year:  

For more on Ed Catmull as a business leader — and computer scientist — watch this lecture he gave via Stanford U.:  

Steve Jobs discusses his washing machine selection in this interview from Wired (at the time known as HotWired) by Gary Wolf.  See the last question:  

Quotes from Jony Ive appear in this interview in The London Evening Standard by Mark Prigg: Ive: "Our goals are very simple — to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.  Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new — I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us — a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.”

For more on the state of California’s water debates, visit a 2009 report by the Public Policy Institute of California on water myths ( or read this concise history that describes LA’s search for water led by Superintendent William Mulholland, a driven innovator in his own right whose innovations included the construction of the world’s most advanced aqueducts.  This later led to the bombing of those aqueducts by legitimately irate farmers and to dams that failed and flooded whole communities.       

The story of the design of the iMac comes from a variety of media reports and programs, but its rendering in Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” has a great dissection of the handle argument in Chapter 27:   

Jonah Lehrer’s approach has been soiled by the author’s own undoing, or perhaps it was the source of that undoing, as documented in detail here:    

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation is best presented in his second book on the subject, The Innovator’s Solution:  The discussion of how a restaurant redefined its milkshake offering by looking at jobs-to-be-done is worth the cover price.  His further concepts of integrated vs. modular approaches, his insistence that industry entrants focus on non-consumption, and his framework for understanding companies through their resources and values earn him current standing as the number one most influential business thinker by Forbes.