Art & Design
3:45 pm
Sun May 13, 2012

Steve Jobs Didn't Invent Design, But He Patented It

Originally published on Sun May 13, 2012 2:59 pm

U.S. Patent No. D486486 reads: "A display device with a moveable assembly attached to a flat panel display and to a base." Then there's Patent No. D469109, "the ornamental design for a media player, substantially as shown and described."

Those are just a couple of the more than 300 patents that bear the name Steven P. Jobs, the late CEO of Apple. A new exhibition opened on Friday at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., titled The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World.

That "display device" mentioned in its patent was actually the iMac, released in 2002. Its look was distinctive, with a flat-screen that seemed to float above the computer's base. The unique design was the product of one of the greatest design collaborations of our era, says Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson.

This was about the time that flat-screen monitors were just coming out, as Isaacson tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. Industrial designer Jony Ive had designed a computer with a flat-screen attached to the computer, but Jobs wasn't happy with it.

He went home, to Palo Alto, Calif., where his wife had planted a beautiful garden behind their house. Ive joined him and they walked among a profusion of sunflowers.

"They were walking around, and they just looked at the sunflowers and how there's a certain essence of the sunflower, and how it floats above the plant — and that became that iMac," Isaacson says. "And of course, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have their names on the design patent."

Even though his name is on hundreds of patents, Jobs wasn't necessarily a skilled engineer. His expertise, Isaacson says, was in his ability to identify and execute great design and ideas.

"He was great at design patents," Isaacson says. "He understood that design matters [and] that beauty matters."

"The magic of Apple under Steve Jobs was — and still is — that it could connect design and beauty to great engineering, and then execute on it," he says.

For Jobs' biography, Ive told Isaacson it was Jobs who was able to appreciate the great ideas, embrace them, develop and execute them.

"That's why his name is on so many patents," Isaacson says.

Some of those patents include even the packaging for many Apple products, like the original iPod. Jobs learned early on that you have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box, Isaacson says.

That idea carried over to the now-famous Apple stores, where Jobs also has his name on the patent for the iconic glass staircases that seem to hover in the air.

"He had the patent on how it [was] fastened and how those stairs seemed to float," he says.

Though most companies file design and product patents simply to keep their property safe, Isaacson says Jobs' motives were slightly different: Jobs was promoting the value of design as well as function.

"When you care enough about how you open a box or how you get to the second floor of the store, that shows a commitment to beauty and design," he says.

The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World is showing at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., from May 11 through July 8.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. patent number D486486 reads, quote, "a display device with a movable assembly attached to a flat-panel display and to a base," end quote. Then there's patent number D469109 for, quote, "the ornamental design for a media player substantially as shown and described." Those are just a couple of the hundreds of patents that bear the name Steven P. Jobs, the late CEO of Apple.

A new exhibition opened on Friday at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center here in Washington, D.C., and it's titled :The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World." Walter Isaacson is the author of Steve Jobs' biography. He joins us now in our studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you very much for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, when think of the pantheon of great American inventors - Edison and Ford, the Wright Brothers come to mind - based on the work that you did and your relationship with Steve Jobs, does he belong in that company?

ISAACSON: Oh, absolutely. And he had the greatest design collaboration of our day and era, which is he and Jony Ive, who is the great industrial designer at Apple. And you mentioned the display device with movable arms, whatever. That's the famous sort of sunflower-looking iMac that they did, I think, in early 2000s. And it came about when a flat screen was developed, and Jony had created something in which the screen was attached to the computer. And it didn't feel that it had real integrity. Then Jobs was kind of annoyed and he went home. And his wife, who plants this beautiful garden behind the house in Palo Alto, had planted sunflowers, a profusion of them. And when Jony came over, they were sitting there and walking around, and they just looked at the sunflowers and how there's a certain essence of the sunflower and how it floats above the plant. And that became that iMac. And, of course, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have their names on the design patent.

MARTIN: Is the credit that Steve Job is given for these patents deserved insofar as his ability to kind of identify something like that sunflower? I mean, is...

ISAACSON: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...that as valuable as being able to put it into making something out of it?

ISAACSON: Well, one of the things Steve was able to do is conceive great designs but also execute them. He had an intuitive feel for things. Like at one point Jony Ive showed him a recessed handle that was on that beautiful iMac of, I think, the late 1990s. It felt like it had just hopped on your desk. I don't know if you remember the rabbit-looking iMac. It had a handle, and the handle wasn't truly necessary. This was a desktop machine. But Jony Ive explained it makes it friendly. People are afraid to touch computers but having a recessed handle makes it just say to you, you can touch me. I'm at your service. And that's what Steve Jobs understood.

MARTIN: And it was every step of product development, packaging even.

ISAACSON: You know, he was taught in the early 1980s by a great guy named Mike Markkula that the packaging really matters. You have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box. And so he has a design patent with some other people at Apple - I think Steve's name may be first on it - of just the way you open the box to the original iPod and how it is cradled. And you open it and it hinges like a jewel. There's a certain theater, an emotional theater in the unpacking.

MARTIN: Makes me feel like I should wrap my Christmas presents better.

ISAACSON: You should.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you had to pick one, what was one of the fiercest fights that Steve Jobs and Apple had to fight when it came to patents?

ISAACSON: Well, obviously, the fiercest fight was the fight against Microsoft in the 1980s. And there's a good example of a design, look and feel originally developed at Xerox PARC, which is a graphical user interface. And we go, oh, you're looking at a computer screen now and it probably has icons like trashcans and folders and documents and everything else.

MARTIN: Indeed it does.

ISAACSON: Some of those elements were invented at Xerox PARC. Steve made a deal with Xerox that the Apple team could come in, see it and try to adopt it. And what Steve did was he improved it. You could drag the documents and dump them into folders. You could double-click on the folders and they would pop open. You could pull down menus. All of these were improvements to the design Apple did. So then, Microsoft comes along and pretty much copies a lot of the look and feel of that graphical user interface for Windows. And that was one of the great intellectual property fights of our time because Steve Jobs felt pretty strongly that Microsoft had ripped off the look and feel of the Macintosh operating system.

MARTIN: You had extraordinary access to him. Did you come away thinking that it was more important for him to be remembered as an artist rather than an incredibly successful revolutionary CEO?

ISAACSON: Absolutely. Look, when they did the original Macintosh in 1983, he holds it up for a while because the circuit board isn't beautiful enough for his taste. Now, that's not the way to maximize profits, but it is the way to say I'm an artist and even the parts unseen should be beautiful.

MARTIN: Walter Isaacson is the author of Steve Jobs' biography. The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs exhibition is on display the Smithsonian's Ripley Center here in Washington, D.C. until July 8th. Walter Isaacson, thanks so much for coming in.

ISAACSON: It was great being with you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.