31 August 2014

How to Design Like Apple: The Picasso Way

Would you believe me if I say that a company is teaching its employees how to design beautiful products by showing them a bull? Yes, a bull, the male counterpart to a cow.
The company in question is Apple, the creature is Pablo Picasso’s The Bull. In 2008 Steve Jobs founded the Apple University, an internal program which would indoctrinate new hires into the company culture and teach them how Apple designs its products. Randy Nelson—from the animation studio Pixar—teaches the class “Communicating at Apple”. Rumors say that in one of his classes last year he showed the 11 lithographs that make up Picasso’s The Bull to teach employees how to communicate in a clear and concise way when designing 
But what does a bull have to do with design and communication? This work of art is a series of 11 lithographs of a bull that Picasso created in 1945. To start the series he drew a realistic bull, with a snout, a tail, hooves and so on. Then he went through a series of iterations where he kept subtracting details to a point where only the essential elements were visible. The last image “reduces the bull to a simple outline which is so carefully considered through the progressive development of each image, that it captures the absolute essence of the creature in as concise an image as possible”. If you are interested, you can read a detailed analysis of The Bull here.
If you think about it, this has a lot to do with product design and communication. Apple’s design is minimalistic and intuitive. It captures the absolute essence of an idea in as concise a product as possible. Take a simple remote control as an example. In this short clip from 2005, Steve Jobs compares the then brand new Apple remote to their competitors’. Back then, a common remote had over 40 buttons, the Apple’s remote had 6 (things have not changed much since). Why that? Well, because Apple decided that only three buttons were needed—a button to play and pause, a button to select what to watch, and another to go to the main menu. That is what I mean by "capturing the absolute essence of an idea in as concise a product as possible". Just as Picasso eliminates details to create a great work of art, Apple eliminates details to design a great product. 
And this approach doesn’t only hold true when it comes to making products intuitive, but also for communicating ideas effectively. When you pitch your idea to investors or your boss, you want to hack away from the unessential. You cannot give them 12 reasons why they should back your idea. As Picasso would do, give them 3 reasons. Three reasons why they should believe in what you believe. When thinking about your message, you too should go through a series of iterations and subtractions until you get to the absolute essence of it. Jony Ive describes the Apple’s design mindset as “A Thousand No’s for Every Yes”. And this applies to both design and communication.
You can also incorporate the Apple’s design ethos in your next presentation—you can make your next presentation the Picasso way. To do that, it is always good practice to simplify two main aspects of your work:
  • Content 
Do not be afraid to omit certain points. Remember, if everything is important, nothing is important. My suggestion is to write down an outline of what you want to communicate. Then go through a review process with the clear intention to reduce your message to the absolute essence. That means that you need to cut, cut and cut some more. Not only will your audience appreciate your ability to get rid of the unessential bits, you will also make it easier for them to understand your core points.
  • Design
Just as Picasso did with the bull, you can create a first version of your slides and then review them until you end up with visuals that are as clean and simple as possible. Just as Apple's engineers did with the remote control, strive for simplicity. If you have a doubt about whether to include a certain element or not, don't. It's better to err on the side of caution by including less rather than more. The following before/after slide is an example of data being displayed poorly and how you can improve the display. The slide on the left-hand side is too complicated. It includes unnecessary elements which don't add meaning to the data (e.g. slide number, date, map). On the right-hand side you have only the absolute essence of the data. The result is that your audience will be able to understand the message behind the data in a few seconds. 

If you want to think like a designer, strive for simplicity. Be open to what surrounds you, there are plenty of lessons you can learn by looking around with open eyes. Pay attention to billboards, TV ads, logos, websites and even bulls. You'll notice that the best works of art are often the simplest.

If you’d like to chat more about presentation design and communication, write a comment below or meet me over on Google+ or Twitter to jon the conversation right now!


Fast Company, How Apple uses Picasso to Teach Employees About Product Design 
The New York Times, Simplifying the Bull: How Picasso Helps to Teach Apple's Style