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Steve Jobs' message to architects

Apple co-founder gave us what we want, before we knew we wanted it – a skill the best architects share

‘People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,’ Steve Jobs once said. The innovative Apple co-founder died today at 56.

When he said it, Jobs was explaining why he didn’t use focus groups for product development, preferring to go it alone.

The ability to intuit what people want is something Jobs did well, inventing aesthetically-beautiful personal computers, iPods and iPhones before we knew we needed them.

It’s a skill shared by the very best architects. Discerning what a client really wants, even when they can’t express it. Delivering a design that intuits their future needs, as well as the present ones. Putting in that little bit extra, to exceed their expectations.

My father worked in the automotive industry, and he calls that little bit extra ‘a surprise and delight’. This referred to the reaction you got as a user when you found the perfect slot in your car for your sunglasses, or a cup holder just where you wanted it, just when you needed it.

Intuiting a client’s needs takes a certain measure of ego – the confidence to put forward something that hasn’t been requested, to presume that ‘architect knows best’.

It’s a confidence that the current education system and culture of architectural practice tries its best to undermine, with dismissive design critiques and tutors who are all too often verbally abusive. Not to mention procurement panels, design frameworks, community engagement, etc.

Jobs’ lesson for architects and architectural students is to hold your nerve. If you can intuit what your client needs, design in ‘a surprise and delight’. If you get it right, success is certain. If you don’t get it right, each failure shortens the learning curve. Nothing risked, nothing gained.

Readers' comments (5)

  • You cannot blame the education system entirely. The student i partly responsible. Some pay attention and become products of the system. I ignored my educators for 5 years, and came out of university all the better for it.

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  • Nice piece; thanks. It reminded me of an Henri Ciriani lecture at the Bartlett (many moons ago). Ciriani proposed that no architect ever got paid for doing architecture; architecture, he asserted, is the unexpected moment of magic that the the brief doesn't demand and the client wasn't expecting. I remember starting up my first iPod. I was expecting to wrestle with a piece of high technology that was heavily trailed as having life-changing potential. It did change my life (musically at least)...but I didn't have to wrestle with it. Genius! Thanks Steve...

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  • Steve Jobs' taste in architecture, to judge by images of his home, was half-timbered neo-tudor. It remains one of the conundra why those most forwrad thinking about technology are often most determined to e-affirm the past in their own environment.

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  • Piers  Taylor

    As Stephen Fry said in the Guardian today:

    "The standards he set, the passionate belief he had in the way that technology, the arts, design, fun, elegance and delight could all co-exist, the eternal pushing for higher standards, the refusal to accept standard paradigms in anything, either the conventional modus operandi of corporate affairs, technological matters or market practices was an example from which the world will continue to learn."

    Puts in to perspective how we all (architects) continue, by and large, to peddle the same old bollocks... How many of us can really claim to shift paradigms? Me neither...

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  • Oh dear, another bash at education and the role of the crit. Such view usually only come from those who cannot stand up to the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.

    However one is reminded of what one often conveyed in teaching to young architects; advice from the great Denys Lasdun on the purposes of architecture and the brief (to paraphrase):-

    'The purpose of architecture is not to give the client what they wanted, but to deliver that which they never dreamt of; and when they see it they will realise it is what they expected and wanted all along....'

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