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What Steve Jobs can teach architects

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Design something your client never knew they wanted, says Christine Murray

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,’ Steve Jobs once said. The innovative Apple co-founder died last week aged 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 wanted 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 expectations.

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

Like great architecture, Apple’s products don’t come cheap, and they don’t always arrive on time. But from the packaging to the functionality, there are more than a few surprise-and-delights. You always feel like you’ve got a bit more than you paid for. I remember the first time I held an iPhone in my hand; it felt designed, not engineered, and by someone who otherwise might have been an architect.

Divining a client’s desires takes a certain measure of ego – the confidence to put forward something that hasn’t been requested, to include it without discussing it first, presuming 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 crits and tutors who are all too often verbally abusive. The profession is quick to dismiss and discourage each other, the kind of infighting that can kill creativity and innovation. These challenges to architectural ingenuity are redoubled by framework agreements, design reviews, value engineering, community engagement and so on.

The current buzzwords in architecture – collaboration, consultation and integration – are also more Android (Google’s open-source mobile software) than Apple. Jobs didn’t believe in open-source software (see BIM), nor was he interested in engineering-led or standardised design, but rather in setting new standards of design.

Jobs’ lesson for architects and architecture students is to hold your nerve. If you can sense your client’s desires, design in a few surprise-and-delights, the thing they never knew they wanted. 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.


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