scorecardWhy Apple Employees Learn Design From Pablo Picasso
  1. Home
  2. strategy
  3. Why Apple Employees Learn Design From Pablo Picasso

Why Apple Employees Learn Design From Pablo Picasso

Why Apple Employees Learn Design From Pablo Picasso
StrategyStrategy2 min read

When Apple employees go to the tech company's super-secretive course on How Apple Does Things, they're treated to this famous series of drawings by Pablo Picasso:

The first drawing is a hooved, horned, and muscled life-like representation of a bull.

The last is just a few lines, though definitely a bull.

That's the Apple way.

"You go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do," an employee who took the course told the New York Times.

There's a word for the process: abstraction.

You can see it in Apple's 25-year pursuit of making the most simple - and functional - mouse possible.

apple mice evolution


The thing about abstraction is that it's ridiculously difficult, since it demands that you have a grasp of the underlying principles of what's going on.

In this way, scientific theories - such as those that have made Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking immortal - are abstractions.

It's helpful to consider abstraction as a tool for understanding, which authors Robert S. Root-Bernstein and Michele M. Root-Bernstein do in their awesome guide to critical thinking, "Sparks of Genius." Here's their rap on abstraction:

Abstracting, by simplifying, yields the common links, the nexuses, in the fabric of perception and nature...

Picasso began his well-known Bull series with a realistic image of a bull. Then he became interested in the planes defining the bull's form. But as he experimented with these planes, he realized that what defined them were their edges, which he then reduced to simple outlines. Finally, he eliminated most of these lines, leaving a pure outline that still conveys the essence of "bullness."

Picasso said much the same in his own words:

To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with concrete reality … You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There's no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.

That drive toward simplicity animates Apple. The company's attitude toward simplicity is part of what has allowed it to make technology attractive to people.

After Steve Jobs died, Guardian tech writer Jonathan Jones wrote that the "exquisite luxury" of the iPad grew "out of a tradition of Apple design that has repeatedly reshaped modern culture" and that "the aesthetic originality of Apple that has reshaped the way we live in the modern world."

This aesthetic is what made Apple "revolutionary," Jones said, and that stems from simplicity-seeking abstraction.

Jobs said as much in his own words:

That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

And that's no bull.