How to win by giving in

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the smartest thing he did was spot Jonathan Ive.

Ive was about to leave, Jobs persuaded him to stay.

Year after year, Ive designed new products: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.

Each design was groundbreaking, other firms could only do poor copies.

But Ive freely admits, his inspiration was another designer: Dieter Rams.

When you compare Ive’s designs with Rams’ you can clearly see the influence.

Rams began life as a designer in 1955 when he joined Braun.

For the next 40 years he revolutionised domestic-appliance design: from radios to kitchen mixers, from record players to electric razors, from watches to TV sets.

Today there are museums full of his work in cities from London to New York to Tokyo.

But for me, the most creative thing that happened wasn’t anything he did.

It was a decision taken by the two brothers who employed him, Artur and Erwin Braun. 

Rams had been working for Braun for about five years when he was approached by a designer friend, Otto Zapf.

Zapf was opening a furniture design company with Niels Vitsoe.

They wanted to know whether Rams could help them out by doing a bit of freelance design.

Rams hadn’t done furniture before, but he was happy to try.

He designed the furniture the same way he designed the Braun products: minimalist, functional, practical.

His designs were successful, so they asked him to do more and more.

Rams decided this was becoming a conflict of interest.

The Braun brothers were paying him to be their designer, but he was also working for someone else.

So he went to see Artur and Erwin and asked them whether he should stop freelancing.

And here’s the really creative part for me.

Most companies would immediately say: "Of course you must quit your freelance, we’re paying you to design for us not someone else."

But the brothers didn’t say that.

They said: "Go ahead. We don’t make furniture, so there is no conflict. In fact, if people buy your furniture, it can only be good for Braun."

That decision, for me, is the really creative leap.  

What they’d realised was that, in the 1950s, most homes were furnished with old-fashioned heavy, upholstered wood and cloth furniture.

People wouldn’t buy Braun’s minimalist, metal and plastic, functional designs to go with furniture like that.

But if younger people began to furnish their apartments with modern minimalist furniture, made from plastic and metal, then Braun products would fit perfectly.

So, by letting Rams design furniture they were creating their own market.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Rams designed bookshelves, and chairs and tables and sofas, and all of his furniture designs fitted perfectly with all his home-appliance designs.

Both companies grew and, over the next few decades, changed the design aesthetic.

What we now recognise as good design came from Rams’ furniture and Braun electronics.

Without them there would be no Habitat, no Ikea and, as Ive admits, Apple certainly wouldn’t look the way it does.

And it all happened because of the Braun brothers’ creative decision to go against conventional wisdom and allow their top designer to freelance for someone else.

Which goes to show, sometimes the most creative thinkers aren’t the "creatives". 

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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