Dan Harden on Working with Steve Jobs

Dan Harden on four experiences working with Steve Jobs

Dan Harden
February 27, 2016

Throughout my career, Steve Jobs came in and out of my life every six years like a comet on a predictable orbit for reasons I cannot explain. I had four experiences with him, including working with him at NeXT. Although he was a major influence on me, I didn’t get to know him well. He just wasn’t a warm and friendly guy. Each experience was like finding a puzzle piece that revealed something new about this mysterious and brilliant man. Every event was fascinating and sometimes inspirational, and thus sealed in my memory forever.

He was crazy about design–especially its power to complement technology

No. 1

The first time I met Steve Jobs was at the Stanford Design Conference during the summer of 1981. He was only 26 at the time, and I was a design intern finding my voice at Hewlett Packard. Steve was the successful wunderkind of the Silicon Valley, and it was exciting to hear him speak at a design conference. Everyone was curious about him because Apple had just gone public. Steve didn’t disappoint. He utterly bewitched the audience with his charisma.

Over the lunch break, he dashed outside, took his shoes off, and sat on the grass with a small group of us lucky young designers. He began to prophesize about technology, culture and design. It was more of a lesson than a conversation. It was both fascinating and entertaining to see how he delivered his message with such enthusiasm and believability. What I appreciated most is that he was crazy about design—especially its power to complement technology. I related wholeheartedly to this belief and ended up pursuing this interest throughout my own career.

No. 2

My second experience with Steve Jobs came years later when I worked with him in 1989 and ’90. Up until then, I had been designing computers and electronics for Olivetti, AT&T and Polaroid at Henry Dreyfuss Associates. During this time, I closely observed the ascent of Apple, and I remember being especially moved by the Apple IIC designed by frogdesign. It was light and friendly, had a very cool form factor, and it spoke volumes of where Apple was going. I was inspired by this and many other frog creations, so I joined frogdesign in 1989 (just after Steve was kicked out of Apple and started NeXT). One of my first assignments was to work on the NeXT account.

I’ll never forget meeting Steve the second time, right before a big group meeting at the NeXT headquarters in Redwood City. I said, “It’s great to meet you again.” He peered over his glasses at me for a few seconds and barked, “Ditto.” The following group meeting was bizarre. Steve controlled it completely and berated his staff whenever he perceived the slightest mediocrity or indecisiveness from anyone. I wasn’t sure if his anger was real or for effect. I had never seen this behavior before in the workplace, but as a designer intent on creating quality products, I sort of respected it. He could move mountains with it. He was a dream client.

Hartmut Esslinger and I presented concepts to Steve and his staff on Friday afternoons. I had butterflies before each meeting because Steve was always accusatorial, acerbic, tempestuous and picky. I figured I would be targeted sooner or later. “He had an uncanny ability to see right through a concept—whether it was in the form of a vision statement, sketch or model.” If there was any weakness or omission at all, he would find it and demand improvements.

One day I entered a big meeting, and the first thing Steve blurted out was, “Who designed that new AT&T digital answering machine?” I said, “I did,” and winced inside, braced for a grilling. He smiled and said, “It’s Great.” From then on I was OK.

Many NeXT employees seemed afraid of Steve, but we designers soon liked him. He was just like us—passionate, analytical, creative and critical. He loved design, so I think he cut us a little slack. He reviewed every tiny detail with us, and there was never any small talk.

One thing was crystal clear when working with him: his irrefutable genius. Even though he flaunted it, we respected his bravado because he was usually right.

Steve immediately challenged every assumption we had made

No. 3

My third climactic encounter with Steve Jobs was six years later in 1996. I was still at frog consulting for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on the then futuristic “Network Computer” or “N/C.” Larry liked to work secretly, and wanted all meetings to be one-one-one at his grand Japanese style house in Atherton. He preferred to be away from the prying eyes of his staff and the press.

My final N/C presentation was to be at Larry’s house on March 19th, and dinner would be served. I pulled into Larry’s long driveway after passing the security gate and noticed a silver Mercedes sedan with a “PIXAR” license plate. It was Steve’s car. Larry had invited his buddy Steve over for dinner plus an N/C design show-and-tell. My pulse raced. Larry alone was difficult enough…Now I had the two biggest and baddest titans of technology to present to.

After the meal, I unveiled five computer models. Steve immediately challenged every assumption we had made about the future of computing. “The network can’t handle the speeds or data throughput. The designs are too big and clunky. Keep going though because anything is better than Microsoft,” he said.

Larry and Steve discussed and argued about the future of computing, and bonded over their shared hatred of Bill Gates for another hour while I humbly inserted my design views when appropriate. It was one of those pinch yourself, “Is this meeting really happening?” moments. I wish I had recorded the conversation because almost everything Steve and Larry had predicted that night came true.

At one point in my presentation, Larry dropped one of these very expensive models, shattering it dramatically into a dozen parts. I was stunned, but neither Steve nor Larry said anything at all. They just kept talking about network computers and product strategy. I needed CPR. I slowly and nonchalantly picked up all the pieces without breaking eye contact. I always found their unfazed reaction rather curious. I guess they were just too big to worry about a broken model.

The evening concluded on a more personal note, with Larry urging Steve to rejoin Apple as CEO. He was persistent, exclaiming, “That Amelio is an idiot…You must go back and run it!” Surprisingly, Steve serenely listened and just smiled. He was a different person than I had seen before. It was nice to see that side of him.

He was between his two Apple stints, focusing on NeXT and Pixar, and he must have been contemplating his next move. Nine months later, NeXT was purchased by Apple and Pixar’s Toy Story became a huge box office hit…And, of course, Steve went back to Apple. When I left Larry’s house that night, I recall saying to Andy Laursen of Oracle, (the fourth person there), “Pretty cool evening, huh?”

No. 4

My fourth encounter with Steve Jobs was six years later in 2002. He lived a few blocks away from me in Palo Alto, and one morning I was walking past his house when a Mercedes SL came screaming up into his driveway. It nearly hit me. Out jumped Steve in a panic. He barely recognized me in my sweats and hat, and said, “Oh hi Dan, sorry about that,” and then took off in a hurry. No, “How have you been,” “Long time no see,” or “That was funny when we broke your model, wasn’t it?” He was brief and aloof like always. He was on a mission.

Steve died on my birthday, and again, like a comet entering my consciousness, he came and left swiftly—only this time for good. I am going to miss those coincidental visits even though, like a comet, he always passed at a distance, never getting too close. I am fortunate to have known him and saddened by his early departure.

He contributed so much to the fields of computing, communication, entertainment and design. Steve empowered all of us designers around the world by elevating design to its rightful place. He showed the world how to do it right; how essential it is to a company’s success; and how utterly wonderful good design is.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. We’ll miss you, and we’ll be sure to carry the torch the best we can.

Dan Harden

Dan is CEO, Founder and Principal Designer of Whipsaw, an acclaimed product design and experience innovation company in Silicon Valley that has introduced 1000 products to market over the past 20 years for the world’s top companies. Dan is a highly active creative force and luminary in the design world. Dan’s passion and experience combined with his personal philosophies about art, culture, psychology, and technology permeate the work.

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