Designers and Editors

I saw a tweet this morning that brought to mind the role of the designer and the role of the editor.

It’s all too convenient to blame Jony Ive for everything you hate, but it’s such a bizarre attitude. Does Ive not also deserve credit for the older products you loved?

The buck stops at the CEO, who decides which products ship or not. Why would you throw Ive under the bus NOW?

Jeff Johnson Tweet

Good designers need good editors and/or real constraints. Relatedly, many can be a good designer or a good editor, but rarely can somebody be both.

Example 1

George Lucas created the 1st Star Wars film when he was under the gun. Money was tight, he was unproven, he worked with people that second guessed him constantly, and the studio was suspicious that they were wasting their money. The constraints were real. Star Wars went on to be a great hit, inspired a new generation of future world builders and film makers, and imprinted itself on the mind and heart of generations. However, the experience was so harrowing that Lucas co-wrote and handed over directing the sequels to others. He served as the editor (meaning the guidance and constraints setting, many others are credited with the film editing) for the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Fast forward 20 years and he had no editor. He owned Star Wars and answered to no studio. There were few constraints and nobody with the heart and courage to tell him no. The prequels are widely considered a disappointment. Ironically one of the fruits of those prequels, the animated series Clone Wars, is widely loved. George Lucas served as an editor in the early seasons but not the the main driver of the series, which fell to David Filoni.

Example 2

The Wachowski siblings created The Matrix, a widely loved and hugely influential science fiction film. They were unproven, budget was tight, and their vision required clever innovation. The result was a clear story that delivered more per-minute thrills than anything teenage me had ever seen before.

The film was hugely successful so naturally Warner Bros. backed the money truck up to the Wachowski’s house and let them have free reign for the sequels. The sequels have their defenders, but I found them to be over-indulgent, turgid, cartoonish messes. I had not before, nor have since, laughed out loud in derision in a movie theater like I did when Colonel Sanders (The Architect) described the philosophy of the Matrix.

Jony Ive

I understand Jeff’s point, but to add more color I think I think it’s essential to understand this relationship between the designer and editor. Early in my career in the design field, Apple was the company to chase for pretty much everyone else. As companies tried to understand what made Apple work, design was the obvious candidate. So design, or at least the buzzwords associated with it, became the thing to get. Unfortunately hiring designers does little good unless the person at the top (the editor) cared about it in the way that Steve Jobs did. Most people at the top do not care about design (how it looks and works) like Steve Jobs.

Jony Ive had a great editor in Steve Jobs, someone who cared deeply about beauty but also obsessed over how things worked. They created some duds, but the hit rate of beautiful yet highly usable products was extremely high. Once Jobs passed, Ive was left without his best editor. Could there be another editor who could’ve filled that gap? Maybe, but it’s difficult to resist the temptation to be both designer and editor, the supreme creator, and Ive has a lot of clout. There are examples of designers who are able to set the right constraints for themselves, but it is not the universal case. Tim Cook is great at many things, but editing design/product decisions may not be one of them. Structuring the relationship that allows designers to flourish and stretch while imposing the right constraints and editing is the challenge in product development as far as I’m concerned.