What Apple and The Titanic Have in Common

Credit: Albert Watson | Profoto

Steve Jobs was famously obsessed with near-perfection when it came to the design of Apple products. On the first Macintosh computer, he told his engineers that they had to fix the memory boards inside the machine because they were ‘ugly’. Later, when heading NeXT, he asked for the screws on the inside of the cabinet to be plated with expensive material even though most customers would never see them.

Jobs’ was far from being the only one who insisted on extreme detail.

While shooting the Titanic, James Cameron took detailing to levels so astonishing that entire Buzzfeed articles are written about it today. And it wasn’t just the visible stuff like costumes and sets that got the hyper-realistic treatment. Even things like the cutlery used in the dining scenes and the tickets actors are carrying were re-created to resemble the originals.

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Just like the ugly memory boards on the Mac, these were details most viewers would never know of.

The natural question that arises is: Why bother?

As users of Macs and watchers of the Titanic, what do we care if so much detail has gone into things we can’t even notice? Is this just the megalomania of leaders who are used to getting their way? Or did these geniuses know something that us novices don’t?

The answer lies in looking at a consumer’s interaction with a piece of work as a conversation. A conversation that happens between the consumer and creator, through the medium of the work. However, only the consumer is actually present in this encounter. The creator is represented by the work.

This coming together happens on a realm where proclamations of quality (aka marketing) have no place. All that has already happened and now the consumer is face-to-face with the work. This is the moment of truth. What the creator wants to say must now be conveyed by the messenger, that is, the work.

Since the work must speak for itself in this moment, the creator has to ensure the message embedded in it is unambiguous. How does she do that?

By engaging all the senses of the consumer.

Our senses take in millions of bits of data from the environment but guess the number that actually makes it to conscious awareness?

Seven.

That’s it.

We are aware of only seven pieces of information from among the blizzard of data flowing into our senses every moment. But all that data isn’t going to waste. It is still being put to use by our bodies, just that we don’t get to know. This is why a hot stove or a sudden sound is enough to make us act even before we realize what is happening.

This is a matter of bandwidth. Our conscious bandwidth is only seven bits, but the unconscious bandwidth is a million times that. And this has consequences for how we interact with anything — a smartphone, a movie, another person.

It’s an accepted fact that body language conveys far more than real words do. Even a child knows that what other people mean is more reliably conveyed by their demeanor and behaviour than their exact words. We just seem to intuitively know that everything has a subtext, even if it is not obvious.

Whether watching a performance or using a product, we experience far more than we consciously realise. Take acting, for example. How do we know someone has acted really well in a movie or show? You know Marlon Brando did a phenomenal job in Godfather, but can you actually pinpoint why his acting was so great?

A good actor does not merely deliver the text but is himself the role being played: the actor contains a wealth of inner states corresponding to the one the character in the play has.

The User Illusion, Tor Nørretranders

This is the crux: an actor’s job is to make you forget that you are watching a performance. And that can happen only when the actor becomes the character, not just in body, but mind as well.

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Film directors go through the trouble of making everything realistic not just to impress us, the audience, but also to make the actors forget they are actors. Only then can we too forget that we are watching a production. Only then can we laugh and cry, as if real life were unfolding in front of us.

Similarly, a well-made product sends signals that we can’t put into words but those which affect us nevertheless. Apple products are beautiful and look premium, yes. But there’s something else about them. Feel is the closest word I can think of. Apple diehards would know exactly what I mean.

Feel is a property that emerges when creators commit to carrying out their vision to the fullest. It is the result of countless little decisions a creator makes, while ensuring they stay true to the vision. There’s no formula for feel, which is why it can’t be programmed or hacked.

And that’s why obsessive detail matters. Because for the creator, a hidden part in her work is not just that. It is much more. It reflects the vision she has for the entire work. As they say:

How you do something is how you do everything.

This is the reason why the work of a true craftsman can never be ‘found out’ by digging below the surface or looking behind the cabinet. You can probably find faults with Apple products on technical specs, but you can never hope to ‘expose’ a subpar foundation behind those beautiful exteriors.

Ultimately, all creators hope that consumers of their work feel the same emotions they (the creators) themselves felt while creating the work. But for that to happen, creators must convey themselves honestly through the work. They must be committed to their craft, not just for the acclaim it might bring, but simply for the sake of doing it as well.

And if doing it well means making the memory boards less ugly, then so be it.

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