Randall Stross recently wrote an interesting piece in the Times extolling the virtues of the Apple design process by comparing it to Google’s engineer driven approach. According to Stross, who riffs on a well known talk by John Gruber, the success of Apple is a tribute to the auteur model of design:
At Apple, one is the magic number.One person is the Decider for final design choices. Not focus groups. Not data crunchers. Not committee consensus-builders. The decisions reflect the sensibility of just one person: Steven P. Jobs, the C.E.O.By contrast, Google has followed the conventional approach, with lots of people playing a role. That group prefers to rely on experimental data, not designers, to guide its decisions.The contest is not even close. The company that has a single arbiter of taste has been producing superior products, showing that you don’t need multiple teams and dozens or hundreds or thousands of voices.Two years ago, the technology blogger John Gruber presented a talk, “The Auteur Theory of Design,” at the Macworld Expo. Mr. Gruber suggested how filmmaking could be a helpful model in guiding creative collaboration in other realms, like software.The auteur, a film director who both has a distinctive vision for a work and exercises creative control, works with many other creative people. “What the director is doing, nonstop, from the beginning of signing on until the movie is done, is making decisions,” Mr. Gruber said. “And just simply making decisions, one after another, can be a form of art.”“The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge,” Mr. Gruber pointed out.Two years after he outlined his theory, it is still a touchstone in design circles for discussing Apple and its rivals.
It’s a provocative analogy, but I think we tend to overemphasize the singular impact of auteurs, at least in the film business. (I’ll refrain from speculating on the internal workings of the uber-secretive Apple.) Consider the career of Alfred Hitchcock. Although the director is often cited as the quintessential auteur – every Hitchcock film overflows with “Hitchcockian” elements – his films were also a testament to his artistic collaborations. This helps explain why Hitchcock flourished under the studio system, as the studios helped make such collaborations possible, signing the talent to long-term contracts. (In the late 1940s, Hitchcock actually experimented with independent cinema, and set up his own production company. He folded the company after his first two films flopped.) At first glance, this seems surprising: Why would a genius like Hitchcock need the constraints of the studio system? Shouldn’t all the other people and the feedback of executives held him back? Auteurs aren’t supposed to need collaborators.
The reason the studios were so important for Hitchcock is that they allowed him to cultivate the right kind of creative team. While the director relied on many longstanding partners, such as his decade-long relationship with the editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, he also routinely brought in new talent, including John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler and Salvador Dali. For instance, onNorth by Northwest, a classic Cary Grant thriller, Hitchcock insisted on working with Ernest Lehman, a screenwriter best known for Sabrina. It was, at first glance, a peculiar choice: Sabrina was a romantic comedy, and Hitchcock had been hired to create a dark suspense movie. But Hitchcock knew what he was doing. In fact, he gave Lehman a tremendous amount of creative freedom. (Hitchcock’s only requirement was that the plot contain three elements: a case of mistaken identity, the United Nations building and a chase scene across the face of Mt. Rushmore.) Although it took Lehman more than a year to write the script, the wait was worth it. “I wanted to write the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” Lehman said. And that’s exactly what he did.
Interestingly, the collapse of the studio system in the late 1950s led to a marked decline in Hitchcock’s creative output; the auteur began making mediocre movies. As Thomas Schatz writes in The Genius of the System, an illuminating history of the Golden Age of Hollywood: “Now that Hitchcock could write his own ticket” – he was no longer forced to work within a single studio – “both the quantity and quality of his work fell sharply…The decline of his output suggested that in order to turn out quality pictures with any consistency, even a distinctive stylist and inveterate independent like Hitchcock required a base of filmmaking operations.” By the early 1960s, each Hitchcock movie was an utterly independent venture, so that the director was often the only point of continuity from one film to the next. The end result was a series of financial and critical failures, such as Torn Curtain and Topaz.
I certainly don’t meant to disparage the genius of Hitchcock or Steve Jobs or to defend uninspired data driven design. But it’s also important to remember that nobody creates Vertigo or the iPad by themselves; even auteurs need the support of a vast system. When you look closely at auteurs, what you often find is that their real genius is for the the assembly of creative teams, trusting the right people with the right tasks at the right time. Sure, they make the final decisions, but they are choosing between alternatives created by others. When we frame auteurs as engaging in the opposite of collaboration, when we obsess over Hitchcock’s narrative flair but neglect Lehman’s script, or think about Jobs’ aesthetic but not Ive’s design (or the design of those working for Ives), we are indulging in a romantic vision of creativity that rarely exists. Even geniuses need a little help.
PS. One of my favorite Jobs stories comes from Andy Hertzfeld, a lead engineer on the Apple team that developed the first Macintosh Computer. In his book Revolution in the Valley, Hertzfeld describes Jobs as constantly challenging and inspiring his design team with a series of strange ideas. First, Jobs wanted the Mac to look like a Porsche, to “have a classic look that won’t go out of style.” (Jobs was the proud owner of a Porsche 928.) The following month, after a trip to Macy’s, Jobs insisted that the computer should look like a Cuisinart food-processor – he liked the transparency of the kitchen appliance – and so that became the new template for the Mac. Although these concepts didn’t pan out, Jobs never stopped insisting that “It’s got to be different, different from everything else…” The point, though, is that although Jobs was performing an essential function, he wasn’t inventing the new machine by himself. Rather, he was acting a lot like Hitchcock, telling Lehman that he needed to incorporate a chase scene across the face of Mt. Rushmore.