If Steve Jobs Made a Museum

OK, let me get this out of the way from the beginning. I am not an Apple fanboy. I own an iPod, but I have never used a Macbook (I don’t trust anything that doesn’t have a DOS prompt). I have tried to avoid writing this post, but for some reason it just won’t go away.

Last month, Steve Jobs died leaving behind him a company whose projects have touched the hearts and changed the lives of millions of people. I never met the guy, and I know nothing about him other than what I have read in the press both before and after his death. And yet, the mythology is of a man who transformed the world of consumer electronics because of at least 4 fundamental qualities:

1. Exceptional leadership
2. Extradordinary design sensibility
3. A singular focus on the user experience
4. Strong business acumen

The reaction to Steve Jobs’ death was one of genuine sense of loss – that something uniquely valuable had gone from the world. It isn’t often that someone who essentially makes a living by making stuff and selling it to people achieves this kind of personal relationship with their customers. And it got me to thinking – museums should always look outwards to other industries to see what we can learn from their success. In previous posts, I have drawn on examples from gaming, from manufacture and from logistics, but never consumer goods. So, I wondered, what if Steve Jobs had made a museum?

Lesson 1. Playing your own tune

On the face of it, in a culture defined by open standards and open content, Apple should not be a success. It uses proprietary formats,is ultra-secretive about new products and polices patent infringements with enthusiastic vigour. Apple products ask their users to subscribe to the Apple way of doing things in a way that must have struck terror into the hearts of the team responsible for marketing the 1st generation iMac.

That they can do so is a result of at least two factors – (1) immense confidence and (2) the knowledge that if you offer people simple, functional and beautiful experiences they are going to be willing to meet you halfway when it comes to acquiring the skills and vocabulary to use them. Apple products demand that their users do things the Apple way, but the payback in terms of attachment and depth of engagement is correspondingly greater.

So if Steve had made a museum, I think these would have been the founding principles. It would be 100% rock-solid in its confident assertion of its place and purpose in the world – without trying to be all things to all people as museums can sometimes do – and unapologetic in asking people to engage with it on its own terms (rather than trying to rewrite the ‘vocabulary’ of the museum to present a more user-friendly face to the world). It would accept that some people are simply not ‘museum’ people, in the same way that some people aren’t now, nor ever will be, ‘Apple’ people, but be ready all the same to welcome them in the event of an epiphany.

At the heart of it, having the confidence to know that you do what you do best, delivering something that solves a genuine problem, and knowing that people want what you are delivering are the most fundamental ingredients of success.

Lesson 2. Inside-out design

Steve Jobs famously once said ’some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to get it’. So, while the beautiful aesthetic of many Apple products is the first thing most users see, what really differentiates them is this holistic, end-to-end approach to design which results not only in beautiful things, but also beautiful interfaces and, ultimately, beautiful experiences.

So Steve’s museum would, of course, adopt the same design philosophy. All of the elements of Steve’s museum, from stores, to galleries, to reception to the loos would have been designed with this integrated view in mind. He would have ‘got’ the fundamentally interconnected roles of museums to collect, preserve, interpret and share, and he would have ensured that all of these elements co-operated seamlessly to deliver a coherent, beautiful and compelling end-user experience.

This, as luck would have it, is exactly the design philosophy which inspired the Collections Trust to create the BSI Code of Practice for Collections Management (PAS197), which has as its very core the principle that the quality, depth and relevance of the end-user experience is directly and implicitly connected both to the strategic mission of the museum and the processes by which it manages its collections. Steve would have approved!

Of course, with his legendary attention to detail, Steve would not have been happy until the design of his museum had been stripped of anything extrinsic, unneccessary or which presented any kind of barrier to the user experience. From the steps up to the front door, to the font on the website, everything about the presentation of and interface with Steve’s museum would welcome the user, draw them in, encourage them to form a lasting personal, emotional and psychological bond with it. Visitors to Steve’s museum would, I am certain, have left with the impression that it was theirs, designed around and with an implicit understanding of their needs and values.

Critically, too, Steve’s museum would leave people feeling empowered with a sense of their own cultural literacy – that they had encountered, learned and acquired the necessary skills to make the museum their own – rather than culturally passive, disempowered or even bored.

Lesson 3. Making money

This morning, Apple Inc. shares are trading at $385.33. The ‘brand value’ of the company is approximately $153.3bn. Apple products are used in affluent nations throughout the Western world. By any measure, it is a massively successful company. Its success is not purely economic – it has also succeeded in carving out a leading position in a highly competitive marketplace through a culture of innovation and quality.

So would you have to pay to get into Steve’s museum? I rather suspect that you would. Not only would you have to pay, but you would almost certainly pay a premium slightly above the price point of other similar leisure attractions in your area. But pay it you would, because nothing else would deliver the depth, engagement and value that Steve’s museum would be offering you. And yes, that price point might well be exclusive, which flies in the face of a decade or more of opening up and diversification but at the same time, the museum would move from being something egalitarian but disposable to something desirable, aspirational and financially sustainable.

But, perhaps most importantly, Steve’s museum would be characterised by movement and momentum, not by stasis. It would explore multiple platforms, multiple points of delivery. It would look for new problems to solve, integrating technological innovations as it goes. Building on a clear core philosophy and aesthetic, it would expand laterally, defining new relationships and articulating new value propositions for its audiences.

The good news is that Steve’s museum exists everywhere, in different forms and with differing emphasis. For many, particularly those battered by spending cuts, it is hard to be confident about the future and about the intrinsic value of what we do for people. There has been too much emphasis on hitching museums onto other people’s value propositions and not enough on the unique core value proposition of museums in their own right.

Sometimes, the integrated design philosophy has been lost in successive waves of change. But at heart, the museum profession’s conception of what constitutes an effective modern museum is dynamic, responsive, user-focussed and streamlined. Museum professionals everywhere are confronting new challenges with innovation and creativity, and using design idiom to have new conversations with the visiting public.

I’d like to think that Steve would approve.

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