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  • Writer's pictureGladwyn Lewis

How Apple uses Pablo Picasso's bull to teach innovation...

Updated: May 19, 2023

Le Taureau by Pablo Picasso
Le Taureau by Pablo Picasso

Steve Jobs is famously known for saying innovation is "saying no to a 1000 things", before you say yes. And for more than a decade, Apple has used the above painting to drive home this particular lesson.

In December 1945, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (Yes that's his full name), created "Le Taureau" or just simply "The Bull", a series of 11 lithographs (stone prints), or simply called Pablo Picasso's Bull. With each successive print, a bull is simplified and abstracted. While many including the artist use the bull as a metaphor, as it as a representation of the Spanish people; both as a comment of fascism and brutality and positively as a symbol of virility; or to some as a reflection of Picasso's self image. The core concept is the artist's search for the real idea of what a bull is. Starting from the flesh and bones - a depictive image of a bull, then the bull gained weight, and slowly started to turn into an abstract form, similar to what we associated Picasso for. It's finally only towards the end that we see the bull become a couple of lines - a great representation of absolute simplicity. But through this abstraction, employees at Apple are now taught this philosophy.

As Picasso said of the overall abstraction process, "Two holes. That's the symbol for the face, enough to evoke it without representing it. But isn't it strange that it can be done through such simple means? Whatever is most abstract may perhaps be the summit of reality."

In 2008, Steve Jobs tapped the Dean of the Yale School of Management to create an internal training curriculum for Apple. Like they say, the first rule of Apple University is that you don't talk about Apple University.

Apple Campus - One Infinite Loop
Apple University

And this was all the rage, when the New York Times, got a glimpse into the training program with the help of unnamed sources. But here's a few titbits. First off it's very exclusive, the training goes on all year at the company headquarters in Cupertino, and there are full time instructors from Yale, Harvard, Stanford and other top schools. In fact the aforementioned dean, Joel Podolny, designed the entire course at Steve Jobs' request.

The program was initially meant to teach employees Apple's culture and design philosophy, in another course your analyze Apple case studies, like the decision to make iTunes and the iPod compatible with Windows, and most importantly it teaches you about how Apple as a brand, crafts its message. Go through multiple iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a concise and impactful way. This is true of the Apple brand, it does take much mental calories to consume or decipher their messages, instead it is more likely to go viral, just due to it's simplicity.

Now this can also be translated into the design of apple products. Look at the evolution of their mice over the years.

Apple Mice evolution over the years
Apple Mice evolution over the years

Quite literally, the buttons have been 'abstracted away, until there are practically none. and the same goes for Apple remotes as well.

Apple Remotes vs other remotes
Apple Remotes vs other remotes

From a very early age, Apple has always focused on significantly fewer buttons, but with no dearth of features in the overall functionality of the Apple TV.

This Picasso way of saying 'no' and capturing 'the essence' extends also to their business strategy. When Steve Jobs returned as CEO in 1997, Apple was near bankruptcy and on a streak of failed products including a gaming machine (Pippin) and a digital assistant (Newton)

Apple Newton
Apple Newton

It's product portfolio was way too many, way too crowded and it didn't lead to any beneficial business uplift. Which is why Steve Jobs shouted, "Stop... this is crazy" and got up to draw something very simple on the board. It was a 2x2 matrix layout Apple's entire product line:

  1. Desktop/Portable

  2. Consumer/Professional

Apple's Simplified Product Lines
Apple's Simplified Product Lines

This was the start of Apple's legendary resurgence into the market. Upon Steve Job's return, its market cap was <$5B, and it easily reached around $350B by the time he passed in 2011.

Now, we've all read Walter Issacson's 656 page biography on Steve Jobs, but an important pertinent question fails to get answered. How did he go from the brilliant, but childish genius at Apple in the eighties to the visionary who simultaneous delivered the iPod, iTunes, iMac, iPhone and the iPad?

It's a couple of factors, and Journalist Brent Schlender, who was close friends with Jobs, writes that this entire run of great products can be associated with his time, experience and refinement of his ability to communicate and elucidate effective stories. Basically at Pixar he learnt how to nurture talent, tell a story, negotiate with big companies and focus on building one hit product after another. This can be read further in "The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes".

And it was the combination of telling a story, "saying no to a 1000 things', and capturing the essence of the product and the tagline that has made Apple consistent at telling powerful stories, building great and imaginative products, and being a step ahead of the game against the rest of the pack. As Steve Jobs said "You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential."

Sounds exactly like Picasso. Speaking of which at the end of Apple's legendary "Think Different" Advertisement, there's Picasso drawing the Bull...

And if you want to take a trip down memory lane, here's the full "Think Different" Advertisement, produced by legendary Director Jennifer Golub.

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