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Dilemma of Creative Selection

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"Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs," a book written by an ex-Apple software engineer discussing how to make a successful product like iPhone, was fun to read.

In short, the essence of building such a great product is making a team really small and focused. The early days of Apple had a strong culture of valuing rapid demo-improvement iterations, which enable a product to undergo a “creative selection” process; like the natural selection process, rapid iterations allow the team to adaptively select the superior design of software/hardware systems and evolve the product to the right direction.

Great Team, Great Product

To be more precise, the author highlighted there are 7 essential elements of Apple’s product development.

  1. Inspiration: Thinking big, and imagining what might be possible.
  2. Collaboration: Working together with others well and seeking complementary strength.
  3. Craft: Applying skills to achieve high-quality results striving to do “better”. An example is continuous performance testing when they developed the original Safari browser.
  4. Diligence: Never shortcut, and do necessary grunt work.
  5. Decisiveness: Making tough choices and refusing to delay.
  6. Taste: Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole
  7. Empathy: Trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs.

My favorite essence is indeed empathy. In any case, all the points eventually direct us to the following core idea—The continuous demo-improvement cycle run by a small, focused team triggers the selection process and pushes a boundary an original idea might put.

The Power of Creative Selection

Importantly, an original idea, or a designer’s own design, has a different degree of certainty.

In some cases, designers might own full control over design decisions, and there will be no surprise in the designer-led design; we can easily imagine how to turn the idea into an actual product. There is a famous quote from Jean Prouvé, a French constructor—Never design anything that cannot be made. Based on his deep understanding of materials, he has strong ownership across all the design/construction processes.

Although the certainty in design has its unique beauty, what if multiple people got together and practiced the essence of creative selection as a team? An ultimate deliverable can go beyond everyone’s initial expectations. That is the power of creative selection this book illustrates.

I would also like to point out a connection between creative selection and ethical product development. I believe working as a focused team is a good mechanism to incorporate diversity into the decision-making process, and it will eventually minimize the gap between producer and consumer, thanks to the selection process; better design will naturally surface and win.


That said, over the last 10 years, I personally saw many scenarios where the creative selection this book highlights does not work. Actually, none of the essentials is new to product development practitioners; you can easily find many “best practices” stating similar things on the internet or in books. However, the biggest challenge is that the techniques are not easily applicable to a large, mature organization.

In my understanding, the reason why the natural selection process worked is that there was strong pressure to survive in the competitive environment. Similarly, there must be some sort of pressure during the product development process, which forces the team to demo-improve as quickly and frequently as possible. However, as an organization grows, giving such pressure ethically becomes harder and harder.

Therefore, for me, the creative selection process strongly relies on Apple’s unique culture in their early days with Steve Jobs, meaning the existence of a charismatic person who naturally gives "pressure" on an organization is a key to making creative selection happens. In fact, as the author mentioned, the inside of Apple has changed a lot since Steve passed away and many early-day developers left the company.

Of course, as a company, the foundation of corporate culture should remain in some ways, like Amazon’s Leadership Principles, but it is definitely diluted considering the organization's scala and time had passed since the beginning. If we were able to practice creative selection in a large organization, there is a high chance that the result is just coincidence, because, by definition, creative selection is meant to be triggered by a small team; something is already wrong if you feel you are a small fish in a "large organization".



Life & Work Business Design

  See also

Ethical Product Developer
Next "Dot" in Journey: Curiosity-Driven Job Change in Canada (Aug 2021)
Don't "Guess" How People in Other Roles Work


Last updated: 2022-09-02

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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