Steve Jobs Didn't Invent Design, But He Patented It

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U.S. Patent No. D486486 reads: "A display device with a moveable assembly attached to a flat panel display and to a base." Then there's Patent No. D469109, "the ornamental design for a media player, substantially as shown and described."

Those are just a couple of the more than 300 patents that bear the name Steven P. Jobs, the late CEO of Apple. A new exhibition opened on Friday at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., titled The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World.

That "display device" mentioned in its patent was actually the iMac, released in 2002. Its look was distinctive, with a flat-screen that seemed to float above the computer's base. The unique design was the product of one of the greatest design collaborations of our era, says Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson.

This was about the time that flat-screen monitors were just coming out, as Isaacson tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. Industrial designer Jony Ive had designed a computer with a flat-screen attached to the computer, but Jobs wasn't happy with it.

He went home, to Palo Alto, Calif., where his wife had planted a beautiful garden behind their house. Ive joined him and they walked among a profusion of sunflowers.

"They were walking around, and they just looked at the sunflowers and how there's a certain essence of the sunflower, and how it floats above the plant — and that became that iMac," Isaacson says. "And of course, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have their names on the design patent."

Even though his name is on hundreds of patents, Jobs wasn't necessarily a skilled engineer. His expertise, Isaacson says, was in his ability to identify and execute great design and ideas.

"He was great at design patents," Isaacson says. "He understood that design matters [and] that beauty matters."

"The magic of Apple under Steve Jobs was — and still is — that it could connect design and beauty to great engineering, and then execute on it," he says.

For Jobs' biography, Ive told Isaacson it was Jobs who was able to appreciate the great ideas, embrace them, develop and execute them.

"That's why his name is on so many patents," Isaacson says.

Some of those patents include even the packaging for many Apple products, like the original iPod. Jobs learned early on that you have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box, Isaacson says.

That idea carried over to the now-famous Apple stores, where Jobs also has his name on the patent for the iconic glass staircases that seem to hover in the air.

"He had the patent on how it [was] fastened and how those stairs seemed to float," he says.

Though most companies file design and product patents simply to keep their property safe, Isaacson says Jobs' motives were slightly different: Jobs was promoting the value of design as well as function.

"When you care enough about how you open a box or how you get to the second floor of the store, that shows a commitment to beauty and design," he says.

The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World is showing at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., from May 11 through July 8.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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