Ken Segall On What Made Apple's Insanely Simple Approach Work [Q&A] | Cult of Mac

Ken Segall On What Made Apple’s Insanely Simple Approach Work [Q&A]


Author Ken Segall, @photo Doug Schneider.
Author Ken Segall, Photo by Doug Schneider.

Ken Segall, who named the iMac and worked on the “Think Different” campaign, has some choice takeaways from working with Steve Jobs that he’s finally sharing in book form with Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success.

The cleanly-designed cover in Apple’s signature Myriad typeface looks almost like it should be unboxed; inside you’ll find choice insider tales of the flops, false starts and history made with Apple over the 12 years he worked with the Cupertino company. (You can read an exclusive excerpt from Insanely Simple and our review of the book here.)

Segall tells Cult of Mac about the reasoning behind that lowercase “i,” winning Jobs over and what happened when ads flopped. You can catch up with him through his blog or Facebook page, where you’ll also find details about his upcoming book tour.

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Cult of Mac: What’s the simplest takeaway from your book?

Ken Segall: “In a complicated world, nothing stands out like simplicity.”

CoM: You started the book when Steve Jobs was still alive. Did you plan on having him read the manuscript?

KS: From the very beginning, I thought about how to handle Steve knowing or not knowing; I really wrestled with it. I wanted to share what I learned from him, but didn’t know how happy he’d be about it… then Walter Isaacson announced he was writing the authorized biography; at that point it was better to keep it to myself and carry on.

[My book] is a tribute to Apple and Steve, it’s the company that I love more than any other I’ve worked for. There’s magic there that hasn’t been talked about and that’s my objective in writing it.

CoM: After reading Isaacson’s biography, was it your intention to change people’s minds about Jobs’s “brutality”?

KS: Yes. I knew that side of Steve, but I was still a little surprised about some of the negative things in Isaacson’s book. I’d seen that behavior, but when it came to business, it existed for a reason. He didn’t suffer fools and he wanted to keep things moving quickly, etc.

Steve was really consistent with everyone, but people are different and everyone responds in a different way. Some people think he was the incarnation of evil, others glorify him to the end. He was an incredible person to work with, worthy of all the praise heaped on him, yet he was a very complex person, as are we all.

CoM: A reader called your book a way of profiting from the popularity of Jobs and Apple. How would you answer that?

KS: What I’m trying to do is stand for something that I believe in deeply, which is what I learned from Apple.

We all follow our passions and that’s what I’m doing. I’m not looking to make money on Apple. It’s all about standing out by not being complicated; Apple has made an art out of that. Plus, we all know there’s no money in book publishing! (laughs.)

CoM: Calling a spade a spade à la Steve Jobs – which provides some of the most entertaining episodes in your book –  could be dangerous in many companies, yet you talk about beating up with the “simple stick” just like he did. Is that really something you’d advise people to do?

KS: I met some smart people at Dell who realized things weren’t as they should be and wanted to change them, but they were incapable of changing the internal culture there. The point of the book is to inspire the people who do get what made Apple so different to succeed. Some of those people end up leaving those companies because they get frustrated, others will stay as cogs in the machine. Apple survived because it embodies values that don’t seem to exist elsewhere.

CoM: So implementing simplicity isn’t necessarily simple…

KS: A lot of companies want to be like Apple, but they are incapable of coming even close to it. It always comes up, even with clients outside the technology field: Apple is always what everyone wants to be. So few people do the things they need to do — things that are pretty darn obvious. They don’t have the wherewithal, or the commitment, or the drive to really enforce those rules.

CoM: You touch on the disastrous periods Apple went through without Steve Jobs; if he isn’t there enforcing the value of simplicity from the top down, what will happen?

KS: When he returned and things were getting consistently good, everyone paused to acknowledge that innovation had become institutionalized at Apple. Once he came back and righted the ship with several hit products in a row, it became clear that Apple would be OK, as long as the company kept innovating.

That may have been obvious before as well, but after the near-death experience, it was even more so. It’s baked into the company now more than ever; Tim Cook understands, Jony Ive understands, a whole bunch of people at Apple understand that this is how Apple survives and thrives. The forces are in place to keep it going, even though there will never be another Steve Jobs.

CoM: You tell the story of winning the iMac naming battle, which Jobs wanted to call MacMan. I’m still wondering  why you decided to use the lowercase “i”?

KS: Of all the things I’ve talked about surrounding that name, I’ve never addressed that one. It was lowercase from the beginning, I think I must’ve done it because it looked better. Back in those days, there already had been terms in the tech field like “e-Business” and stuff like that. I didn’t do it super consciously, it probably just looked better. In fact, that’s what put Steve over in the end, he had not liked it, then he had it silk screened on the machine and thought it looked good.

CoM: Did you always have to win him over?

KS: We had certain successes the first time around and others that were more like iMac, where Steve would say “Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Oh, OK.” He just wanted to make sure he’d explored all the alternatives. He was famous for putting people in position where they had to argue for something; he would test their test passion level. If you were easily talked out of your own idea, then it couldn’t be much of an idea.

CoM: Were there ideas you argued successfully for that ended up bombing?

KS: There was one commercial that we pushed for that Steve didn’t like. He ended up saying, “Well if you like it that much, I won’t stand in the way.” He did that once in a while.

We thought it had energy and was clever, it was nicknamed the “salsa” commercial because of the music; the line was something like “Do you change your decor to match your iMac or do you change your iMac to match your decor?”

It ran for about a week. He normally got a bunch of calls or letters about the spots; he came in and said: “I’m not getting a lot of calls or letters about this one, I think it’s a dud. I’m sorry I listened to you guys.”

CoM: Was there a confrontation?

KS: No. It had its initial run and that was it. We moved on, quickly. I make the point in the book: lots of companies have systems in place to avoid running bad ads, but focus groups and all these multiple layers of approval don’t really prevent them. Apple does none of that and they have better advertising.

In the case of the salsa commercial, you could argue that if it’d been tested, it wouldn’t have run. So it wasn’t the biggest hit, but it didn’t put Apple out of business. Apple probably saves two to four million a year on testing and who knows how many weeks of work. I don’t see the benefit for all that complicated stuff, as opposed to five people sitting around a table making decisions.

CoM: What do you think of Apple’s recent ads?

KS: I like the latest iPhone ads. For awhile, they were stuck in a pattern, with a lot of focus on apps, for like three years, and I wondered why since they’re in a leadership position, didn’t they do something new?

The new ones with Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel are pretty cool. It’s interesting because Apple doesn’t really use a celebrity a lot. I like how it’s not a celebrity becoming the face of the product but showing the “human” element (one of the key points I make in the book) so it’s about how they use it in their daily lives. The ads are charming, interesting, and — dare I say it — different.

CoM: Would you work with Apple again?

KS: If they call me, sure.

Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success. Ken Segall will be on a book tour, you can find out more details on his blog or Facebook page.


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