Steve Jobs is dead and it kills me to have to say that. He has contributed more innovation to our  society than most of us who have been left to live on. He has many lessons to teach us (see his speech at Stanford University for examples) but here is one that hit me as I was walking through the Penn Museum right after news of his death.

Jobs was famous for not using focus groups and consumer testing to try out his spectacular new products before they hit the market. I have been at several of his keynote presentations at MacWorld in San Francisco and Boston in the 1990s and the thousands of us who entered the auditorium to hear him (after waiting in line for hours) always left wanting the new gizmo or service he had just introduced. We were some of the cutting edge computer people then so we weren’t naive about what we had been shown. But no one had asked our opinion before the iPod, iPhone, or iPad were introduced. Instead they were designed and created by innovators, design geniuses, and people with a visionary mode of thought. Jobs exemplified this type of leadership.

An article after his death in Forbes magazine explained it this way:

 To create the future, you can’t do it through focus groups – There is a school of thought in management theory that … you’ve got to listen to your customer.  Steve Jobs was one of the first businessmen to say that was a waste of time.  The customers today don’t always know what they want, especially if it’s something they’ve never seen, heard, or touched before.  When it became clear that Apple would come out with a tablet, many were skeptical.  When people heard the name (iPad), it was a joke in the Twitter-sphere for a day.  But when people held one, and used it, it became a ‘must have.’  They didn’t know how they’d previously lived without one.  It became the fastest growing Apple product in its history.  Jobs (and the Apple team) trusted himself more than others.  Picasso and great artists have done that for centuries.  Jobs was the first in business.

There is a new exhibit in the Penn Museum that is soliciting ideas from the general public about how and why the museum should display its African collection. This is apparently a favorite approach of funding agencies these days, funding processes that ask visitors what they want and then giving it to them. Imagine doing that with, for example, the upcoming Penn Museum exhibit on the ancient Maya and 2012 predictions of the end of the world: It could have ended up looking like a display at a bad New Age convention (rest assured,  it won’t).

Now the Penn Museum exhibit, Imagine Africa, has some fine notions and impressive community leaders behind it, and there is no faulting it for trying to involve outsiders in the planning of an important exhibit. But you have to wonder if the museum would be willing to do the same thing with, say, the collection from the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Let’s bring in some Greeks and Romans and ask them what they think of their stuff displayed all lined up in pretty cases. Or if it would be willing to let Israelis and Palastinians come in and scribble up stuff about how to display their conflicting groups. Should an entire museum be designed this was or is there something special about Africa that requires this approach?

Within the museum there is not a visionary, like Steve Jobs, who can come up with a way of seeing this amazing collection of cultural artifacts in a fascinating, innovative, shockingly brilliant, or awe-inspiring way. Good exhibits don’t come from comments written on white boards or from survey questions on a computers. They come from visionaries, as Jobs has said, who connect the dots in ways no one else can see. As Jobs stated it,

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Designers, then, of a new African exhibit need to be thinkers: they have to really “get” the material, not just make it look nice. They have to know it, figure out how it works. As nice as it is to get comments on the displays of clothing and toys and body decoration, it takes living with these objects for more than a few minutes to “get” them. As Jobs described it, ” It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

The thinking Jobs is talking about is described in the “Think Different” ad campaigns that Apple used to honor and align itself with the world’s creative thinkers. The text of the ads, both as videos and in print, stated,

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

As Jobs concluded, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” A broader understanding of human experiences, the kind that anthropologists develop through their cross-cultural perspective, could help develop a new African exhibit but the museum has not invested in a full-time African curator, a curious oversight considering the data being gathered by the exhibit needs to be analyzed by someone with the broader experience that includes actually being able to make those creative connections that come from years of fieldwork and research in Africa. Just tabulating the “metrics” and spitting out marketing plans would be an insult to the  inspiring thoughts Steve Jobs has put into our world and to the millions of Africans who made and used these objects.

Steve Jobs: gone, just when we need him the most.

A friend just sent me a link to an amazing LEGO site and it reminded me of the silly attempt by some anonymous staffer at the Penn Museum to ridicule my interest in LEGOs. The link was to a full world creation of Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings movies and books. Now I must confess that I know more about Lord of the Rings from the superb WMS slot machine created recently with that theme than I do from the books and movies but I can appreciate the effort to recreate an entire world with LEGOs or any other medium (my theory of film is very much related to this concept). The work was collaborative, international, showed the value of community, expressed an entire comprehensive culture, was expertly done, cared about its audience, excited viewers, showed care and creativity, was both individual and communal, was family friendly and great for adults too, and just makes you smile with wonder. When was the last time you saw anything at a traditional museum that did the same for you?

Photo by Leda Kat

An overview of the 2011 Brickworld collaborative project