With the death of Steve Jobs, and the publication of Walter Isaacson's much-hyped biography of him, everyone is talking about entrepreneurship and design.
The media describe Jobs as an innovative visionary, whose love of the clean-cut Modern look of the German Bauhaus inspired him to remake the geeky beige desktop computer into a user-friendly object of desire. Isaacson argues that by extending that design philosophy to all of Apple's products -- from the iMac to the iPod, the iPhone to the iPad -- Jobs became the most important entrepreneur in the most important industry of the early 21st century.
This version of Jobs's story embodies the tech industry's belief that everything ever done in Silicon Valley is new and different. But it reflects a degree of historical amnesia: The idea of using design to gain advantage over the competition is at least as old as the first Industrial Revolution.
In the 1760s, a backwoods British potter named Josiah Wedgwood joined big-city merchant Thomas Bentley and created one of the world's first design-driven companies. Wedgwood and Bentley were remarkably like Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Inc. Wedgwood and Wozniak were both geeks with deep knowledge of the technology. Bentley and Jobs were design futurists who could imagine how consumers might respond to new products.
Both companies came to dominate their industries through a combination of entrepreneurial drive, technological innovation and aesthetic savvy.
In Georgian England, it was the formidable combination of the potter's high-tech wizardry and the merchant's marketing skill that put the Wedgwood firm on the map. The partners anticipated the growing desire among Britain's middle class for the finer things in life, such as the mahogany tea tables, silver flatware and luxurious white dishes used by the gentry, the aristocracy and the royals.
From the 1740s onward, British pottery factories experimented with new clays to create fine tableware, but many of them still produced spotted brown glazes and made teapots that looked like cauliflowers. Wedgwood and Bentley rejected this aesthetic and took their design ideas from the clean, modern neoclassical look that was all the rage in London. They banished mottled glazes and developed new high-tech glazes and clay bodies that they used to make a plain off-white pottery called “creamware.” Aware of the market value of status symbols, Wedgwood made a special creamware service for Queen Charlotte and secured her permission to call the new line "Queen’s ware." Here was design thinking with a royal twist.
Once Queen’s ware was established, Bentley -- a marketing maven before anyone had heard of marketing -- had to figure out how to sell it to Britain's new middle classes. His solution was a special Wedgwood store that would draw shoppers who wanted the latest status symbols.
Located in London's fashionable shopping district, the new store was outfitted in the neoclassical style. Shoppers could browse the merchandise, which was artfully laid out on tables just as it would be used in the home or club. Teapots were displayed next to teacups and tea strainers; dinner plates sat next to elaborate, tiered dessert trays; and picture medallions of the latest West End actors were arranged in curio cabinets. Ceramic portraits of King George III and large Queen’s ware relish dishes had shoppers' heads spinning with new ideas -- not unlike how they feel in today's Apple stores.
Bentley, like Jobs, was an astute observer who learned much by roaming through the retail districts of Liverpool and London. He loved to size up the ladies as they window-shopped and browsed through the merchandise, much like Jobs loved to prowl around the malls. Through years of people watching, Bentley and Jobs each developed an intuitive understanding of what consumers wanted.
Wedgwood introduced major technical innovations to the potteries: division of labor, the assembly line and new formulas for clays and glazes. Perhaps because we associate the Industrial Revolution with mechanical triumphs of this kind -- such as the steam engine and the spinning jenny -- history has remembered Wedgwood long after Bentley.
The reverse seems to hold today. We celebrate Steve Jobs, but are far less cognizant of Wozniak, not to mention the scores of technologists who work behind the scenes at Apple. In 21st-century America, marketing has triumphed over manufacturing, at least in the way we remember our entrepreneurs.
Isaacson tells us that Jobs's particular gift was that he knew what consumers wanted before they knew that they wanted it. He tells us that the Apple Store was created not just as a showroom for products but as a user-friendly playhouse for consumers. More than 200 years ago, Wedgwood and Bentley had a similar intuition, helping Britain's growing middle class understand that they wanted fine white dinnerware before they knew they wanted it.
From the kilns of North Staffordshire to the office parks of Silicon Valley, such marketing insights have often done more to propel innovation than the products themselves.
(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and is the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming “The Color Revolution.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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