chris barr


What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Design

With a title like this, you probably think this is going to be about how clean the lines are on the MacBook Pro, or how amazing the attention to detail is in Mac OS X. Nope, I mean that time when Steve Jobs publicly critiqued my work. Let me explain…

Way back in 2005 Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger” was released and it had an exciting new feature at the time called Dashboard. Dashboard is a neat layer on OSX that allows various single-task “widgets” to be quickly shown and hidden, like calculators, package trackers, weather, etc.  Press a button, get your info or do your task, then hide it.  The thing that was so exciting about Dashboard was that behind the scenes it was just a website, nothing more than HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in it’s simplest form.

To me, this was incredibly appealing because I’ve used a Mac ever since I was a child and I’ve always wished that I could write some useful software for it, but I’ve never learned the languages.  When Dashboard was released I was in college at Full Sail pursuing my degree in Digital Media, which included all sorts of things like programming and web design.  Finally, a part of the Macintosh was now accessible for me to actually write software for!

Now, I just need an idea (which of course is one of the most difficult steps). I was not a very good programmer at the time so I needed something that would be simple to make but also something useful.  RSS Feeds were gaining popularity at the time, and then it clicked when I visited the CNN website. CNN has interesting content and an RSS feed – I can do this! To make it even better no one else had made a Dashboard widget that grabbed news from CNN, so I was the first with this particular idea!

I got started making it, and the code was difficult for me. I ended up modifying another RSS-reading widget and just putting a new face on it.  I struggled with it, but I ended up with something that worked.  When it came time for a design for the widget, it seemed like a no-brainer to me.  I took a look at the CNN website and it simply had to reflect that.

The only thing was that web design in 2005 was terribad, and even big companies like CNN were not excluded.  Here’s a screenshot I grabbed from of their website circa-2005 (warning, it has a popup!).


Not a great looking site, right?  Even going by 2005 website standards it was not considered a beautiful one.  With that in mind, here’s what the widget looked like.


Sadly I do not have an actual screenshot or older copy of the widget, the best I could do was take a screen grab from a youtube video.  It’s not great quality, but you get the idea and can hopefully see the resemblance to the CNN website. Glorious light blue background, mmm.

So there I was in 2005, I made a widget that showed news headlines from CNN which resembled their website. The widget actually got quite popular, I recall one day it actually was listed in the top 5 right on Apple’s homepage!  I was feeling pretty great about it.

Later in the year Apple’s WWDC event was held, and it was a great one.  Steve Jobs is on stage recapping their success with the new operating system release earlier that year, and he stopped for a quick demo of some of the neat Dashboard widgets people had come up with.  Take a look at the video below to see what happened next. (jump to about 15:35 if it doesn’t start there already, and watch until around 17:20 for what is relevant to this post)

Back then Apple would stream these events live on the internet, and I always watched live.  My jaw almost hit the floor when I saw STEVE JOBS himself drag out my CNN widget during a live demo! I was so incredibly exited (for about 5 seconds), but his only comment about my work is that “it’s not as nice looking as BusinessWeeks’ [widget]” which actually got a mild laugh from the audience! Devastation. Steve Jobs is and was almost like an idol to me, what he has accomplished in his lifetime is mind-blowing, and I love everything about the products his company creates.  But there he was, live, in front of the world telling everyone how mediocre my design was.

Ok, well maybe I’m making too big of a deal about this.  I made a thing for free and someone with a microphone and an audience didn’t like it.  It wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it certainly wasn’t the worst looking design I’ve ever made. I’ve got a folder full of embarrassing design attempts somewhere on a hard drive that are 10 times worse than this. Once the shock wore off, I realized he had a point.  The widget did match the CNN website, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it was a good idea.

I should have taken a step back and asked myself “does this look good?” but instead I asked “does this match?”

I only mimicked an existing design because it was easy, where what I should have done was get creative and come up with something on my own.  Shortly after the keynote video, I did just that and released an update to the widget with a fresh design.  It looked much nicer and more like what a widget should look like, not what the CNN website should look like.  Here’s a screenshot of the front and back of the redesigned widget.


It’s not the best, I know, but it’s much improved over the original one.  Honestly it didn’t even take me that long to come up with this idea, I just needed to be told “do it over, the current one stinks” and it made me realize that I needed to be creative instead of being close-minded and boxing myself into a bad design.  However, now that I look at this screenshot again, I do wonder what is up with the world’s most expensive lemon.

CNN has since changed their RSS feed, which messed up the widget a bit and I just never kept up with maintaining it.  It’s no longer available for download, and the contact information on the back is no longer good either.  Even though it’s broken, it does still “work” and I keep a copy of it on a backup drive so I can have a record of my work and to remind myself about Steve’s honest and real feedback.  I so wish that I had come up with this design from the beginning and that this was the one that was demoed, I’d be curious to hear what Steve would have said about it, if anything.

Steven Curtis Chapman Concert

Wow, it’s been a long while since my last post. I’ve been super busy with wedding preparations and such, but I hope to be posting more photography and/or code things here in the near future when I find the time to work on them. Now, onto this post:

My church recently was able to host the amazing Steven Curtis Chapman in concert this past week, and I was asked to be the event photographer! He is currently on the Glorious Unfolding Tour, going around the country with The Afters and Josh Wilson. Going into this I wasn’t familiar at all with the names of the opening acts, but after hearing a few songs I realized I’ve most certainly heard their music before.  All in all, a really fantastic show that I was very happy to play a small part in.

I love concert photography and it’s something I don’t get to do often enough. I always enjoy running up and down the aisles during a live show, I can go pretty much wherever I want and no one bats an eye as long as I’ve got the badge hanging around my neck.  I get to enjoy the music, but I also get a front row seat if I want it.  Oh, and eople watching. Lots of people watching.

Anyways, here’s a small sampling of some of my favorite shots from the night.