So what is their unique brand of genius? Here’s how I think of it: system-level design thinking powered by extraordinary conviction. Each of those italicized phrases is critical. Let’s dig in.
The first thing to note is that Jobs and Musk are not inventors in the typical sense of the word. The specific products they’re famous for all had numerous other creators. Steve Wozniak engineered the first Apple. The core ideas in the Mac’s graphical user interface came from Xerox PARC. Jony Ive was key to the design of the iPhone and iPad. A company called AC Propulsion helped craft the original tech vision for Tesla. And countless others made key contributions.
To appreciate Jobs’ and Musk’s contributions, you must pull the camera back. What they did uniquely was to imagine the broader ecosystems in which those products could become transformative. To do that involved an intimate understanding not just of the technology but of what would be necessary in design, logistics, and the business model to launch those products and make them truly compelling to potential customers. You can describe both men as amazing designers. But their design genius should be thought of as not just an obsession with satisfying shapes and appealing user interfaces. Those matter, but the start point is broader, system-level design. Most innovation is like a new melody. For Jobs and Musk it’s the whole symphony.