Real Artists Ship – The Difference Between Tools and Art

Steve Jobs was famous for writing on an easel during a 1982 company retreat, “real artists ship”.  This mantra would change Apple forever.  It solidified two things that would define the company for decades to come.


The events surrounding the retreat forced Jobs to focus his team on product delivery.  They had dedicated themselves to creating a perfect machine.  The only problem, like many perfectionists, they had no product.

A product is not a product unless it hits the market.  Before the day it hits the market, it is just an idea.  Jobs recognized this and spurred his team to deliver a product, hence “real artists ship”.

This phrase, Real Artists Ship defined two aspects of Apple that would later make it the United States’ largest company.

1. Apple creates art.  While most computer companies were building machines that would help people work smarter, Apple was creating an experience.  This was evident by their unwillingness to license their software to “clone” manufacturers.  There are two rules to being a company of artists:

  • You must create an experience.  If you’re creating a tool to perform something, you are not an artist.  Art is not about the product.  Art is about the emotions one experiences when they interface with the product.  This is evident in paint, music, and movies.  No one buys a DVD to own a piece of plastic. They buy the DVD (the tool) to experience the emotions of the artwork (the film).
  • Your experience must WOW your audience.  If you interact with a piece of art that does not evoke strong emotions, it is bad art.  A tool simply has to do its job to qualify as a tool.  Art must answer a higher calling.  Art must perform.  It must reach into your soul and pull out something you didn’t know was there.

2. Apple delivers.  The MacBook Pro that I write this article on is proof that “real artists ship”.  A dent in the universe cannot be made by an idea.  It is made through physical impact.  Proof of that is the currently “anticipated” Apple watch.  The idea has made ripples, but without a product on the shelves, it cannot make an impact.  To deliver you must do these two things.

  • Accept your work.  You can always make something better.  This is the plight of a perfectionist.  If “real artists ship” then real artists must accept their work at some point as good enough.
  • Exceed expectations.  You’re only as strong as your weakest link.  If there is a flaw, people will find it.  The only way to get people to look past the flaw is to blind them with fascination.  Deliver art that exceeds expectations and people will be able to look past your shortcomings.

The genes of America’s biggest company share the heritage of it’s artistic creators.  If you desire to succeed in the marketplace, take a page from the Apple playbook and become a company of artists.  Everything you create should be art that delivers.  And never forget “real artists ship”.

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