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Design Doesn't Matter -- Yet

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Between Walter Isaacson's biography of him and the magnificent rally in the shares of the company he co-founded, the tech community writ large likes to proclaim that Steve Jobs forever changed things. "We'll take design seriously from here on," they say.

But is it the truth? I'm not so sure. Of the more than 74,000 available U.S. jobs tracked by LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD  ) , only 1,388 have "design" as a principal job function.

The openings vary widely. Ralph Lauren wants a Web designer to help create pages for the company's e-commerce sites. Honeywell's Building Solutions group has an opening for someone experienced with estimating the installation of specialty building systems. And retailer Forever 21 has an opening for a technical designer for "outerwear and bottoms." Oh, my.

What is design, anyway?
Part of the problem is how we define the term "design" when it comes to tech. Are we talking about aesthetics? To a degree, absolutely. Isaacson writes of how Jobs took to heart early advice from former board member Mike Markkula that consumers very often do judge products by appearance. They "impute" quality when the packaging is of a high standard.

But appearance wasn't Jobs' only emphasis. He also wanted unseen interior components of every Mac laid out in a clean, beautiful fashion. He wanted the Mac OS to be sparse, clean, and highly intuitive. Consumers should simply know how an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) product works; no manual required.

Perhaps it's because Jobs set such a high bar for what software and hardware design could do that the Mac maker has continued to outperform in the face of a declining PC market. Here in the U.S., Apple was the only computer manufacturer to enjoy growth in the fourth quarter.

Not a priority ... yet
But even if the numbers lend credence to my hypothesis, LinkedIn's job postings don't bespeak of a search for the next Jobs or Jony Ive. Scroll the list and you'll find more than 11,000 openings each for engineers and sales staff. More than 5,000 managerial and finance jobs are available. Design isn't a priority anywhere except Apple.

Will that ever change? I think so, if only because Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) appear to be taking to heart Jobs' insistence that design matters. Both tech titans rank in the top five when it comes to design jobs listed on LinkedIn. The Big G is also getting press for a redesign of its social network, Google+.

Judging by the open jobs, each company views design in similar ways. Most of the openings are for "user experience" or "UX" designers whose job is to create a satisfying entryway to a consumer product. Google wants people who'll spruce up YouTube now that it's launched a series of custom channels for premium programming.

Another job calls for analyzing how users interact with Google TV. Anyone else see this and wonder when the Big G takes another shot at a small-screen set-top box similar in scope to Apple TV? In a recent letter to shareholders, CEO Larry Page expressed high hopes for the soon-to-be acquired Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI  ) division.

Microsoft's openings are bit more broad-based, though bolstering the Windows Phone team appears to be a priority. Mr. Softy is hiring multiple "interaction designers" to figure out how to build user-friendly features into future versions of the operating system. A separate gig calls for an experienced graphic designer with "excellent typography skills" to join a team of user experience designers whose job, presumably, is to improve the look and feel of Microsoft-powered handsets and better compete with the iPhone.

A sharp-looking endgame
Looking at LinkedIn data, it still appears that Apple stands alone in its commitment to put design ahead of marketing and engineering. Yet deeper commitments from Google and Microsoft to hire the sharp-eyed suggest that Jobs will ultimately be proved right. Design doesn't matter yet, but it will someday.

Until then, as investors, all we can do is design portfolios that minimize risk and maximize reward. How to do it? A new Motley Fool special report offers specific guidance in this very area. Titled "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich," the report profiles three top businesses poised to outperform over the very long term. The research is free, but only for a limited time. Get your copy now.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Apple and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home, portfolio holdings, and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and LinkedIn and creating bull call spread positions in Apple and Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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