When Alan Dye started at Syracuse University, he intended to study illustrating and painting.
So it may come as a surprise that he is now an executive with the technology behemoth Apple.
But for Dye, it makes all the sense in the world. He is the vice president of user interface design, and can fully appreciate the fact that creativity is essential for a company to succeed — even one focused on technology.
“We work really, really closely with very creative engineers and scientists to make these products, and so in some ways that’s where, I think, we do our best work, when we’re all working together, not only as a design team but also as a collective,” Dye said.
Dye spoke at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Tuesday as part of the celebration of the Virginia Commission for the Arts’ 50th anniversary.
The evening was meant to recognize the intersection of art and technology, and was held at the museum in part because it is currently hosting its “Da Vinci Alive” exhibit.
Leonardo da Vinci was a master at combining art and innovation. He may be best known for his “Mona Lisa” painting, but he had a multitude of inventions — like flying machines — that he scribbled in notebooks.
The designs were created long after his death in real life, and are currently on display at the Science Museum.
Dye’s conversation with moderator Vida Williams — Virginia Commonwealth University’s Da Vinci Center innovator in residence — was the highlight of Tuesday’s event. Apple executives are famous for their discretion about their work, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe personally wrote Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, about the event, asking if Dye could speak.
“We’ve got to open up people’s minds, we’ve got to get cognitive reasoning going on, we’ve got to deal with the STEM courses — it’s critical,” McAuliffe said Tuesday.
“The arts is a huge part of that because it does open up the mind, you’ve got to have a whole intellectual experience, but we have to get curiosity, and this ‘Da Vinci Alive,’ certainly — it makes all of us look like failures,” he continued. “You’ve just got to get up and do something after having just walked through it.”
For Dye, creativity and technology marry best when a design appears seamless.
“What we really love is when we make a product or an experience and it works in such a way that you just imagine that there’s no other way that it could have worked, and that the solution we’ve come up with is just inevitable,” Dye said.
“Hopefully not only does it look easy and it works, but it also doesn’t feel as if a ‘designer’ has been involved.”
To achieve that at Apple, he said creativity is key. But so, too, is the culture.
He stipulated that Apple’s workplace isn’t the type with bean bag chairs and rooms filled with Lego blocks. Rather, the open environment encourages collaboration and dialogue.
“We try and create a space where people can feed off one another,” Dye said. “There’s something about the culture that helps to incite ideas. And sometimes the best ideas come from the folks who aren’t necessarily working on that project.”
While visiting the Science Museum, Dye walked through the “Da Vinci Alive” exhibit. He said he was struck by the fact that da Vinci created his flying machines and other inventions when there was basically no chance they could be created.
He was never bound by any constraints, Dye said, adding that he admires the 15th-century painter and inventor for that.
“And I really think we’re at a very similar point in time now, where I think technology is advancing at such a fast pace that we do have to start thinking about what’s out there a bit further, because that’s going to happen sooner than we think,” he said.
“As a creative person, you have to imagine the sort of experience that you want to create, and then worry about how you get there after the fact.”