Peter Gould

Heart of Design ConversationS

Finding Focus

Heart of Design ConversationS

Finding Focus

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews the Head of Consumer Product, Home Services, at Apple, Farman Syed

Having joined Apple as an intern in 2001, Farman Syed has worked at the cutting edge of creativity, technology and design leadership for more than 20 years. As his professional career has developed over these past two decades, so has his spiritual awareness, and I was interested to learn how his work and faith have interacted to help elevate one another.

A fastidious attention to detail has always been a key skill for designers, and has sometimes defined particular practitioners’ reputation and legacy – setting them apart from colleagues, peers and competitors, who might also be talented when it comes to details, but not quite that talented.

Over the course of my 20 year professional career, one of the most talented and successful ‘details people’ I’ve met is without doubt Farman Syed - Apple’s Head of Consumer Product, Home Services.

Farman and I met when I lived and studied in the Bay Area some years ago, and have since stayed in touch, connected by a love not only for design, but also photography, travel, Islamic arts and architecture, and journeying on the spiritual path.

I am also inspired by his meticulous approach to his work and the attention to detail that he pours into every aspect of it. During a recent conversation we explored how spirituality has inspired and influenced this approach and his professional journey; a journey rooted in high school during the 1990s, where he developed an interest in computers.

It was there that one of his teachers established an Engineering Technology Lab, which received donations from various companies, including a shipment of then five-year-old Apple Macs, which he and a small handful of friends would explore and learn on.

Excelling in programming and coding, he majored in Computer Science and set out on a trajectory that would see him join Apple as an intern in the summer of 2001. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was around this time that Farman started to notice the similarities between design and spirituality, seeing “an intersection between that desire for purity and simplicity in a design, and that purity and simplicity in what you believe”.

“In a way faith is just a collection of values, and design is the same thing,” he explained.

“As you go through your journey of designing things, or being interested in different designs, you see certain values in those designs. The house that I live in is a classic example of California architecture with lots of glass and post-and-beam construction, which is very elemental – open plan and minimalist. The values are simplicity, no clutter, big sight-lines, and so on.

“And I started to see these values in spirituality too. I started to see parallels. And the more I travelled, the more I saw these parallels getting close and closer in architecture around the world.

“The idea of faith and design, it’s a very old idea – no matter which faith-based group you think about, there’s always a link there. But Islamically, you only need to go to Cordoba or Istanbul, or any of the other incredible cities to see that rich history and that very clear link between faith and design.”

“You only need to go to Cordoba or Istanbul, or any of the other incredible cities to see that rich history and that very clear link between faith and design.”

It was travel that gave Farman a deeper appreciation of design; particularly the precision and “purity” of Islamic architectural design.

“I started travelling right after college,” he said. “I went to China for the first time, and then the following year to Spain, and then to Turkey. I started taking photographs, wondering what  kind of interesting angles I could find. I would walk into a mosque or into a building, and  would look for unusual angles, approaching things from a different way, and looking at the different patterns around me. I really love symmetry and perfect lines, so I spent a lot of time looking at these things.

“And that's where I started to really see that these things were created with perfect sightlines, perfect angles. Even though they were built hundreds of years ago and didn't didn't have technology like laser levels or anything like that. And that was remarkable to me.

“I would see incredible creations like the Alhambra or the mosque in Cordoba and wonder how did they get these arches to all be perfect, without any modern tools to do it? So it was then that design and spirituality really started to come together for me.”

Dedication, focus and presence

Reflecting on the deeper nature of this relationship, Farman explained that it was the process of creation rather than the finished product itself that offered him the most inspiration.

“The only way to create or evoke something with that much emotion in it is to work with incredible passion, dedication and focus. You can’t just follow a formula, or create a facsimile of something else – it will lack ‘soul’ for want of a better word. I mean, you can walk into a building and say that it is statistically perfect, but it feels sterile. There’s no heart, no soul, no warmth. Something is missing. Whereas you can walk into somewhere else and feel uplifted. You can tell that it has been created with somebody’s passion, craft, dedication, and attention to detail.

“The only way to create or evoke something with that much emotion in it is to work with incredible passion, dedication and focus.”

“Especially architecture from the Renaissance or the Islamic Golden Age architecture, it just fills you with some emotion. And I really believe this is because you know somebody must have spent thousands of hours perfecting their craft, perfecting this building. There was a vision that really meant something – whether that came from a patron, or the artist or architect, and it was carried out with total focus and dedication, down to the smallest detail.”

This level of Ihsan (which can translated as ‘excellence’, and related to ‘beautification’) is often said to typify Islamic art and architecture, as well as other traditional crafts, and can give us a wonderful model to aspire to and try to inculcate in our own work.

But what happens when budgets, resource deficits, deadlines, and other common challenges creep in? How can we achieve our vision when we have so many barriers to executing it in the way we would hope to? How do we combat dissatisfaction and frustration when we have to make so many sacrifices, whizz through work, or compromise on our plans and intentions?

For Farman, the answer comes down to presence. He argues that whatever task we’re focusing on, however small, or however different to our original vision, be present with it and do it the best we can. Excel at whatever is in front of us, and trust that those little modules of excellence will create something great at the end.

“You need a clear vision – an ambitious goal of what you’re trying to achieve, but in trying to create that, at least in my experience, you will always feel dissatisfied along the way. Things will rarely go perfectly to plan, with so much time pressure, creative constraints, and the sacrifices we have to make because of realities like people and budget. A lot of the time we think ‘wow, this isn’t even a fraction of what I had envisioned’.

“But this is kind of beautiful, because it forces you to be really present on the job that’s right in front of you. When you finally get to executing your plan, you cut it down into manageable tasks, and make sure you do what’s in front of you really, really, really well. And then you do the next thing in the same way. And you try to stick to your North Star, but even if things go differently to planned, you know that what you have done has been done with passion, with focus. And when you finish and take a step back you can see that you’re left with something pretty remarkable.

“It’s almost like you're painting with little dots. Each individual dot doesn't seem like it matters that much, but at the end, when you zoom out and you see the whole picture, it looks fantastic.”

“It’s almost like you're painting with little dots. Each individual dot doesn't seem like it matters that much, but at the end, when you zoom out and you see the whole picture, it looks fantastic.”
Doing it for the right reasons

With such a clear relationship between focus, detail and design, I wonder how maintaining a spiritual practice can help us establish this focus in our work: The presence, concentration, love and dedication required to elevate our creative output – whatever form it takes?

Spiritual traditions around the world advocate meditation, prayer, mindfulness, and various  types of rituals that can help us in myriad ways. Sometimes they help us achieve a state of calm, from which we can more easily solve problems or think creatively. Other times they can give us routine; anchoring us despite our hectic schedules and heavy workloads, and giving us time to decompress, manage our time, and establish a structured routine.

These practices also give us a platform to exercise the presence necessary to focus fully on what’s in front of us, allowing us to do the little things well without becoming distracted, overwhelmed or sidetracked.

They might also help us to focus our attention on what we might consider the ‘right’ things, according to our material and spiritual beliefs. This is certainly the case for Farman, who believes it’s important to focus on the right things for the right reasons, both professionally and spiritually.

“There's a Hadith in Islam that says something like ‘you could spend a third of your wealth on perfume, and it wouldn’t be considered extravagant’,” he said.

“People think this is very unusual when they hear it, as they think Muslims should be frugal and not spend on something that’s perceived as vanity.

“But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, if you’re doing it in pursuit of bettering yourself in the eyes of God, then it’s seen as beneficial.”

In Islam it is also said that wearing perfume is a form of sadaqah (charity) rather than an indulgence, as the fragrance is pleasant and therefore beneficial for other people, not simply for yourself.

“I heard another story from somebody who told me that they had a teacher who had the most expensive prayer beads – very expensive and very rare,” continued Farman.

“They asked their teacher why they spent so much money on prayer beads? They could buy any prayer beads, so why these expensive ones? Especially when their teacher was very frugal with everything else.

“The teacher said something like ‘how can I spend any less on the most beautiful?’ He explained that if you’re thinking about spending on beauty for the sake of the most beautiful, which is God, then that’s money towards beautifying his name. And when you say the names of God while counting on these beads that are made from the finest material, you’re doing it for the most beautiful who created that material.

“It’s like building a piece of furniture as well as you possibly can. If you’re doing it for the purpose of beautifying the One who created that material, then it’s for the best reason. You’re doing it with the purpose of furthering your faith. It’s the same when you’re trying to make your products perfect; or at least the best you can make them. In doing so, you’re trying to make your faith the best you can make it too. Maybe we’ll never reach perfection, but that’s the journey – always pursuing that next level.”

“Maybe we’ll never reach perfection, but that’s the journey – always pursuing that next level.”

Working in such a way truly encourages us to consider what we are doing and why we are doing it. What benefits does our work have for customers, clients, teammates and ourselves? How can we improve our strategies, processes, products, and services to be more meaningful and impactful? How important are the nuts and bolts of our work in creating something of the highest quality, and how can we turn that focus inwards to create something profound within us, too?

It truly feels as though Farman is putting into practice this thoughtful, mindful, beneficial approach to work: A detail-oriented approach that we can all learn from as we continue to find our own intersections of design, creativity and spirituality in the professional world.