Jonathan Ive, the London-born head of design for Apple says “design is a word that’s come to mean so much that it’s also a word that has come to mean nothing. We don’t really talk about design, we talk about developing ideas and making products.”
The iMac, which he designed in 1998, revolutionized Apple, which was close to bankruptcy at the time. The iPod, in 2001, went even further and transformed the record industry. The iPhone had a similar effect on the mobile phone business when it was launched in 2007. And the iPad, which debuted in 2010, is leading the way in a whole new category of computing.
It’s hard to over-estimate the influence of Jonathan Ive.
“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly challenging,” says Ive. “Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that was eventually solved.”
Simplicity is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Ive but he is keen to emphasize that it has a specific meaning:
“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.
“The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It really is fundamental.”
That simplicity in the hardware has not always been matched in the software, which since the rise of iOS – the operating system for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch – has been marked by something known as skeuomorphism, a tendency for new designs to retain ornamental features of the old design. Thus the calendar in Apple’s Macs and on iOS has fake leather texture and even fake stitching.
When I mention the fake stitching, Ive offers a wince but it’s a gesture of sympathy rather than a suggestion that he dislikes such things. At least, that’s how I read it. He refuses to be drawn on the matter, offering a diplomatic reply: “My focus is very much working with the other teams on the product ideas and then developing the hardware and so that’s our focus and that’s our responsibility. In terms of those elements you’re talking about, I’m not really connected to that.”
After creating so many successful products, Ive could be forgiven for taking for granted the stream of ideas that he and his colleagues have produced over the years. However, he remains in awe of the process. “If you step back and you think about it in a very objective way, it is a remarkable thing that as we sit here right now, there’s not an idea. It just does not exist.
“And you can have this barely formed thought and then suddenly something does actually exist. Then that thought that is so tentative and so fragile normally becomes a tentative discussion and you’re trying to bring body to the thought with words. Generally what happens is that’s a conversation between a couple of people and is exclusive.
“And then you start to draw to try to describe and develop this fragile idea. Then a remarkable thing happens at the time you make the first object, the time that you actually give form and dimension to the idea. In the whole process, that’s the one point where the transition is the most dramatic and suddenly you can involve multiple people. It brings focus and it can galvanize a group of people, which is enormously powerful.”
In trying to understand Ive, it’s important to realize the level of sincerity and passion with which he holds these beliefs. These are not empty words; this is what he has devoted his life to. He says he tends to measure the last 20 years of his life by the problems he and his team were trying to solve at the time.
In developing ideas, Ive and his team will frequently go to great lengths, studying new materials, creating entirely new processes and consulting with experts from other industries in the search for solutions to whatever problem they are tackling at the time. In developing the original iMac, for example, Ive and his team talked to people in the confectionary industry about how to maintain a consistent level of translucency when producing the candy-colored shell of the computer.
One thing that Ive didn’t do in pursuit of design excellence is travel to Japan to watch a samurai sword being made. A story online claims that watching a samurai sword get made was part of the inspiration for the iPad 2 but Ive says that didn’t happen.
The story is believable because Ive and Apple are known for fanatical attention to detail. “Sometimes we’re very close to a problem and we’re investing incredible resources and time trying to resolve the smallest detail that is way beyond any sense of functional imperative… and we do it because we think it’s right.
“It’s the ‘finishing the back of the drawer’ – you can argue that people will never see it and it’s very hard to, in any rational sense, describe why it’s important but it just seems important. It’s a way that you demonstrate that you care for the people that you are making these products for. I think we see ourselves as having a civic responsibility to do that. It’s important. It’s right. It’s very hard to explain why.”
This attention to detail and the sense of values with which Apple imbues its products, combined with the remarkable run of success that his seen the company rise to be one of the largest in the world, could create the impression that the company never fails.
There have been unsuccessful products, such as the Power Mac G4 Cube, released in 2000, which was a striking piece of design but which failed to sell significantly, or even the Apple TV, which has remained a ‘hobby’ since its original release in 2007. But Ive says that most of the company’s failures are kept far behind the scenes.
“For a large percentage of a program, it often is not clear whether we are actually going to be able to solve the problems. For a significant percentage of the time we don’t know whether we are going to have to give up on an idea or not. And that’s been the case whether it’s the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad.”
He goes on: “And there have been times when we’ve been working on a program and when we are at a very mature stage and we do have solutions and you have that sinking feeling because you’re trying to articulate the values to yourself and to others just a little bit too loudly. And you have that sinking feeling that the fact that you are having to articulate the value and persuade other people is probably indicative of the fact that actually it’s not good enough. On a number of occasions we’ve actually all been honest with ourselves and said ‘you know, this isn’t good enough, we need to stop’. And that’s very difficult.”
There might be some significance in Ive’s switch from first person plural to third person in the previous paragraph or it might just be his turn of phrase. One thing that is certain is that Ive will almost always say ‘we’ when talking about his work, rather than ‘I’.
Ive says that knowing when to call a halt to a project is “an important part of my job”.
There is within Apple a strong belief in people focusing on their area of expertise, says Ive, but when a product is being developed the process can be quite fluid. He says: “As we’re sitting together to develop a product you would struggle to identify who the electrical engineer was, who’s the mechanical engineer, who’s the industrial designer.”
Teamwork is an important part of the process. “One of the things that is particularly precious about working at Apple is that many of us on the design team have worked together for 15-plus years and there’s a wonderful thing about learning as a group. A fundamental part of that is making mistakes together. There’s no learning without trying lots of ideas and failing lots of times.”
The last year has been one of significant change for Apple. A new chief executive, Tim Cook, took over just months before the death of Steve Jobs, the former chief executive and co-founder of the company. The absence of Jobs has led some analysts to predict an inevitable decline for the company.
As you would expect, Ive disagrees: “We’re developing products in exactly the same way that we were two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. It’s not that there are a few of us working in the same way: there is a large group of us working in the same way.”
That team is the reason that Ive believes Apple will continue to succeed. “We have become rather addicted to learning as a group of people and trying to solve very difficult problems as a team. And we get enormous satisfaction from doing that. Particularly when you’re sat on a plane and it appears that the majority of people are using something that you’ve collectively agonized over. It’s a wonderful reward.”