Jonathan Ive

Senior Vice President, Design at Apple

< >


Jonathan Ive

Senior Vice President, Design at Apple

The winner of the Design Museum's inaugural Designer of the Year award in 2003 was Jonathan Ive (1967–), Senior Vice President, Design at Apple whose innovations include the iPod, iMac, iPhone and iPad.

As Senior Vice President, Design at Apple, Jonathan Ive has combined what he describes as 'fanatical care beyond the obvious stuff' with relentless experiments into new tools, materials and production processes, to design such ground-breaking products as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air and iPad. He won the Design Museum's first Designer of the Year prize in 2003 for the iMac and iPod.

Born in London in 1967, Ive studied art and design at Newcastle Polytechnic before co-founding Tangerine, a design consultancy where he developed everything from power tools to televisions. In 1992, one of his clients — Apple — offered him a job at its headquarters in Cupertino, California. Working closely with Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, Ive developed the iMac. As well as selling more than 2 million units in its first year, the iMac transformed product design by introducing colour and light to the drab world of computing where, until its arrival, new products were encased in opaque grey or beige plastic.

Ive and his close-knit team of designers at Apple have since applied the same lateral thinking and passionate attention to detail to the development of equally innovative new products such as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus: the biggest advancements in iPhone history and the iPad Air 2: the thinnest, most powerful iPad ever.


How did you first become interested in design?

Design Museum

I remember always being interested in made objects. The fact they had been designed was not obvious or even interesting to me initially. As a kid, I remember taking apart whatever I could get my hands on. Later, this developed into more of an interest in how they were made, how they worked, their form and material.

Jonathan Ive

When did you decide to pursue design as a career and how did you go about it?

Design Museum

By the age of thirteen or fourteen I was pretty certain that I wanted to draw and make stuff. I knew that I wanted to design but I had no idea what I’d design as I was interested in everything: cars, products, furniture, jewellery, boats. After visiting a few design consultancies I eventually decided that product design would be a pretty good foundation as it seemed the most general. I studied art and design at school and went on to Newcastle Polytechnic. I figured out some basic stuff — that form and colour defines your perception of the nature of an object, whether or not it is intended to. I learnt the fundamentals of how you make things and I started to understand the historical and cultural context of an object’s design. I wish my drawing skills had improved, but while that bothered me then, it doesn't now.

Jonathan Ive

After graduating, you joined the design consultancy Tangerine. In retrospect, how useful was your experience there?

Design Museum

I was pretty naïve. I hadn't been out of college for long but I learnt lots by designing a range of different objects: from hair combs and ceramics, to power tools and televisions. Importantly, I worked out what I was good at and what I was bad at. It became pretty clear what I wanted to do. I was really only interested in design. I was neither interested, nor good at building a business.

Jonathan Ive

Why did you decide to join Apple?

Design Museum

I went through college having a real problem with computers. I was convinced that I was technically inept, which was frustrating as I wanted to use computers to help me with various aspects of my design. Right at the end of my time at college I discovered the Mac. I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use. I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company, how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky, almost rebellious company the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn't just about making money. In the early 1990s, I was living in London again and working with a number of clients in Japan, the US and Europe at Tangerine. Apple did a search to find a new design consultant and decided to work with me. I still remember Apple describing this fantastic opportunity and being so nervous that I would mess it all up. While I had never thought that I could work successfully as part of a corporation — always assuming that I would work independently — at the end of a big programme of work for Apple, I decided to accept a full-time position there and to move to California.

Jonathan Ive

You have described the experience of your first few years at Apple as frustrating. Why was this? And what changed?

Design Museum

One of my reasons for joining Apple had been a frustration associated with consulting. Working externally made it difficult to have a profound impact on product plans and to truly innovate. By the time you had accepted a commission, so many of the critical decisions had already been made. Increasingly I had also come to believe that to do something fundamentally new requires dramatic change from many parts of an organisation. When I joined Apple the company was in decline. It seemed to have lost what had once been a very clear sense of identity and purpose. Apple had started trying to compete to an agenda set by an industry that had never shared its goals. While as a designer I was certainly closer to where the decisions were being made, but I was only marginally more effective or influential than I had been as a consultant. This only changed when Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple) returned to the company. By re-establishing the core values he had established at the beginning, Apple again pursued a direction which was clear and different from any other company. Design and innovation formed an important part of this new direction.

Jonathan Ive

What are the advantages of designing for one company? And the disadvantages? What are the particular characteristics of the set-up at Apple that has made the experience of working there rewarding for you?

Design Museum

It is pretty humbling when so much of your effectiveness is defined by context. Not only is it critical that the leadership of a company clearly understands its products and the role of design, but that the development, marketing and sales teams are also equally committed to the same goals. More than ever I am aware that what we have achieved with design is massively reliant on the commitment of lots of different teams to solve the same problems and on their sharing the same goals. I like being part of something that is bigger than design. There is a loyalty that I have for Apple and a belief that this company has an impact beyond design which feels important. I also have a sense of being accountable as we really live, sometimes pretty painfully with the consequences of what we do.

Jonathan Ive

Similarly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of concentrating on the design of a particular product, in your case, the computer? And is the computer a richer, more rewarding area of design for you to concentrate on now than other products?

Design Museum

I had been concerned that moving away from working independently for a number of clients on a broad range of products would be difficult. Surprisingly this has not been an issue, as we are really designing systems that include so many different components — headphones, remote controls, a mouse, speakers, as well as computers. The issue has really been the focus on designing technologically based products. I love working within such a relatively new product category. The opportunities are remarkable as you can be working on just one product that can instantly shatter an entire history of product types and implicated systems. The iPod is a good example as it is not only a very new product but it clearly turns our users’ previous experience and understanding of storing and listening to music upside down.

Jonathan Ive

What are the defining qualities of the design of an Apple product? To what degree are they related to the design heritage of Apple before your arrival there?

Design Museum

In the 1970s, Apple talked about being at the intersection of technology and the arts. I think that the product qualities are really consequent to the bigger goals that were established when the company was founded. The defining qualities are about use: ease and simplicity. Caring beyond the functional imperative, we also acknowledge that products have a significance way beyond traditional views of function.

Jonathan Ive

How would you describe the organisation of the Apple design team?

Design Museum

We have assembled a heavenly design team. By keeping the core team small and investing significantly in tools and process, we can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare. Our physical environment reflects and enables that collaborative approach. The large open studio and massive sound system support a number of communal design areas. We have little exclusively personal space. In fact, the memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work.

Jonathan Ive

What is it that distinguishes the products that your team develops?

Design Museum

Perhaps the decisive factor is fanatical care beyond the obvious stuff: the obsessive attention to details that are often overlooked, like cables and power adaptors. Take the iMac — our attempts to make it less exclusive and more accessible occurred at a number of different levels. A detail example is the handle. While its primary function is obviously associated with making the product easy to move, a compelling part of its function is the immediate connection it makes with the user by unambiguously referencing the hand. That reference represents, at some level, an understanding beyond the iMac’s core function. Seeing an object with a handle, you instantly understand aspects of its physical nature — I can touch it, move it, it’s not too precious. With the Power Mac G4 Cube, we created a techno-core suspended in a single piece of plastic. You don’t often get to design something out of one piece of plastic. This was about simplifying — removing clutter, not just visual but audio clutter. That’s why the core is suspended in air. The air enters the bottom face and without a fan, therefore very quietly, travels through the internal heat sink. Movement within the cube is all vertical — the air, the circuit boards and even the CD eject vertically. The core is easily removed for access to internal stuff.

Jonathan Ive

You have said that, historically, advances in design have been driven by the development of new materials. Which new materials excite you most now?

Design Museum

Materials, processes, product architecture and construction are huge drivers in design. Polymer advances mean that we can now create composites to meet very specific functional goals and requirements. From a processing point of view we can now do things with plastic that we were previously told were impossible. Twin shooting materials, moulding different plastics together or co-moulding plastic to metal, gives us a range of functional and formal opportunities that really didn’t exist before. The iPod is made from twin-shot plastic with no fasteners and no battery doors enabling us to create a design which was dense completely sealed. Metal forming and, in particular, new methods of joining metals with advanced adhesives and laser welding is another exciting area right now.

Jonathan Ive

What are the other catalysts for design's development today?

Design Museum

New products that replace multiple products with substantial histories is obviously exciting for us. I think another catalyst is the tenacity and high expectations of consumers. With the iPod, the MP3 phenomenon gave us an opportunity to develop an entirely new product and one which could carry 4,000 songs. The big wrestle was to trying to develop something that was new, that felt new and that had a meaning relevant to what it was.

Jonathan Ive

Conversely, why are so many new products so bland and derivative?

Design Museum

So many companies are competing against each other with similar agendas. Being superficially different is the goal of so many of the products we see. A preoccupation with differentiation is the concern of many corporations rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better.

Jonathan Ive

© Design Museum, 2007



Born in London, where he spends his childhood


Studies design and art at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University)


Becomes a partner at Tangerine, a London-based design consultancy, where he works on a wide range of products from power tools to wash basins


Moves to San Francisco to join the Apple design team


Appointed vice-president of industrial design at Apple

Launch of the original iMac, which sells 2 million units in its first year


Introduction of the iBook, the 22" Cinema Display, PowerMac G4 Tower and iSub


Launch of the G4 Cube


Apple introduces the Titanium PowerBook G4 and the iPod portable MP3 player


Launch of the new sunflower-inspired iMac with 15" and 17" floating screens

Introduction of the eMac, a version of the iMac specially developed for use in the education sector


Apple launches the 12" PowerBook and the 17" PowerBook, which at 1" thick and 6.8 lbs was the world’s slimmest and lightest 17" notebook computer

Wins the Design Museum's first Designer of the Year prize


Launch of the multi-coloured iPod mini and ultra-slim iMac G5


Appointed senior vice-president of design at Apple

Launch of the Mac Mini


Awarded a CBE


Received a National Design Award in the product design category for his work on the iPhone


Received the MDA Personal Achievement Award for the design of the iPhone


Awarded a KBE for services to design and enterprise

In the Collection

Picking apples

A display of the Design Museum permanent collection, the Collection Lab is a conversation about design that will evolve over 2014 and 2015. Exhibiting until Summer 2015.

Apple Computer Mouse Model no. A9M0031

Computer mouse manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 1986

Apple Keyboard M0116

Computer keyboard manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 1987

Apple Extended Keyboard II

Computer keyboard manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 1989

Apple Power Macintosh 5500/275

Computer manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 1997

Apple iMac

'Cherry' model including keyboard manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 1998-1999

Apple Computer Pro Mouse Model no. M5769

Computer mouse manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 2000

Apple Pro Keyboard

Computer keyboard manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., United States of America, 2002

Related event

more designers for you

Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid (1950-) has defined a radically new approach to architecture by creating buildings, such as the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, with multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry to evoke the chaos of modern life.

Paul Smith

One of the few British-based fashion designers to combine commercial success with critical credibility, Paul Smith (1946-) is renowned for his idiosyncratic take on traditional British styling -'classics with a twist' - both in his fashion collections and his shops.