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?
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.
When did you decide to pursue design as a career and how did you go about it?
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.
After graduating, you joined the design consultancy Tangerine. In retrospect, how useful was your experience there?
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.
Why did you decide to join Apple?
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.
You have described the experience of your first few years at Apple as frustrating. Why was this? And what changed?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
How would you describe the organisation of the Apple design team?
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.
What is it that distinguishes the products that your team develops?
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.
You have said that, historically, advances in design have been driven by the development of new materials. Which new materials excite you most now?
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.
What are the other catalysts for design's development today?
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.
Conversely, why are so many new products so bland and derivative?
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.
© 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 Design Museum Collection
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
'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
DM25 What Next for Design? with Jonathan Ive
You've taken computers from something you take from a desk to something you put in a bag, to something you put in your pocket, to something you wear now. They're all very different things to do, aren't they?
We've been working on this product called Apple Watch. It's been one of the most intriguing programmes because the sort of transition of architectural technology, that became a little bit more personal and made its way into the home, a little bit more personal and into your pocket, this leap to what's worn is a really significant one and there have been some brilliant people in the last few centuries dealing with these issues.
Vico Magistretti is said to have suggested that unless you're clear enough about a design to describe it over the telephone in 3 minutes, you haven't finished designing it.
Yes, I still haven't lost that sort of wonder of the creative process, and I still think it's the most extraordinary process the way that it comes from nothing. The best ideas, just as Magistretti was saying, they start as conversations, don't they? If it's a big idea, I think you can distil that idea into a few sentences. It's a very fragile process because sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object, and so I've felt over the years, one of things I've had to learn a lot about is if it's a sentence it's about listening, and listening very, very carefully because at the earliest stage, a small change that we make right at the beginning defines an entirely different product at the end, so particularly at the very beginning of ideas, we have to have incredible discipline to listen really hard, and to realise and map out how we're going to end up somewhere different if we make these decisions.
There was once an idea that good design is something that lasts, and now of course we are in a world in which objects tend not to last very long.
I think that's a difficult one. They can last not so long because they're used multiple hours of every day. They can not last as long as you'd wished they did, because the technology relative to what's now available is so much more compelling. I think that's why we all find there is a certain delight in what tends to be singular function objects, because there's less of a requirement on the technology. I think it's a really tough one to compare those sorts of products and those discussions can become hopelessly simplistic.
But it's changing the way see the world, how design operates.
I think what it means is that for those products we are going to use for so many hours every day and are at that point of interface of incredible intimacy between us and the people we care about the most, I think what it means is that we need to invest as much care in how we develop them, as much care as possible in the materials that we use to actually make them. My interpretation is that we acknowledge that our responsibility as designers is important.
Do you think what design is now is the same as what it was when you were a student or has it changed to something different?
I think the skills are essentially the same. The thing that I find very sad, and I understand why, is that so many of the designers we interview don’t know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and a computer is cheaper. Computer rendering can make a really dreadful design look palatable, and I think that’s just tragic that you spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one. Now, that’s great if the ultimate result was to be a graphic image, that’s fine obviously, but how on earth you can do that if what you’re responsible to produce is a three dimensional object? So I think in some ways I’m feeling that the expectation, the contribution that the object can make is more important than ever, because these devices now are so unbelievably powerful in terms of what they can do in isolation and in terms of connecting us to each other.
You once said you shouldn’t be afraid to fail, which is quite an interesting idea.
Can you imagine you’ve got ten projects you’re working on and each of those ten could have a profound impact on culture in a good way, you really believe, and then you start to realise these four at least aren’t going to work. You don’t believe that we have some ordained right for them to work, they just don’t work unfortunately. For example with the phone, there were so many times when it really didn’t look like that was going to work and we nearly stopped. Do you know the George Bernard Shaw quote about innovation and being unreasonable? It’s a really beautiful thing to say, because to do something new that’s truly innovative, it does require that you reject reason.
DM25ivelive images courtesy of the Design Museum, photographer Andy Tyler
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