The Designer Behind The Curtain

Jonathan Ive Industrial Design IconWe always hear a great deal about Steve Jobs in the news and media—after all, he is the face of Mac, iPod and the growing iPhone/app ecosystem. Jobs routinely plays the outspoken iProponent evangelizing the über minimalist—some say elitist—design we all seem to crave, and have now come to expect, from Apple.

But what about Jonathan Ive?

We never seem to hear much about Jonathan Ive—the clever, detail-oriented Industrial Designer behind nearly every Apple product on the market over the last decade. Rather, the focus always seems to be on Steve Jobs and his grandiose keynotes at the annual WWDC, among other high profile venues.

Steve Jobs is widely regarded as the most charismatic and successful CEO of all time—period. But what most people don’t realize is that Jonathan Ive, more than any other person, is the biggest reason Jobs (and Apple) have been such a success.

Ive and his tight-knit design team work behind the scenes and out of the media limelight, quietly innovating with new materials and manufacturing processes which ultimately give Apple wares that unmistakable je ne sais quoi. A look and feel so many other brands blatantly copy but have yet to successfully replicate.

The contributions made by Ive and his team to modern Industrial Design are nothing short of iconic. Many Apple products are comparable to the likes of historically significant Industrial Design work by Henry Dreyfuss, Dieter Rams, and Philippe Starck to name a few (Starck’s juicer significant? -absolutely!).

Ive’s work ethic is legendary, marked by a rigorous design process which has been described as one that “revolves around intense iteration—making and remaking models to visualize new concepts”. As one former colleague recalled upon visiting Ive’s flat back in 1985 while completing his final year of the design program at Newcastle Polytechnic: “[I was] shocked to find it filled to the rafters with hundreds of foam models of Ive’s final project”, “I’d never seen anything like it: The sheer focus to get it perfect”.

Imagine being classmates with someone like that—someone driven like Ive. On one level Ive’s passion must have inspired a lot of his colleagues to push harder, dig deeper, and go the extra mile. At the same time, others around Ive may have no doubt felt severely intimidated by his fanatical desire to set the design bar so high. In any case, speaking professionally or in the context of school in the past, it must be quite an experience working with someone like Jonathan Ive.

In fact, it’s very likely Ive’s reputation for perfection was precisely the quality Jobs was looking for most in a design lead when returning to Apple Computer back in 1997. Certainly Jobs’ mandate to rebuild the Apple brand—then arguably at its lowest point—formally inaugurated design (and Ive) as the catalyst for change, encapsulating Apple’s (then) Think Different mantra, which still endures to this day.
Since that decisive point in time when Ive and Jobs began their storied collaboration, Apple has risen to become one of the most envied technology brands in the world (Toronto now has 4 Apple retail stores, 6 in the province of Ontario).

Ive’s design philosophy permeates every infinitesimal product detail, from the ergonomics of a wire connector plug to the tactile feeling of a machined aluminum CPU bezel. The design of every seemingly insignificant hardware component to the way OS X Snow Leopard boots-up and shuts down forms a exceptionally coherent and memorable user experience. In the end most of us—ok perhaps only some of us—consciously appreciate these sometimes small aesthetic and functional affordances.

Therein lies the charm and elegance of Ive’s Industrial Design solutions for Apple: understated simplicity through less—not more—features, buttons and the not-so-necessary dorky add-ons which, in competitor products, conspire to add unnecessary complexity and thereby cloud our experience with said technology. But not in Apple’s case, thanks to Ive’s ruthless approach to reductionism.

Quite frankly, Apple are probably one of the few technology companies out there thinking holistically about brand/product experiences in this fashion, from the way we initially purchase our product in store to the way we unpack and plug in our device and buy an app online. Who else thinks past the point of sale? Clearly Jonathan Ive and his team consider these variables as part of the design process, exploring new ways a computer can be much more than just a cold austere box.

Regardless, Apple has become one of the most—if not the most—design oriented company on the planet. In fact Ive, who’s formal title is Senior Vice President, Industrial Design, reports directly to Mr. Jobs—something most large companies would balk at implementing.

An Industrial Designer reporting directly to the CEO. Brilliant!

What this says to all of us is that design is elevated to the highest level at Apple, causing potentially fewer obstacles to undermine the purity of concepts. By contrast, and not to generalize but, most other companies pay lip service to prioritizing design as a business strategy. Many organizations are structured with far too many management layers and stakeholders with a voice influencing Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering, among other innovation driven endeavors, to effectively realize a product on par with the level of design refinement achieved by Apple. For these such companies, talking about wanting to ‘be more like Apple’ is both laughable and simply not possible unless dramatic changes are made to how they regard creative design and development processes.

Jonathan Ive and his design team at Apple continue to set the UX bar for everyone else—certainly the tech industry—in terms of the power of design to differentiate and captivate us on an emotional level.

Behind every great CEO/company is a great forward-thinking creatively-driven design team. In the case of Apple, that team is lead by Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the curtain.

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