Category Archives: industrial design

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.

Who Killed Design Innovation?

Audi A7 concept

When I was in school studying Industrial Design I used to dream about designing concept vehicles for the major auto manufacturers what ID student didn’t?! I also dreamt of designing furniture, high technology-oriented objects, and complex environments for movies. Encompassing all of these elements my absolute dream job was to become a conceptual designer like Syd Mead, Doug Chiang, or Ryan Church.
Some of my classmates routinely brought in copies of Auto & Design to our studio classes and I would, on occasion, sit for hours and hours sketching cars —sleek organic and rectilinear forms (with wheels of course). I would illustrate interior views, exteriors perspectives, cut-away views and more, always trying to emulate the bold expressive lines articulated by the polished magazine renderings I found so inspiring. I must have spent thousands of dollars on Tria markers, prismacolors, guides, sketch paper, and other art materials.

Looking back on this formative period of my design education, I used to think innovative design—in particular vehicle design—was primarily an expression of aesthetic form, proportion, and visual composition. Ergonomics, mechanical function and usability, naturally very important design considerations, always seemed to play a role secondary to the aesthetic surface detail of the vehicle or product I was visualizing.

Now years later when I stop to consider many of the contemporary ads for vehicles I see on TV, in magazines, and on the Web, I notice the focus is almost entirely on the surface —exterior form, interior fit/finish, material selection, and technology features. Does your center console have real stainless steel and wood veneer accents? Got chrome aluminum alloy wheels? Got an iPod dock and GPS navi? Features, features, glorious features!

In the same way I was sketching car concepts at school as an inexperienced design student focusing on aesthetics, the car industry continues to focus on superficial surface cues as the defining characteristics of innovative design. The surface, it is thought from a marketing perspective, is the overriding determinant whether a consumer will be emotionally connected to an automotive product or not and is ultimately what drives (no pun intended) the decision to buy vehicle X over vehicle Y. I do not dispute these facts —styling sells automobiles —period.
However, perhaps I am alone, but I wonder what’s going on beneath the surface in terms of how or what is powering the vehicle. In comparing brands, I begin to ask deeper questions such as: how ecologically sustainable are the manufacturing processes used to mass produce this vehicle?
Call me an environmentally conscious geek, but in my mind true design innovation must extend far beyond the mere aesthetic surface titillation and raw horsepower I’ll probably never use sitting in traffic, but encompass more ambitious feats of design engineering. I am interested in the ratio of recycled materials to virgin materials used to manufacture said vehicle; I want to know the overall carbon footprint of said vehicle before I even get remotely excited enough to buy.

Perhaps we need a re-definition of what design innovation means because the automotive industry is sadly stuck in the dark ages.

The other night the CBC re-ran a broadcast of the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? Remember it? —I do. Released in 2006, this probing exploration into the demise of electric vehicles in the United States -in particular, the sudden death of the General Motors EV1 in the state of California and Arizona, paints a sombre picture of bureaucratic corruption and monopolistic business tactics stifling forward thinking automotive design and engineering.

We all know the story: big oil companies, government policy makers —and ultimately global auto manufacturers all seem to be forever living in a self-fabricated augmented reality where the emission standards of the cars we drive never seems to improve much beyond a snail’s pace; where unambitious fuel economy standards seem directly proportional to the financial disincentives put in place by the current administration in power and their (usually lax) policies regarding climate change and pollution control.

I tend to think we’re living out the tail end of the petroleum paradigm. An era slowly dying away where old establishments of manufacturing and technology built primarily upon industrial-age thinking are going out kicking and screaming as newer, greener technologies gain momentum and take hold in our marketplace.

Every year the major auto manufacturers promise us eco-friendly electric alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles are coming. EVs (not gas-electric hybrids) are just around the corner 5 to 7 years off into the future they tell us. GM, Honda, Toyota, and other global manufacturers tell us they’ve committed significant R+D and their brightest engineers into the field of electric vehicle technology—yet nothing ever seems to materialize in the marketplace. What’s going on here?

Watching Who Killed the Electric Car? again on the CBC the other night I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated.
I really want to buy an electric vehicle, but here we are in 2010 almost 8 years since the last EV1 was on the road prior to being destroyed by GM and still there are no mass produced electric vehicle offerings available from any of the major auto manufacturers.
Sure, there are numerous gasoline/electric hybrids available —but they still rely (albeit partially) on gasoline and traditional internal combustion components.
You could of course build your own electric vehicle -but who has the time available to rip apart an old car and retrofit all the necessary components? The only mass-produced “highway-capable” electric vehicle currently available I know of (as of this writing) is the $125,000 Tesla Roadster —not exactly a viable option for the average consumer.

Technology can have a strange and interesting impact on our lives. We live in an era where Apple followers have absolutely no qualms about camping out all night to get their hands on one of the recently launched iPads; we all seem to run around craving the latest and greatest mobile Web/GPS-enabled device or technological gadget. Yet for some strange reason we all seem perfectly content to drive around in our antiquated internal combustion engine powered cars—the basic design for which was developed over 150 years ago—how odd.

Maybe we suffer from a sense of nostalgia because a lot of us—like the auto manufacturers—seem to be living in the past. Will this ever change or has design innovation truly died?

In The Absence Of Industrial Design

When I first stumbled upon the new Sony Ericsson Xperia Pureness smart phone the other day during my morning coffee (image above), I was immediately struck with a feeling of spontaneous revulsion. The Xperia, in my humble opinion, has achieved the pinnacle of industrial design failure -a chamfered black box. Brilliant! Where can I get one of these ergonomically-obtuse smart phones?
I wonder, was the concept and inspiration behind this product design the science fiction movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact (the monolith; also in 2001: A Space Odyssey) or the 2001 Pontiac Aztek? Either way, the Xperia lacks any type of meaningful communicative form. Its ugly plastic shell trimmed with abrasively styled chamfered edges reflect a kind of inhumanity and artificial synthetic-ness. Precisely why you would want to put this odd rectangular shaped object to your ear, from an ergonomic perspective, in public to answer a call is beyond me. The enclosure housing design seems like it would be better suited to a container of motor oil.
Nevertheless I imagine the designers, engineers and perhaps brand managers over at Sony Ericsson, at some point in time during the Xperia’s inception, reached consensus on a compelling rationale for bringing to market such a cold and quintessentially austere-looking hand-held mobile device. Remove the Sony Ericsson logo and this object could, at first glance, be mistaken for a battery recharger or an electronic stud finder found at your local hardware store (Ironically, many of the current digital stud finders convey a more aesthetically inviting form and user interface than the Xperia).

Perhaps my critique is a little too harsh. Then again, I think when a mass produced consumer product like the Xperia makes its way to market, and by none other than global electronics powerhouse Sony Ericsson, I begin to think industrial design has died a miserable death and is no longer regarded as an essential step in the modern product development process.

Chasing The Minimalist Apple Aesthetic
The Xperia represents an inconsistently executed trend in product design that I believe has been going on for a long time now, ever since the first Apple iPod was introduced back in 2001. The trend toward simplicity through characteristically rectilinear product forms stripped of all but the essential UI elements, perhaps with no more than 3-5 buttons and virtually no superficial or extraneous styling cues and a filleted corner here and there. Some people refer to this as minimalism or the Apple aesthetic. Still others may make references to the strict form follows function philosophy and design principles employed, most notably, by Braun products during the late 1960s and 70s. Regardless of the interpretations, Apple get it right with almost every product they release. But unfortunately nearly everyone else, Sony Ericsson included, get it dead wrong every time.

In the case of Sony Ericsson and the Xperia Pureness, it’s amazing to think with all their global resources including, supposedly, the best and brightest technologists, market researchers, creative design and engineering minds, they can only come up with a dull-looking rectangular black box for their latest smart phone creation. Surprisingly this is a product intended to appeal to the growing mass market for high-end mobile lifestyle devices -ergo stylish object of desire? I think not.
It seems virtually all large international manufacturers of consumer electronics and technology related products still appear to be chasing Apple’s somewhat elusive success. There are so many bad knock-off renditions of Apple products it’s enough to make you sick. Apple’s ability to create the objects many people desire (and many companies quest to emulate) are a glorious testament to the power of good design. Moreover, the insight of Steve Jobs’ prioritizing of design above all else, and the clever intuition of perhaps the greatest industrial designer of our time, Johnathan Ive, it seems no organization is able to replicate the mystique of Apple design. In Objectified, we get a rare glimpse into this world through the detail-oriented and slightly obsessive perfectionism of Ive, responsible for virtually all of Apple’s products since 1997.

Industrial Design Becomes The Design Of Interactions And Experiences
I believe if industrial design is to remain a relevant part of the product design and development process, we must first come to terms with the fact that physical objects themselves are becoming secondary to interactions and experiences. Unlike the physical realm, these attributes are somewhat harder to quantify without at least delving into the realm of cognitive psychology and human-centered design theory.
Technology itself has played a significant role in determining the look and feel of a great many products available to us today. Advances in microprocessor miniaturization and storage technology over the past 20 years have facilitated products of increasingly smaller size. Coupled with the recent proliferation of multi-touch screen technologies and organic LEDs, common consumer products like smart phones, portable GPS devices, and e-book readers are invariably reaching a point of critical mass where the device itself can essentially be realized and paired down to nothing more than a flat plane or screen.


In the futuristic movie Avatar we are able to visualize a plausible future where, in this case, military and science personnel work and interact with a variety of digital surfaces and curved, three-dimensional holographic interfaces.

On another level, I believe part of the challenge for ID lies with existing product design-development paradigms where companies may prioritize engineering, development and manufacturing efficiency above design and user experience.
In terms of physical products, the cost of manufacture and assembly, the tendency to utilize existing production techniques to keep costs down, unfortunately play a greater role in dictating a product’s final outcome more than interaction and experience design modeling.

By contrast, the intangible realm of interactive design presents a somewhat different set of pseudo-physical design and development challenges. Caveats such as platform constrains (e.g. browser, OS), open-source versus proprietary frameworks (e.g. PHP versus ASPX.NET, Flash versus jQuery), can play a significant role in determining design outcome and whether or not a product will be successful or fail miserably.

Where does this leave the Industrial Designer?

I believe the Industrial Designer is left with the important role and responsibility of designing beyond the physical surface to maximize the effectiveness of a product’s intangible attributes. That is, tailoring a product’s interactive qualities to the benefit of the user’s experience. Industrial Designers must become experts in this area, orchestrating meaningful product interactions which place the human experience first with the things potentially undermining this relationship—things like creeping featurismkept at bay. The quality of our end user’s experience must be elevated to the highest pedestal to become the most important attribute of any product, application, device or service (along with environmental sustainability of course!). This is the new ID and what ultimately separates the good products from brilliant products we can’t live without.

“Gone are the blissful days of the ‘new objectivity,’ where things’ forms followed their functions. This is because in the age of microelectronics, it’s hardly possible any more for these functions to be illustratedjust witness the computer. To an exponentially increasing degree, the post-modern world consists of highly complex Black Boxes whose technical workings can only be explained by specialists. As I just mentioned, today’s design no longer strives for functional or objective transparence, but rather for security and the trust of the world. The more complex our world becomes, the more urgent the design of the interfaces between people and systems becomes. And thus the successful design of everyday items is no longer positioned towards the object, but rather towards the subject.” -Norbert Bolz

Further Reading
Donald A. Norman. The invisible Computer. The MIT Press, 1998.
B. Joseph Pine II, James H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
Donald A. Norman. Emotional Design. New York. Basic Books, 2004.
Norbert Bolz. The user-iIllusion of the world., 2008.
Sabeen Durrani, Qaiser S. Durrani. Applying Cognitive Psychology to User Interfaces. Part 3: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Intelligent Human Computer Interaction. Springer India, 2009.
Tim Brown. IDEO Human Centered Design IDEO Books, 2009.