words Marcus Fairs
Designer of the iMac, iBook, iPod.
Winner of the Design Museum’s inaugural Designer of the Year award.
Quiet Englishman working in Silicon Valley who has changed the way we experience computers, and now music.
It’s 9am, the day after Jonathan Ive became the first winner of Designer of the Year. We’re in the penthouse suite at the St Martin’s Lane Hotel in Central London. There are two Apple PRs in attendance. Laid out on the table is a display of Apple products including the iBook, iMac and iPod. Ive is dressed the same as he was at the previous night’s televised award ceremony: plain navy T-shirt, grey combats, trainers. His stubble is a bit longer. He has huge upper-body muscles and cropped hair but exudes a surprising gentleness; deference, even.
Ive is just a normal guy who happens to have a genius for designing computers. He seems slightly dazed by his sudden celebrity and undertakes the gruelling interview schedule like a child obediently eating his broccoli. Congratulations on the award, I say, as he perches awkwardly on the sofa. “It’s really, um, no, thank you,” he says bashfully.
Designer of the Year doesn’t really come close to describing what Ive has achieved in the decade since he joined Apple. There are few designers who have had the commercial, critical and sociological impact of Ive and his small team at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. With the original iMac – launched in 1998 – he created the first home computer to be an object of both desire and affection, in effect feminising what had hitherto been a highly masculine product. Suddenly, computers were no longer defined in terms of hard-drive capacity and processor speed, but also in terms of colour, form and tactility. The iMac’s influence was enormous: besides turning around the fortunes of struggling Apple, it also spawned an avalanche of jelly-coloured products.
But Ive is a compulsive innovator, and the second-generation iMac – launched in 2002 – ditched the sweet-wrapper vocabulary for something more radical. With its dome-shaped base and free-moving flat screen mounted on an articulated arm, the all-white machine was utterly unlike any other computer before it. The iPod MP3 player – another white product that puts up to 7,500 songs in the user’s pocket – has had arguably an even greater impact since its launch in 2001, changing the way people consume music. Oprah Winfrey lists it as one of her favourite products and Robbie Williams mentioned it in a recent radio interview. When asked what CDs he was listening to, Williams sounded surprised by the question. “CDs? I don’t listen to CDs any more. I download tracks on to my iPod and create my own playlists.”
“Yeah, I heard about that,” says Ive, perking up a little. “The iPod has definitely had a very dramatic impact. It has very immediately changed the way we listen to music and, yeah, it’s a dramatic product. It’s funny, walking around town, seeing the little tell-tale white cables going up to the white headphones.” Like all Ive’s products, the iPod’s success lies in the integration of the physical design with functionality. The touch-sensitive dial interface allows users to effortlessly scroll through their music collection to select tracks previously downloaded from a computer using Apple’s iTunes software.
“In a way, the interface became the icon of the product,” says Ive. “So much of what we’re trying to do is to get design out of the way. Listening to music is a pretty loaded thing – it’s not trivial. I think so many of the objects we’re surrounded by seem trivial. And I think that’s because they’re either trying to make a statement or trying to be overtly different. What we were trying to do was have a very honest approach and an exploration of materials and surface treatment. So much of what we try to do is get to a point where the solution seems inevitable: you know, you think ‘of course it’s that way, why would it be any other way?’ It looks so obvious, but that sense of inevitability in the solution is really hard to achieve.”
Apple – where Ive is vice president of industrial design – is unusual among large corporations in that it is design-led and committed to innovation. The company abhors focus groups, instead relying on intuition to guide it towards market opportunities. All product development is done in-house: “I’m part of Apple. One of the things that’s very good about being part of a company is you live with the consequences of your work. That issue is really useful in terms of learning and increasing your understanding. That also develops a very clear sense of responsibility.”
There is no them-and-us divisions between his studio, the technical people and top management, Ive says. He works closely with Apple CEO Steve Jobs and the programmers, helping to develop new products right from the start. “We get involved really early on,” he says. “There’s a very natural, consistent collaboration with [Steve Jobs], with the hardware and software people. I think that’s one of the things that’s distinctive at Apple. When we’re developing ideas there’s not a final [technical] architecture established. I think it’s in those early stages when you’re still very open to exploration, that you find opportunities.”
With the iPod, for example, Apple spotted an opportunity to add value to an emerging product – the MP3 player – which, at the time, was being marketed by other companies as a gadget for techie-types familiar with the intricacies of downloading music files from the internet. The iPod, by contrast, was presented as a convenient, capacious and elegant replacement for portable CD players. People hardly use the term “MP3 player” any more; “iPod” has become almost generic.
The way the iPod allows users to consume music is having a profound effect. In May this year, Apple launched its iTunes store – an online record shop which contains 200,000 songs that, for 99 cents apiece, users can download via their Apple Macs to their iPods. It is only available in the USA at the moment but its success – 3.5 million paid-for downloads at the time of writing this article – is leading people to predict the demise of the CD and a radical restructuring of the music industry. Major record labels that have thus far adopted a head-in-the-sand approach to online music sales are sitting up and taking note.
For Ive, this success is a vindication not so much of his design, but of Apple’s holistic approach to product development. “I think the iPod’s success is to do with the integration of hardware and software with the physical interface that exploits and controls the [iTunes] application,” he says.
Although Apple products are hailed as stylish and iconic, Ive and his team are more akin to craftspeople than stylists, arriving at solutions through an intense analysis of function and a commitment to using materials truthfully. With the first iMac, he says, the idea of translucency emerged from a desire to use plastics in a new, honest way and not as a self-conscious wish to invest the computer with qualities of cuteness or sexiness. “Our goals aren’t as pre-digested as that. It’s much more of a focus on trying to make a better product, working those issues through and very specifically working on the issues of the materials – which are the best materials for that specific product? And that’s how the solutions tend to evolve, to grow.”
Ive describes the design process as intense, with his team first sketching furiously, later working up designs in various CAD applications which are then tested through physical models: “We make a lot of models and prototypes, and we go back and iterate. We strongly believe in prototyping and making things so you can pick them up and touch them.”
The outward appearance of the products is, Ive maintains, the organic result of an approach that devotes equal attention to every single component. The throbbing sleep indicator light on the iBook and the LED on the power jack that changes from yellow to amber when the computer is recharging are manifestations of this, as are the beautifully conceived pressed aluminium parts inside Apple laptops – elements that are hidden from view. “In the [Designer of the Year] exhibition [at the Design Museum] there’s part of the 17in PowerBook that we took to pieces so you can see our preoccupation with a part of the product that you’ll never see. I think – I hope – there’s an inherent beauty in the internal architecture of the product and the way we’re fabricating the product: laser-welding different gauges of aluminium together and so on. Very often people assume that it’s only if it’s a smaller volume production – batch production – that people will really be caring about all of the details. I think one thing that is typical about our work at Apple is caring about the smallest details. I think sometimes that’s seen as more of a craft activity than a mass-production one. But I think that’s very important.”
Designers who have copied the iMac colours are missing the point, he says. “The colour was just part of what we were trying to do for the first iMac. We don’t have a very formal direction in the sense that we’re going to be about a particular colour – it wasn’t just colour, it wasn’t just translucency. We were developing a very specific nature of translucency in some of the early products we developed. We also looked at monochromatic products that were much more about materials and depth.” The clear plastic G4 Cube (which was not a commercial success), the speakers for Harman Kardon and the Apple Studio monitors are among the results of this particular exploration. “So there were large, completely transparent plastics and then formed metal parts that are held or suspended within those large plastic parts. I think some of the white products we’ve done are just an extension of that.”
The decision to drop candy colours in favour of white – as with the iPod, new iMac, iBook and eMac – was similarly unconscious, Ive says. The fact that people subsequently read deeper meaning into the products merely serves to reassure Ive that they got the design absolutely right. “I don’t know, this wasn’t intentional on our part, but I’ve heard some people describe some of the white products as having this slightly optimistic sense of the future – I’ve heard people talk about the 2001 thing – and I think that’s not entirely inappropriate.”
Ive, 36, studied industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic, later joining London design consultancy Tangerine, where he designed combs, power tools and televisions, and sanitary ware for Ideal Standard. He also did some work for Apple. He had first discovered the company while at college, when he used a Mac for the first time. He found the experience revelatory. “I went through college having a real problem with computers,” Ive writes in his CV, published on the Design Museum website. “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.”
He joined the company full-time in 1992, around the time when the departure of Apple founder Steve Jobs heralded a disastrous departure from its commitment to design and innovation. But by 1997, Jobs was back and Ive was put in charge of design, hand-picking a team of designers – several of whom are British – to work in the company’s famously secretive studio. (Some of the team accompanied Ive to the party at the Design Museum. They were dressed exactly like Ive, had crewcuts like Ive and said as little as Ive.)
Jobs found a kindred spirit in Ive, challenging him to come up with a design that would mark Apple’s return to beautiful, easy-to-use products. The result was the iMac. Ive and Jobs obviously have more revolutionary products in the pipeline, although Ive isn’t prepared to hint as to what they might be. “We feel we’re just getting going,” he says. “I can’t tell you what we’re working on but you can extrapolate from the products we’ve developed already.”
Of all the products he’s designed, Ive says he is most proud of the iPod and the 17in PowerBook: “I’m travelling with them all the time. I’m really fond of those products.” However, he finds it difficult to name a product by another designer that he admires. “There are products you come across that you like, that have a real competence to their function and which are just lovely to use.” Such as? “It’s difficult; I’m trying to think of something recent… I think the Supporto [designed by Fred Scott in 1979] is a wonderful chair. The narrowback version – when you use it – makes so much sense. It’s a really beautiful chair.” The Apple design studio is fully kitted out with Supportos.
It’s 9.30am and the interview time is up. One of the Apple PRs wags his finger like a schoolmaster to signify the end of the conversation. Time for one more question: why do you dress so casually? “I hope what we… we’re not trying to… so much of what we’re trying to do isn’t about this kind of design statement. Somehow the appearance is consequent to so much more. It’s not a predefined appearance that we force on to a product. So, yeah, it’s an oblique answer to your question, but… yeah.”