Q: How do you make a world beating iconic product and thereby revive the fortunes of your $2 billion loss making computer company ?
A: Hire a visionary designer who can align himself almost completely with your founding values and give him the freedom to pursue his belief that simplicity is not a style but is designed into a product from the ground up.
Jonathan Ive at the recent launch of the U2 ipod special editon was dubbed by Bono, “ipod Johnny”. More formally, Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Computer, Jonathan Ive is the man who has developed a swathe of highly engineered products that are clean, pure and simple to use. A Dieter Rams for the new century, Ive has already had an enormous influence on product design as everything from pens to the BBC news studio takes on glowing translucency and aluminium detailing.
He joined Apple in 1992 and said that he felt at the time that the company had “lost it’s sense of identity”. Work had begun on the original imac before the return of legendary Apple founder, Steve Jobs but Ive dispelled the urban myth that Jobs simply arrived and demothballed the radical design for the imac. No doubt though, the imac was a survive or die product for Apple.
It was very interesting to hear Ive talking about his work. Not least because he doesn’t do it very often. His last similar public event was seven years ago and he’d requested that this one be kept informal – the Q&A style suiting his low key approach. Describing his design rationale at Apple, it emerged that strong attention to every last detail is key. He obviously feels passionately about the values of the company and revealed that projects have no formal design brief. The guiding principal is ‘making products better’. Ive talked about Apple as not just an opportunistic company or a purveyor of technology for its own sake. The simplification of Apple products he described as, “teetering on naive – almost unfinished” – the same might be said of their business philosophy. The goal of the company, he claimed, is “not to make money”. The belief is that striving for the best products will create the desire for them and the profit.
Unconventional it may be but it’s hard to argue when you look at the sales figures.
During the meeting Ive was at his most animated when talking about his geeky obsession with product features that nobody will ever know about such as the clutch mechanism controlling the opening of the display on the 17″ Powerbook. Designer Dick Powell, who was in the audience, enthused about the disappearing latch hook on the Powerbook and Ive took the first of many opportunities to tell us how, “we had to work really really hard on that – spent hours and hours and hours on it”. What marks out Apple products is this obsession with quality and detail. Mac afficionados will tell you how the total integration of products from their operating system through to the design of the power switch gives them a coherence and integrity. Ive’s take on this was enlightening, “its the whole experience of the product not just the way it looks”. Every last detail of the user experience is considered. He talked again and again about ‘focus and caring’. Focussing on what was essential to achieving the vision for a product and caring fully about every aspect of it’s design. Allusions to an iterative cycle of ‘throwing away and starting again’ gave a clue about the zeal with which Ive’s quest to ‘get design out of the way’ is pursued.
Unexpectedly beefy in appearance, his jeans, sneakers n stubble consistent with his lack of formality. He confessed to finding computers intrinsically uninteresting. Feels comfortable with designing small products as opposed to larger items and lamented the lack of general quality in mass market industrial design, “there’s not a lot of really nice stuff”.
Design heroes were few but he commented that the current Marc Newson exhibition was irritatingly good – particularly admiring Newson’s cellphone design. He dealt good humouredly with the inevitable inane questions – “Is the ipod masculine or feminine ?” [ A: "It's a music player"]. And for a resident of California did not seem too hung up on the ethical aspects of his job. Ive just appears to be wholly captivated by his role and the opportunity it provides him to ‘make some really nice stuff’. It was good to see him in person and understand that he’s rounded, grounded and the kind of bloke you would meet in the pub and not guess he was a superstar designer.
The prospect of a 2 button Apple mouse, though, was not up for discussion.