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Perhaps the most influential product designer of his generation, the soft-spoken Brit that steered Apple from failure to phenomenon discusses form, function and how brushes and plaster dust helped shape the man he is today.
“The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context,” states the man behind some of the most understated yet revered designs of the last decade – from iMac to iPod, his mass-market consumer products are as sculptural as they are purposeful.
Gentle curves and translucent fruity shades may have made his name, but it’s the technical minutiae that really animate Jonathan Ive. Hours of sweat and head-scratching are channelled into the finest of functional details – innovations that could set the tail of the most reserved designer flapping furiously. But instead they’re carefully smoothed over in soothing white for that cool and effortless je ne sais quoi.
Reaching for one of any number of examples at his fingertips, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design turns to the latest iMac. “The stand is a simple piece of aluminium which has been stamped and then rolled,” he begins, allowing himself a chuckle that – refreshingly – his British pronunciation of ‘aluminum’ isn’t met by raised eyebrows. “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating.”
“We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” Ive’s notoriously self-effacing nature allows a flicker of pride to shine through. “A horseshoe foot that went below the stand. In between that and the stand was a cunning material designed to absorb the energy of the wobble.”
“We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was,” he shrugs. “That’s the appropriate thing.” And this deep-rooted – and very British – notion of what is right and proper carries through into his resolute refusal to bask in individual glory. Rather like that horseshoe foot, he sees himself as one of many essential components meshed together beneath a polished and professional exterior.
“Teamwork is the only way – not out of principle, but out of necessity,” he reasons. “You can’t develop these ideas and take them to market by yourself.” Several members of the team that he praises as “ridiculously smart” have been together for over twelve years, resulting in intuitive, almost pre-verbal communication over the smallest of details.
But despite such close-knit familiarity, they’ve never worried about stagnation. Every time a fresh product is released under the Apple banner, for all the frenzied public adulation their core market is notoriously hard to please – for which he’s genuinely grateful for keeping standards high and avoiding complacency.
“Half of our customers are creatives; people who are incredibly tenacious and forever criticising what we’re doing. So that’s wonderful,” he enthuses. But your own criticism is easier to take, and Ive has always been keen to disconnect any sense of ego from the task at hand, in favour of rigorous self-analysis – a goal that he admits has taken many years to achieve.
Considering his first major gig out of college was co-founding an independent consultancy, Tangerine – developing everything from power tools to televisions – he’s settled pretty comfortably into the mould of a dedicated in-house team. But then he never took too well to the business side of things, and relishes the opportunity to plough all of his resources into the creative side, a luxury that most freelance designers simply can’t afford. Although it’s fair to say he’s earned it.
“There’s tremendous pressure on designers to do anything except focus on the path of design,” he observes. “One of the dangers is that there’s a focus on trying to be professional, rather than being a good designer. But I’ve learned that if I focus on design, somehow the other things will happen if the ideas are good. You can circumnavigate all kinds of different stuff with a good idea, and that’s tremendously powerful.”
Famously media-shy and cocooned within a utopian design environment that he’s described as “heavenly”, Ive’s is an existence so exhaustively concerned with the pure nature of design that for his counterparts on the ground it seems almost like an ivory tower – or rather one made from twin-shot white composite polymer and laser-welded aluminium. After all, it’s talk of innovative processes, precise tolerances and advanced materials that extorts glimmers of excitement from this calm, shaven-headed pioneer.
“I think as a design team we’re beginning to get the hang of this,” Ive allows himself. “My drawing’s got worse and worse and it just doesn’t matter.” Ever since his college days – studying Art & Design in the mid ‘80s at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic – actual sketching has been a self-confessed weakness. “I was at college for four years, just at the point when computers were getting important,” he recalls.
“I started hand-drawing and had a horrible time. I was frustrated because conceptually, I couldn’t do something that I wanted to do.” For three of the four years computers were more hindrance than help, and it wasn’t until his final year that he had his first bite of an Apple Mac. He wasn’t to know it was the start of a long and monogamous relationship.
“I remember coming across this remarkable product. It was easy to use, and you could do little things like change the noise when you made a mistake,” he grins. “It sounds small, but at the time that was remarkable. I went from feeling stupid to feeling empowered – I somehow connected to the people that made it. The object testified to the care that went into it.”
Soon after graduating, Ive was to make ever closer contact with Apple and his mentor Steve Jobs through Tangerine. They were clearly impressed, and by 1992 he’d moved in with them in San Francisco. Six years later he was turning their fortunes around with the first iMac. Then the well-trodden tale begins: not only did it shift two million units in its first year, it made its beige boxy rivals look moribund and so last millennium.
It’s no coincidence that it was tender loving care and attention to detail that first attracted Ive to the brand that’s now synonymous with his career – the difference between superficial differentiation for its own sake and genuine investment in a better and more innovative product. From hidden horseshoe feet to the celebrated iPod one-touch navigation, his design team pours time and resources into getting it right.
By way of example, he draws attention to the new iPod shuffle – which ships for $79 in the US. Its extruded aluminium body clips together with a tolerance of 0.03 – a precision that, for those that need to look it up, is remarkable. “The way the parts fit together is extraordinarily tight,” he insists. “I don’t think there’s ever been a product produced in such volume at that price, which has been given so much time and care. I’m really excited by that, and even if you can’t articulate its value, at some level I hope that integrity is obvious.”
That inbuilt sense of intangible value has served him well through the years, and had a somewhat unusual genesis. Casting his mind back to his days at Newcastle Polytechnic – “in some ways I had a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work” – Ive picks out a personal inspiration figure faceless to the rest of the world. “In my first year, we had a class that was pure sculpture; an exercise in the translation from vocabulary to physical object,” he recounts.
“We had to make moulds, and sculpt the object from plaster. It was such an interesting exercise; so pure and so terribly focussed. What really struck me was that the chap who taught the class had a terrible allergy to plaster dust. But he thought it was so important that he’d wear these ridiculous gloves and mask, and spend whole mornings in the plaster room.”
“And he had these fantastic big brushes in his pocket. When he came round, he wouldn’t just stop and talk to us; he would make us brush off what we were working on and clear a little space. Even if it was terrible, and in our minds didn’t deserve any clearing of space, there was something about respecting the work; the idea that actually it was important – and if you didn’t take the time to do it, why should anybody else?”
Jonathan Ive was in conversation with Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ, following his award of Honorary Doctor at the University of the Arts London, 16 November 2006
© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine