Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design Jony Ive is simultaneously the most famous and most enigmatic industrial designer on the planet. Quiet, soft-spoken, and self-deprecating, Ive has still managed to democratize high design, bringing the beauty, simplicity, and purity of uncompromised design principles to the lives of hundreds of millions of people across this planet.
Yet according to Leander Kahney, author of the book Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, Ive is not so different from many designers. “There are a lot of potential Jony Ives out there,” says Kahney, “But none of them have access to the sort of resources that Ive has, or have found an advocate for their talents like Steve Jobs.” If Apple’s success has proven anything, it’s that many designers can become the next Jony Ive, if their companies become their dream enablers. And the companies that do so may become the next Apple.
What’s it like to be a designer at Apple? “The designers at Apple have the best jobs on the planet,” asserts Kahney, who conducted dozens of interviews with friends and colleagues of Ive to put together his book, the most thorough biography yet of Apple’s secretive design genius. “Inside Apple, everyone defers to the design studio. They’re called the idea team, and you can’t say no to them. And Jony Ive leads not because he’s the most forceful personality, but because the team respects him as its most talented member.”
Working within Apple’s Design Studio is almost a rockstar job. The 17 designers who work for Ive are a disparate bunch, coming from backgrounds designing cars, shoes, and even wetsuits. Independently recruited by Ive, they work with complete freedom, and are rewarded with huge salaries and generous stock options. Designers come into work late, rarely work weekends, and get plenty of time off, including a team ski trip in which the entire design team is flown by helicopter into British Columbia to a remote mountain location for snowboarding.
It wasn’t always this way. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, says Kahney, the designers at Apple, including Ive had no power: design was driven by engineering and marketing teams, who would cook up long lists of features they thought their customers needed, then give it to Ive and his colleagues for a skin job. “It was the worst possible work flow,” Kahney tells Co.Design. “Apple was creating nothing but middling products that had been designed by committee in the worst possible way.”
What Jobs did, says Kahney, was become Ive’s “dream enabler.” When Jobs and Ive were working on their first product together, the iMac, Ive wanted to put the USB ports on the side, where they would be easily reachable. Apple’s engineers said it just wasn’t done: they had to go in the back. Jobs settled the argument, siding with Ive and telling the rest of Apple to make his visions a reality, no matter what. It is a balance of power that exists within Apple to this day: even after Jobs’s death, design is law at Cupertino.
“Look at Samsung, and it is patently obvious that designers there have no power,” argues Kahney. “They are a classic example of an engineering- and marketing-driven company. Look at something like the Galaxy Gear, and it’s clear that lists of features define Samsung’s gadgets, but not a simple question like, ‘What is this for?’ Apple designers start with that question.”
Like many designers, Ive is committed to his craft, and obsessed with concepts like simplicity and purity. But what really separates Ive from the thousands of would-be Ive’s out there is that he was recognized and empowered.
“Steve Jobs was obviously a genius,” says Kahney. “But he couldn’t code, wasn’t an engineer, never designed anything. The reason Apple came up with as many breakthroughs under Jobs as they had is because he had a genius system: he would set up small teams of silicon pirates within the company and give them as much freedom as possible to get things done.”
No other department within Apple better exemplifies Jobs’s system than the one headed by Jony Ive. It is the beating heart of Apple that pushes blood into every limb of the company. It is responsible for the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and has helped make Apple the world’s most valuable tech company, as well as revolutionize consumer design. If there’s a lesson from Kahney’s book, though, it’s that more companies can achieve Apple’s success, if they simply recognize that quiet designer in the corner and give him more power. Because that’s the way you create the next Jony Ive.
Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products is on sale today at Amazon.com and your local bookseller.