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How a college sculpture class shaped Jony Ive’s creative vision

In a commencement address to California College of the Arts, Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer, spoke about the nature of his craft.

How a college sculpture class shaped Jony Ive’s creative vision
[Photo: Lia Toby/BFC/Getty Images]
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Jony Ive is the most famous designer of the modern era. At Apple, he spearheaded the mobile computing revolution of smartphones, tablets, and watches. In creating these products, he didn’t just design gadgets; he fundamentally changed the way we interact with the people and world around us.

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But despite this fame, Ive is notoriously press-shy. He gives only one or maybe two interviews a year, and so it can be hard to unpack the inner workings of his mind or creative process, which remains largely a secret.

Yet in a recent commencement speech, given virtually to the 2021 class of the California College of the Arts, Ive shared a few of the experiences and thought processes that have driven his incredible success. And they’re a must-read for any creative.

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Ive speaks straight to camera in a video directed by famed fashion photographer Nick Knight. He begins by talking about discovering his own passion for design as a child before pursuing an industrial design education at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) in the U.K.

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The way he tells it, this was a formative experience that undergirds his whole approach to design. Ive recalls a dusty, plaster sculpture class that he describes as “complete carnage,” where he learned that he was allergic to plaster to the point that his tongue swelled and he spoke like Scooby-Doo. His teacher, Roy Morris, was also allergic. But Morris still insisted that both he and his students always take the time to clear the tables and properly consider their work.

“When Roy asked about our sculpture, he would get fantastically agitated if we ever referred to it glibly or casually. Despite the complete chaos inside the plaster workshop, he would expect us to stop what we were doing, carefully clear a small patch on the table free of plaster debris, dust, and tools. We would then place our work carefully in the center and attempt a thoughtful explanation. . . . And this is the important thing, always [treating them with] a rare respect, not only when the ideas are good, and not only if the circumstances are easy or convenient. If we make it our habit to respect our ideas and our process, we increase the probability that they will actually be good and worthy of that respect.”

Ive then shares his personal philosophy on the relationship between ideas and products, and critique and creativity. He ultimately champions the idea above all else, not as an egotistical pursuit, but as the only reliable path to bringing that idea to fruition. It’s a concept he’s discussed before but unpacks here in a new way.

“Our professional skills develop with repetition. Our creativity develops with deep care and attention. I obsess trying to deeply understand the general nature of ideas. Understanding their nature, I tend to have more ideas and have a better job caring for, protecting, and developing them. Ideas, by definition, are always fragile. If they were resolved, they wouldn’t be ideas; they’d be products that are ready to ship.

I’ve come to learn you have to make an extraordinary effort not to focus on the problems that are implicated with any new idea. These problems are known. They’re quantifiable and understood. But you have to focus on the actual idea, which is partial, tentative, and unproven. If you don’t actively suspend your disbelief, if you don’t believe there is a solution to the problems, of course you will lose faith in your idea.

That’s why criticisms and focusing on problems can be so damaging, particularly in the absence of a constructive idea. Remember, opinions are not ideas. Opinions are not as important as ideas. Opinions are just opinions.”

Ive’s words come at an apt time when the very definition of “good design” seems increasingly subjective. The industry is realizing that beauty varies wildly across the globe, and that simplicity itself can be an overly “solutionistic” ideal for a world full of complicated problems. In this era, we need designers who are confident to challenge norms and tread on new ground. But Ive’s words could come with another warning: The line between confidence and hubris can be blurry at best. Which is why, while Ive debunks the necessity of criticism in the design process, he does encourage every designer to take part in one important practice: listening to the ideas that other people have, too.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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