Jonathan Ive: Product Design

“I don’t ever talk about this,” says Jonathan Ive, attempting to describe the deep working relationship his team has developed over the years. “I don’t think anyone would understand.” As head of design at Apple, he is arguably the most influential product designer in America, if not the world. But he is shy and soft-spoken, with closely cropped hair and stubble the same length. Ive wears cargo pants, plain T-shirts, and sneakers as if hoping not to attract attention, and now he stumbles over his words before finally saying, “I don’t think anyone will understand how precious the experience of working with my group is.”

Ive’s group is no more than a handful of people. They’ve been with him for nearly a decade, since he became vice president of industrial design in 1997 following the return of Steve Jobs. Since the team was assembled, no one has quit (no doubt a record in the design world). The designers are amazingly close, but because of Apple’s legendary secrecy it’s impossible to find out how many people work in the group and where they’re from—let alone their names.

But Ive and his team have radically changed our landscape. It’s rare when a design group creates one visionary product, but they’ve given birth to two or three in less than a decade. At Apple design is never an afterthought or a style stuck on a box; design, engineering, and software development occur in tandem. Ive is as obsessed with his products’ internal architecture as he is with their outward appearance. The Power Mac G5’s aluminum case is made from one continuous piece with a door panel that slides off to reveal the inside, composed not of tangled cords but of elegant components intended to make it easy for users to upgrade.

Apple doesn’t achieve such simplicity by having legions of designers spread around the world in sprawling global studios like the Philips, Sonys, and Samsungs. All of the company’s packaging announces, “Designed by Apple in California,” itself a stamp of pride and a statement of intent. “It’s interesting how you transition from discussion and debate, and how you embody a thought,” Ive says, describing the group’s internal process, “because some of those initial ideas can be really rather fragile. That process of transitioning an idea from an incomplete thought into a physical object is challenging. And since we’ve been working together for a long time, it’s important to understand how subtle that translation can be and how small changes can have a significant impact on the direction of an idea.”

It is this nearly intangible process that other companies would have a hard time re-creating in their attempts to get the Apple effect. Many corporations give lip service to building stellar design teams, but what allows Apple’s products to be so daring is the sense that Ive and his colleagues feel safe failing together—or at least trying out potentially weird ideas with the implied possibility of failure. Back in 2000 MP3 players looked exactly the way you’d expect: like small portable CD players. But a certain intimacy allowed Ive’s group to come up with something radically different and, of course, their weird new idea changed the paradigm.

Once those ideas are sprung, the delicate process and obsessive perfectionism of translating them into a working product begins. Talking about the new iMac G5 and its camera in the display’s front bezel, Ive laments that in “early versions it was this completely dominating feature.” Most companies would have settled for simply inserting the camera in the face of worries about deadlines and bottom lines.

Those details are important. Take the sleep display on the first iBook in 1999. Appearing only when the computer is asleep, it had a gently breathing light that exhaled and inhaled slowly like a person, which helped humanize computers. The original iMac’s translucent plastic housing and handle also made it seem approachable because you could easily pick it up, carry it wherever you wanted, and see into the guts of the machine, taking the mystery and fear out of what lay inside. These developments changed the place and perception of computers, and then in 2001 Apple radically changed music.

With its Podcasts and playlists, the iPod is slowly, inexorably killing off music radio as we know it, while turning shuffle into a new verb for how people listen to tunes. Apple is now so influential that people look to its new products to try and predict what the company will do next. There are Web sites dedicated to reading the runes of what Ive might have in the works. But you need only hold the slim new video iPod, with its high-resolution color screen, to make an educated guess about where the company is going: it’s easy to imagine that Ive and Jobs have set their sites on mainstream broadcast media. Combine the iPod with the new iMac’s elegant remote (and software that makes it easy to download TV to your computer as well as to the iPod), and it’s easy to picture a future in which TV sets are outmoded and we’re watching homemade newscasts, DIY music videos, personalized documentaries, and hometown soap operas.

But there’s also a sense that Ive and his team are just hitting their stride. “Industrial design is in its infancy, and even more so if you look at the kinds of products that we’re developing now,” he says. “We work on products that are establishing new categories. It’s a really significant time, and a number of things have come into alignment.” Just what they are he can’t say, but the future promises new paradigms growing from fragile processes.

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