How To Create The Next Jonathan Ive

A new book on Apple's enigmatic design genius argues that Apple owes its success primarily to being a "dream enabler" for designers.

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.

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18 Comments

  • Angela Obias

    "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?'..."

    *slow clap*
    Sharing this because of this one quote.

  • Alex Kluge

    Good design, and indeed, good engineering is all about value for the customer. When you get away from this, that is when you are doing it wrong.

    Insisting on USB ports in the back because that is what you know is an example of poor engineering, not so much a contrast between engineering and design.

    We need more of a focus on engineering and design from first principles and concepts rather than the application of recipes. In the corporate world this means less focus on creating corporate robots and more on fostering innovation and long term value creation.

  • Dmitriy Tarasov

    I think this explains how products are made in many companies:

    "(in 1997) 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".

    Apple always had an opposite model after Jobs became CEO second time. The only question remains: why the hell other big companies couldn't successfully copy this approach? I think the reason is, despite Kahney's idea, Johny Ive and his talent. Talent which can't be created by freedom or approach or process.

  • Jon Sandruck

    There are plenty of talented designers out there. Jonny is special, sure, but he's not "the one". There are thousands of talented designers fighting for the user every day, in every tech company, and losing.

    There are lots of reasons that a designer, working in-house, in the technology field, might not have the tools or the energy to fight the good fight and win.

    Not everyone has a powerful advocate, like Steve Jobs, to tell the engineers, or the marketers, "Do it the way Jonny says." Most of us have to win that fight on our own.

  • ben_marko

    This is what I don't like about the direction that Apple is taking. It seems to be all about design, not much about the customer. Has anyone seen the ad for the gold iPhone? It looks like a Samsung commercial. I half expected to see lasers and robots flying across the screen.

    Apple is morphing into a company that thinks it keeps the money rolling in through slink, well presented products that look great in any home.

    Pretty sad...I like Ive's designs a lot, but Cook seems to be just a businessman, not someone who really understands Apple.

    Keep stripping out those features everybody wants to keep, Tim.

  • Jon Sandruck

    To me, the most recent round of devices makes it clear that Apple is becoming a marketing-driven organization. There is no reason for a gold iPhone to exist except that people will buy it.

    The iPad air is an incremental improvement on the old design that looked outdated, and was probably enabled by some small change in manufacturing.

  • erictan

    Hmm, you've probably haven't seen that many Samsung commercials, because the ones I have seen are all about hip young professionals doing a million things in one day with their Samsung smartphones, especially things that can't be done with Samsung smartphones... Exaggerate a lot.

  • ben_marko

    I am sure the reason that a lot of those hip young professionals are using Samsung smartphones is because Apple iPhones are too limiting. Guess they really don't need lasers, huh?

  • azulum

    You do realize that you are criticizing the design of the gold iPhone because of the marketing. In the words falsely attributed to Steve Jobs: you’re doing it wrong.

  • ben_marko

    You really missed the point of what I was saying. Do you remember Apple's older commercials? Showing Educational, academic, medical, engineering, etc. applications. Ads that showed individuals who inspired. Then the liquid metal wonder ad that didn't focus on anything other than a look - the antithesis of Apple's previous advertising.

    And back at you:

    In the words falsely attributed to many people: You're doing it wrong.

  • azulum

    Then the liquid metal wonder ad that didn't focus on anything other than a look - the antithesis of Apple's previous advertising.

    Apple always highlights something new. Usually it’s in the software, in the way people use it. But sometimes, it’s just the look. The iPhone is a known quantity, just like the iPods are known quantities—look at those commercials over the years. Apple has always highlighted the colors of their products, going back to the first iMac. This is no different.

    Design is about how it works. You can argue that the design is getting in the way with how it works, but you can’t do it from the standpoint of an ad that just shows a gold phone. That’s why I said you’re doing it wrong.

    Is it a great ad? Meh. But their most recent ad on the iPad Air is absolutely spectacular:

    http://512pixels .net/2013/10/ozymandias-air/
    (delete the space, obviously)

  • ben_marko

    And again...you missed my point.

    My point was that Apple seems to be focusing more on looks and less on function. That features were being removed that people needed. That the focus seemed to be on cultivating a look rather than a marriage between form and function (cliché, yes).

    I think you saying "you’re doing it wrong" is what my high school English teacher meant by irony.

  • azulum

    Nope. Apple has always focused on looks and function in their advertisements. Like I said before — if you are going to make the case Apple is losing it by focusing on the wrong things, make an argument with substance.

    Irony is you saying that I missed your point.

  • ben_marko

    And now you're resorting to quoting me as a means of...what? Showing me up? Too funny.

    I said (last time) that Apple is losing sight of functionality and focusing more on the look of the product, i.e., stripping features out that people want to keep.

    I'm done here. Try trolling elsewhere if you can't make an argument. Really.

  • azulum

    I'm done here. Try trolling elsewhere if you can't make an argument. Really.

    Heh.

    This is what I don't like about the direction that Apple is taking. It seems to be all about design, not much about the customer. Has anyone seen the ad for the gold iPhone? It looks like a Samsung commercial. I half expected to see lasers and robots flying across the screen.

    Apple is morphing into a company that thinks it keeps the money rolling in through slink, well presented products that look great in any home.

    Pretty sad...I like Ive's designs a lot, but Cook seems to be just a businessman, not someone who really understands Apple.

    Keep stripping out those features everybody wants to keep, Tim.

    Like I said, criticize with substance — that’s not substance because your premises are invalid.

    EDIT: Part of what makes Apple great is that they do strip out functionality that makes things complicated. Another part that makes Apple great is that they put out luxury hardware at consumer prices because they pare away the unnecessary. In fact, that is the very thing that the commercial you so malign does — shows one thing, like most Apple commercials have done. That’s it’s a color or a camera makes little difference.

    And now you're resorting to quoting me as a means of...what? Showing me up? Too funny.

    Says the person who responds a week and a half later to get the last word.

  • Paul Hodge

    I agree that Apple (at the moment) seems very close to the edge of thinking design is solely about appearance and not necessarily functionality... Great design is about both.