Jony Ive is a man who has, almost literally, designed himself out of existence.
When Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, proudly took the stage this week to call the iPhone 7 the best phone that Apple has ever made, he led with a customary handoff to a Jonathan Ive video. You know, the ones where Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, seems to talk in slow-motion about how very, very carefully designed the newest Apple wares are. It’s as if to say: Listen to every word twice, people! Because you can’t even come close to doing anything like this.
Fair enough. There is no company in the world that can design and engineer a smartphone the way Apple does. There is no other company in the world that can bend the globe’s supply chains around its most exacting whim, and no other company that can afford such extreme care in designing even the smallest details. Truly, Apple is the greatest force in industrial design that any of us will ever see in our lifetimes.
Therein lies the strange contradiction at the heart of Ive’s accomplishments—seven generations of iPhone, and dozens more iPads, iMacs, MacBooks, and the Apple Watch. Literally, trillions of dollars in merchandise. But in the age of the smartphone, there is very little industrial design left for us to get excited about. The smartphone itself is rapidly approaching its platonic form: A single, monolithic sheet of glass that simply delivers all the content you want, whenever you want it. No matter how powerful smartphones become, they simply aren’t capable of wowing us any more as a pure design object, because what the screen is mounted on matters so much less than what plays across it.
That’s what I was thinking, when Jony Ive intoned his customary voiceover as the video played of the iPhone 7’s sumptuously lit curves. Ive usually appears looking wide-eyed and a little stunned in those videos. This time, he didn’t appear at all. It was just his voice. Ive floated above the latest iPhone announcement like a ghost.
When I think of the things that still truly have the capability of delivering a holy shit moment in technology, none of them have much to do with hardware—and they don’t have a ton to do with designing pixels either. So while Ive is the soft-spoken guru of all design at Apple, including its software, all that “design” seems like window dressing on the great leaps in user experience that seem just over the horizon. Think of massively linked datasets on user behavior, which allow your phone to guess what you want to do, when you want to do. Think of digital assistants able to parse even the vaguest commands and parcel out all the sub tasks to the right app—“Hey, can you make a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants this Friday, and make sure that my best friends get the invite too?”
These things are invisible. We can’t hold them, and the sense in which they are “designed” will be vastly different from any piece of hardware we have today, or even any piece of software, no matter how beautiful. Which makes for an interesting capstone to Ive’s career: He ushered in the great renaissance of computer hardware design and even ascended to overseeing Apple’s software. But he has also accelerated the sidelining of both. The next great design monuments won’t be easily displayed in a design museum. They’ll instead be the systems and incentives that dissolve all the messiness of our whims into that simple bit of feedback that happens when your smartphone listens to whatever convoluted thing you’re asking about, and simply says, “Okay.”