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Jony Ive Dishes On Apple Rumors And His Design Team In Rare Interview

The most famous designer in the world didn’t hold back when he spoke at the Hirshhorn Museum last week.

Jony Ive Dishes On Apple Rumors And His Design Team In Rare Interview
[Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker]

Jony Ive helms the most secretive design lab in the world at Apple. But aside from the top secret mystique, the soft spoken Ive is notoriously private, often giving just one interview a year.

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Last week at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture GardenFast Company alum Rick Tetzeli performed that interview. The topics covered ranged from how Apple really designs its next iPhone to what it’s like building the future while the blogosphere shares Apple rumors and rants. You can listen to the complete interview on SoundCloud, but, in the meantime, we’ve collected some of Ive’s most notable thoughts–and hottest takes–below.

Apple Is Just People

Apple is the most valuable company in the world, but Ive has kept his design team small. The industrial design team still numbers just 20 in all. And Ive feels that this intimate, long-term approach to team building is what makes the products so successful. It’s this small, tight-knit team that can take an idea from abstraction to corporeal.

I see Apple not as this esoteric brand. Apple to me is just a collection of people, a collection of people who are united with the same set of values and goals. And it’s a very diverse group of people. But the one thing I’ve found is when you’re dealing with abstract ideas, that’s the part of the process that’s probably the most challenging. These ideas are also fragile. That’s the point that’s so important you get to as a team. The team is small enough that you can all communicate what that tentative, very hard to articulate idea is. It gets easier when you can give them body and they become a three-dimensional thing. But way before then, the ideas are extraordinarily tentative. . . .

[T]he most significant change happens when you bring into a room a model. A lot of people can’t understand drawings completely. But you go through this dramatic shift where you go from something that was fairly exclusive to suddenly you have something which is inclusive, which can suddenly galvanize people–[though] at least they’re looking at the same thing, rather than just looking around and wondering, “when it gonna be done?” And I think that’s why, as a team, we feel so fortunate that we get to be part of that transition, from abstract idea to something that is tangible.

[Photo: Apple]

Apple’s Secret Sauce For Design? Listening

So just what is that small design team doing, though, that makes it so successful? It’s entirely a matter of process, Ive insists, built upon multi-decade relationships of respect and trust.

In 30 years time, we’ll look back at, with such fondness, the way we worked, not necessarily what we did. I think the advantage is we have so much trust as a team that we don’t censor our ideas because we are nervous and scared that they will sound absurd . . . Very often it seems to be you listen to the biggest, loudest voice. A lot of this process is about listening, I think. What we’ve found is very often the very best ideas come from the quietest voice. And if you’re not listening, you’re going to miss that.

And also when you have trust, it’s not a competition. We don’t have to deal with the bizarre game of all of the problems involved with a thrusty sort of ego. Our interest isn’t some leaf table with points. What we’re interested in as a team is, we’re genuinely, genuinely trying to figure out how we can make the very best product possible. And of course, there are many occasions where we don’t get there. But that’s our sincere hope.

[Photo: Apple]

Apple Will Continue To Show, Not Tell

Competitors like Google and Facebook are famous for broadcasting their future intentions–such as how they’re investing in newfangled AR/VR headsets with plenty of public experimentation. The strategy works to rally both attention and financial investment, but Ive offers a compelling case for Apple’s alternative approach–its culture of secrecy–as an expression of realism and humility that better serves the consumer.

Apple has been practicing, trying to create, develop hardware and software for decades . . . and from our experience, it’s sort of better to do the work and say, “hey, we made this,” rather than to announce to everyone, “we are going to do this.”

I think that’s a cynical, opportunistic PR move. I think it’s better to just do the work. And from our experience, a lot of what we do fails. In terms of what we explore as a team. And it just seems that that’s something that we should be dealing with, not something we should be dragging everyone else through . . . So we tend to have our heads down and work. And if something is coming out well, then we’ll talk about it.

[Photo: Apple]

Even Ive Doesn’t Know When A Product Is Done

Is there an a-ha moment when Ive realizes that the new iPhone is perfect and complete? Nope, even he’s doing a gut check with everyone around him.

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You might say that [you know when a product is done], but your tummy might be doing something else. Because you don’t know. I wish I could explain this well, and I know I’m going to do an appalling job, but you don’t realize how profoundly your perception of all of this is reined by the fact that it’s a finished thing. The difference between an idea or an early model, isn’t in its time, but it’s that you’ve solved a lot of its problems. So for 99% of the design process, and development process, it’s failing. And it doesn’t work. If it did work, then we’d be shipping it. So you spend most of your time worried and thinking, “this is not working.” And I know that sounds sort of naive and very obvious, but that’s a really big deal. And so there’s this weird faith that you have, so that’s when you depend again on the group of people with whom you’ve been doing this with for years and years and years, and we can look at each other with that slightly startled, sort of terrified look. That’s where experience, not only as an individual, but experience as a group is really important.

[Photo: Apple]

Apple Makes Things Smaller For A Good Reason

It’s a tendency that led to one of the most cutting SNL bits of all time: Whether it’s iPods or watches, Apple makes things smaller and calls them new again. But Ive argues that scale is undeniably fused with an object’s function, which is why Apple has been riffing on screens of different sizes for a decade now–and even splitting MacOS and iOS into two distinct, sometimes incompatible platforms to do so.

Apple has always been interested in how we can make technology personable. That’s shorthand for saying a lot of things . . . [though] it has to be smaller, more reliable, [and offer more utility].

When the iPad came out, it was met with an awful amount of criticism and skepticism, just about scale. “It’s just a big iPod touch!” I had a friend who said, “That’s as stupid as saying a swimming pool is just a big bath.” As size changes, the products become completely different. They’re used in different ways, and become accessible in different ways. What we found, and it was clearly very early on, is you can’t just scale something. It’s not your Mac. The designs are entirely different. We want there to be a continuity in terms of a philosophy in how they work, but if it was just a case of scaling, we could have done that, gone home early and been dong a long time ago. . . .

Otherwise, what you’re doing is making the Watch suboptimal. Why? It’s a lame argument: “This isn’t as good as we want to make it, because we wanted it to be familiar to a product 10 times its size.”

[Photo: SpVVK/iStock]

Your Opinion On Apple Park Doesn’t Matter

Criticisms have come from all angles on Apple’s new $5 billion “spaceship.” The most notable, to me, was by the original Googleplex designer Clive Wilkinson, who questioned whether Apple could really conceive of the practicalities of working inside a 2.9 million-square-foot ring. Ive drew a line on this topic, for the first and only time in the interview, insisting that it was a scenario where Apple knew best.

I think Apple Park has a very specific role. It’s not a watch. It’s our house, where we go to work together. . . . Of course for people to have strong views and criticisms of the products they use; we make them for other people. We didn’t make Apple Park for other people. So a lot of the criticisms are utterly bizarre, because it wasn’t made for you! [laughs] And I know how we work. and you don’t!

Absolutely, all of your feelings and feedback around the Macbook you use, we couldn’t want to listen to more. And we hear. Boy do we hear. But Apple Park, I can’t think of another time in the past, or imagine another time in the future, where we get to try to make something that is for us. Not to indulge in a gastly selfish way. We made it for us to help us be better, to make better products.

[Photo: Apple]

The New Campus Will, Crucially, Unify The Design Team

One detail that may have been missed by all of us covering the Apple Campus could be the most important. Ive points out that the new building will allow the entire design team–not just the smaller industrial design arm–to be unified for the first time in Apple’s recent history.

The products we make are so complex and challenging that you need a broad range of expertise to come together to work on something. And I think . . . this has never happened before . . . when we move into the new studio . . . the industrial team will finally come together with the UI team.

What that will mean . . . is that an industrial designer will be sitting next to a font designer, who will be sitting next to a sound designer, who will be sitting next to a motion graphics designer, and a haptics expert, and somebody who is used to working on three-dimensional figures that are animated, next to a user interface expert, with digital model makers and physical real-world model makers. And . . . it’s hard to say that without getting a little uppity uppity jumpy. I’m really terribly excited about what that’s going to lead.

You can listen to the whole interview here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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