One of the things that’s interesting about design [is that] there’s a danger, particularly in this industry, to focus on product attributes that are easy to talk about. You go back 10 years, and people wanted to talk about product attributes that you could measure with a number. So they would talk about hard drive size, because it was incontrovertible that 10 was a bigger number than 5, and maybe in the case of hard drives that’s a good thing. Or you could talk about price because there’s a number there.
But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.
I think that sort of striving for simplicity is not a style. It’s an approach and a philosophy. I think it’s about authenticity and being honest. Not just taking something crappy and styling the outside in an arbitrary disconnected way.
Jonathan Ive is Apple’s Apple’s Senior Vice President of Industrial Design. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder explained that Ive has been left with unparalleled control at Apple to design products as he sees fit, with little to no guidance and reporting to management. In the latest issue of London’s Evening Standard, Ive was interviewed about design:
Q: What makes design different at Apple?
A: We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers. If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. There’s a sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often.
Q: When did you first become aware of the importance of designers?
A: First time I was aware of this sense of the group of people who made something was when I first used a Mac – I’d gone through college in the 80s using a computer and had a horrid experience. Then I discovered the mac, it was such a dramatic moment and I remember it so clearly – there was a real sense of the people who made it.
Q: How do you know you’ve succeeded?
A :It’s a very strange thing for a designer to say, but one of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.
Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object. For instance, the iPhoto app we created for the new iPad, it completely consumes you and you forget you are using an iPad.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in constantly innovating?
A: For as long as we’ve been doing this, I am still surprised how difficult it is to do this, but you know exactly when you’re there – it can be the smallest shift, and suddenly transforms the object, without any contrivance.
Some of the problem solving in the iPad is really quite remarkable, there is this danger you want to communicate this to people. I think that is a fantastic irony, how oblivious people are to the acrobatics we’ve performed to solve a problem – but that’s our job, and I think people know there is tremendous care behind the finished product.
If you come away thinking that Ive’s responses are a bit (or a lot) shallow, you aren’t alone. This sentence says it all for me: “We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at Apple.”
On October 19, Apple held an event to honor Steve Jobs. Featured appearances include the newly-appointed CEO Tim Cook and the legendary designer Jony Ive, who goes on to talk about the fragility of ideas (as proposed by Steve Jobs):
Steve used to say to me — and he used to say this a lot — “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.”
And sometimes they were. Really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet simple ones, which in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.
And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.
So eloquently said. I’m reminded of this quote from Inception:
What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed—fully understood—that sticks; right in there somewhere.
(Hat Tip: Fortune)
I’ve pre-ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I’ve been following some news outlets reporting snippets from the book. This bit about the iconic designer at Apple, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, and his independence at the company, struck a chord with me:
In talking with author Walter Isaacson for the book, Jobs revealed that he viewed Ive as his “spiritual partner” at Apple. Showing his trust in Ive, the company co-founder left him more freedom than anyone else in the company — a perk that remains even after Jobs’s death.
“He [Steve Jobs] told Isaacson that Ive had ‘more operational power’ at Apple than anyone else besides Jobs himself — that there’s no one at the company who can tell Ive what to do,” the report said. “That, says Jobs, is ‘the way I set it up.'”
Ive and Jobs became close at Apple, working directly together on designing a number of the company’s core products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Ive, a 44-year-old native of London, joined Apple in 1996 and has held his current job since 1997.
After I finish reading the book sometime next week, I will post a comprehensive review of my own. Stay tuned.