Claire Beale is one of the lucky few that has been granted a rare interview with Jonathan Ive, who, unless you have been under a rock in the past decade, is Apple’s senior vice-president of Industrial Design. You know, that guy responsible for the iMacs, iPods, and iPhones etc?
Here it is with all the good parts and non design bits snipped off. The Bold bits are mine.
Asking him what good design really is seems like a good place to start. “Oh, that’s a tough question,” he groans. “The word design is everything and nothing. We think of design as not just the product’s appearance, it’s what the product is, how it works. The design and the product itself are inseparable.”
Apple is unique, Ive says, by being in the hardware and the software games; design permeates through everything. “We have a very clear focus that all the development teams at Apple share, a focus around trying to make really great products.
“That can sound ridiculously simplistic, almost naive, but it’s very unique for the product to be what consumes you completely. And when I say the product I mean the product in its total sense, the hardware and the software, the complete experience that people will have. We push each other, we’re very self-critical and we’ll take the time to get the product right.”
For many people working in the creative industries, the bedrock of Mac believers, Ive is a hero, a creative genius: the man who transformed computers from grey boxes to objects of desire, design statements.
That’s what D&AD has recognised and rewarded. But you don’t have to be a creative purist to appreciate what Ive does. For everyone who loves Macs and iPods and iPhones for their intuition, for their clean aesthetics, for their leading edge, elegant functionality, Ive is the man who made technology both beautiful and accessible.
No doubt creatives the world over would like to know where Ive gets his inspiration from. So I ask him. “I never feel that I can answer this question in the way that people wish I would,” he admits.
“It’s easier for me to talk about my motivation, the focus on finding something that’s better and new and that becomes self-perpetuating. As you discover something new, as you get to the point where you manage to do something that hasn’t been done before or that other people have said it’s not possible to do, I think that just feeds into the creative process.”
It helps, perhaps, that he’s designing products that he and his team love to use, in their jobs, in their lives. “We don’t have to take this great intuitive leap to understand the mythical concerns of our users, because we are the users.”
Does he see advertising and design as close creative cousins? “There is an important relationship between the products of creative endeavour,” he explains. “And the breadth of creativity brought together by D&AD is what makes it unique.”
But he doesn’t bring his creative sensibilities to bear in the advertising manifestation of his design work; he leaves that to Apple’s advertising agency TBWAChiatDay. “I’m friends with some of the guys who work on our advertising but we focus on our relative disciplines,” he says.
I sat next to Jonathan Ive at a D&AD ceremony many years ago. I had no idea who he was and by the end of dinner I still didn’t think he was anyone “significant”. He was charming, polite, quiet, no sense of self-importance, no desire for attention. Nice.
If you read the Jonathan Ive cuttings file not a big book, he rarely gives interviews you’ll find the same few scraps of information over and over: Jonathan is shy, he’s modest, he’s private. The boy from Chingford who became the British designer of his generation, lives quietly in San Francisco with his family, enjoying few obvious trappings of success beyond the odd Aston Martin (no doubt loved for its beauty rather than a symbol of status).
Despite the ubiquity of his designs, Ive insists that he doesn’t get an ego rush from seeing so many of us using his products. “I’m not driven by making a cultural impact,” he says. “That’s just a consequence of taking a remarkably powerful technology and making it relevant.
“My goal is simply to try to make products that really are meaningful to people. Ultimately there is something motivating and inspiring in seeing someone using an Apple product and enjoying an Apple product.”
Last month’s Apple results showed strong sales of the iMac and the launch of the stunning iPhone has soared profits at the company by 36 per cent to more than $1bn. That’s a lot of people using, a lot of people enjoying.
Ive was nearing the end of his four-year industrial design course at Newcastle Polytechnic (now the University of Northumbria) when he first used a Mac. After years of combat with PCs, the instinctual Mac was a revelation.
“I remember it really clearly, the moment when I realised that technology could be accessible and intuitive. And I had a real clear sense of the people who made it: it speaks to their values and preoccupations. And that’s what makes Apple a remarkable and unique company.”
Two decades after that moment of epiphany, could he imagine working anywhere else now? Ive laughs, but his answer is emphatic. “No.”
So…will we be able to do the same? Now that is the 6 million dollar question folks!