News, apple, Computing, iphone, iPod, Jonathan Ive, smartphones, steve jobs, Technology, Telecoms — December 9, 2013 10:06 — 0 Comments
Apple, coffee and techno: Jonathan Ive’s recipe for success
A biography of the iPhone and iMac’s British designer sheds new light on technology’s most-watched design team
It is cluttered with bikes, skateboards and designers’ models, but the ideas factory that sits at the symbolic heart of Apple’s vast Californian campus is also the workspace of perhaps the world’s most successful designer.
It is here that Sir Jonathan (“Jony”) Ive gathers his select team for twice-weekly brainstorming sessions around wooden project tables – the same kind found in Apple stores around the world – always beginning with barista-quality coffee.
It is arguably at these three-hour meetings that the 46-year-old from Chingford, Essex, has powered the American tech giant to become the world’s most valuable listed company, currently worth £305bn.
Because Ive likes to work to the accompaniment of loud techno music there is an elaborate speaker setup, but the inner sanctum of his personal office has just a desk, lamp and classic 1976 Supporto chair.
Rare glimpses into working practices at Apple have come from an unofficial biography of Ive, published last week. But getting behind the iron curtain of secrecy created by Apple’s former boss Steve Jobs was not an easy task: that secretiveness has proved commercially valuable. The book’s author, Leander Kahney, received an “apologetic” rejection from Ive when asking for co-operation, but a last-minute breakthrough with former colleagues has produced some previously unknown insights.
The picture that emerges is that Apple’s painstakingly detailed processes and famous perfectionism stems more from Ive than even the late Jobs – though the pair had an intense and close working relationship. At Jobs’s funeral in 2011, Ive described him as his “best and most loyal friend”, as someone who confided “dopey ideas” in him. “Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent.”
Ive was also not afraid to berate his boss for taking credit for his ideas, and once warned him that the perception of Jobs as the engine of Apple’s innovation left the company vulnerable.
While stories abound of Jobs’s ruthlessness, Kahney’s assessment of Ive is quite different. “Very polite, even-tempered, no screaming and shouting, super easy to get along with, very attentive, very kind. He would always take a bullet for his team. If anything went wrong, he would take the blame personally.”
The son of silversmith and educationist Mike Ive – who was a key figure in expanding design and technology in British schools – Jonathan’s sense of design has brought him a $17m home on San Francisco’s billionaires’ row, a personal fortune of $130m, and a string of fast cars. In one, an Aston Martin DB9, he had a near-fatal crash, which prompted a big pay rise from Apple. “They realised how important he was to the company,” says Kahney.
Ive has been feted by former colleagues at school and college, where his commitment and talent stood out from early on, but it was his close relationship with his father that fed his interest in industrial design. Mike, says Kahney, was far from being a pushy father. “He was just nurturing his son’s talent. Design was sort of the family business, and they were both obsessed with design – they loved to talk about it all the time.”
Kahney doesn’t underplay Ive’s talent, but believes things might have been different if he had ended up elsewhere. “There are a lot of potential Jony Ives out there, but they don’t work in organisations that have the mindboggling resources of a company like Apple, or that commitment to enabling a design studio as the central R&D lab of this gigantic company.
“Jobs was as obsessed with design as Ive’s dad was, and they bonded over that and over this crazy obsession. They would move heaven and Earth to make the most perfect iPod, and the commitment to doing it – the years and years of work to perfect the product – both of them loved to do that. They just got a huge kick out of it.”
Kahney compares Apple’s design team of 16 to that of Samsung, which employs 1,000. “Samsung has designers all over the world, designing everything from TVs to fridges. But they’re all siloed and on a product cycle, a product schedule that keeps cranking this stuff out, and they tend to chuck a lot of stuff at the wall.”
Ive was recruited by Robert Brunner, founder of the company’s industrial design group, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts. Ive caught his eye as a student with an ambitious prototype phone. “What Brunner liked was that Ive had worked out not only how it would work, but how he would get it made in a factory,” says Kahney. “Students don’t go that extra step or think that far ahead.”
His 21 years at Apple have not been a litany of unqualified successes.
His first project was the second-generation Newton tablet, which hasn’t exactly gone down as a design classic. Kahney blames technological challenges and the engineering-led culture of the company at the time.
The turning point came when Jobs returned to the company in 1996 and brutally cut 4,200 posts. “Apple was very engineering-led until Jobs came back. Ive had been there for five years, and he was about to quit because he couldn’t take the battles with the engineers any longer,” says Kahney. “When Jobs came back, he became Jony’s enabler, his muscle. They flipped it around with the iMac, and that was the product that completely changed the engineering culture.”
Ive’s team had been working on MP3 player prototypes for years before Jobs’s return, but kept them behind closed doors until a tiny hard drive was available. It was not until 2001 that the iPod was first launched.
“The designers spend most of their time in the factories working out how to manufacture these things. And a lot of their big design breakthroughs have actually been manufacturing breakthroughs,” says Kahney, who thinks the company will realise another of Jobs’s ambitions – to have robot-driven factories in the US.
That development is a fascinating hint at what Apple could roll out when the technology catches up with its design team, Kahney believes. “I know for a fact they’ve got TVs, wearables, all kinds of automotive technology. There’s all this kind of stuff sitting there in the lab that they’ve developed, and they’re waiting for the right go-to-market strategy for all of these products.”
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