Just How Important Is Jony Ive To Apple?

The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. These wonder devices were not given to us from the mind of one man, but two. Now with Steve Jobs gone, Apple’s most valuable asset is Jony Ive. Just how valuable? The company would have a hard time recovering if he left, says the man who wrote the book on him.

Steve Jobs is largely credited with turning Apple around from a near-bankrupt company to the technology powerhouse of the 21st century. But could he have done it without his trusted designer Jony Ive? I sat down with Leander Kahney, the former Wired editor, current Cult of Mac Editor-in-Chief, and The New York Times bestselling author of Jony Ive, the biography of Apple’s design star, to find out.

During your research for the book, what was the most startling insight you made about Jony Ive?

It was how important he is to Apple. He is more important now than Steve Jobs was just before he died--that’s what one expert told me. Clive Grinyer, former head of the UK Design Council and an old friend of Ive’s, told me that he is irreplaceable. Apple would be in more trouble if he left than it was when Jobs died. In a way, this is a testament to Jobs, because he built a company that will outlast him. But in Ive’s case, his talent and genius is much more singular. Grinyer feels that the design department--which is central to what Apple does--couldn’t function without him.

The other startling thing was discovering his contributions to making computing tactile. I didn’t put it together at first. I’d read in interviews how he added a handle to the iMac to encourage users to touch it. Not to carry it around, but to signal that it’s OK to touch. Touching the machine made it less intimidating, a little more friendly and approachable. I thought this was genius.

Then I noticed that all his early computers had handles: the iBook, eMac, even the PowerMac towers. And then colleagues from his early days talked about how he added a “fiddle factor” to a lot of his early products. He noticed that people liked to play with the stylus on the Newton MessagePad, so he made his version extra fiddly. The penny dropped when I realized the iPod was an early touch-sensitive gadget, with the scrollwheel.

You can see this thread of encouraging people to touch his work all the way back to college. Of course, the iPhone and iPad are the latest expressions of that, and the effect is to make computing very tactile, very personal, intimate and human.

Your book is based on a massive amount of research and interviews. Which was your most memorable?

The most jaw-dropping experience was interviewing one of long-time members of the design team, Douglas Satzger. Doug is now heading up industrial design at Intel, but he worked inside the design studio from 1996--before Steve Jobs returned--up to the iPad. Because of the way the studio works, he was involved in everything, just like the rest of the team of designers are. Everything is designed by the group, with Jony overseeing every design decision.

Because Apple is so secretive, staff are forbidden from discussing their work with anyone--even their spouses. When I was talking to him, I could tell straight away that he’d never talked about this stuff before. His memories hadn't been formed as stories; it was just raw memory spilling out. And he was so frank and open. He didn’t hold anything back. So not only was it the most revealing interview about Apple I’ve ever done, it was strange and fascinating to just watch him talk.

I guess it’s no surprise Satzger hadn’t talked openly about his experiences before?

Apple wants full control of how it communicates with the public. The best way to do this is through advertising, where it can completely control the message. Apple loses control if it talks to the press. At best, the message is filtered and diluted; at worst, the it’s distorted.

Apple is extremely disciplined about this. It’s communication channels are limited to its advertisements and its product presentations. It rarely collaborates with the press in any other capacity, even if the book or article promises to be spectacularly positive and reverential. Walter Isaacson’ biography is one of the few exceptions I can think of.

Occasionally Apple will grant a few executive interviews before a big product launch, but these are carefully managed and controlled.

Steve Jobs managed to turn Apple around from near-bankruptcy in 1997 to the largest technology company in the world by his death. But would Jobs have been able to do this without Jony Ive?

Jony Ive was instrumental to Apple’s turnaround. It was his design department that created the iMac, iPhone, iPad and scores of other hit products.

But like a lot of things, it’s more complex than that. Ive wouldn’t have been effective without Jobs acting as his guide and enabler (in fact, Ive struggled at Apple for years before Jobs returned). None of the products would have been successful if Tim Cook hadn't built an incredibly effective supply chain. And Apple needed the stores to get consumers to see and touch the products; and great advertising to juice awareness and demand.

Steve Jobs could be described as a “dick” when he wanted to be. How would you describe Ive’s personality compared to Jobs’?

Total opposite. Calm, quiet, kind, thoughtful, polite, emphatic… the list goes on. Think of Jobs’ traits and Ive is the opposite. Yet Jobs treated Ive very carefully. As far as I know, he never screamed at Ive and never freaked out. In fact, I heard the opposite--that Ive once lost his temper with Jobs and yelled at him!

He treated him this way because he was one of the few people he regarded as his equal. He never got frustrated with Ive’s work. Jobs screamed and shouted when he got frustrated, when things went wrong or someone screwed up. And because they collaborated so closely, Ive’s mistakes were seen as his own.

Does Ive come up with product ideas? Does he say, “I want to do a watch?” Or are product ideas still handled by Apple’s CEO?

It’s never that straightforward. A lot of the products come from the executive office and the lab simultaneously. The designers had prototypes for MP3 players, phones and tablets long before Jobs and his executives decided to pursue them and put the full weight of the company behind them.

Saying that, most of Apple’s products originate “bottom up” with Ive and his design team. I can think of only a couple of products that were commanded by Jobs: the first iMac and the PowerMac Cube. All the others came up through the design lab: the "Luxo lamp" iMac; the Titanium and aluminum notebooks; the iPhone and iPad.

I don’t know of any products that came from Tim Cook’s office, though it’s possible.

What was the most startling thing you learned about how Ive designs a product? They don’t actually just sit around sketching products, do they?

Actually, that was one of the starling things I discovered--a lot of products do start with sketching! It seems kinda quaint, but the designers have bi-weekly brainstorming sessions where they work on problems together, as a group, and sketching is the most important expression of their ideas. They all use bound sketchbooks. After a brainstorm, Jony will collect the sketches to keep track of the best ideas.

They take the sketches to the Computer-Aided-Design (CAD) group, a team of about 15 “surfacing guys” who also work in the design studio. The designers work with the surfacing guys, turning the sketches into 3D computer models defined primarily by their surfaces--hence the name.

Then the CAD files get sent to a Computer-Numerical-Controlled (CNC) milling machine in the machine shop (which is also inside the design studio). The CNC machine cuts a physical model out of a block or RenShape, a very dense foam. This workflow allows them to very quickly turn sketches into physical objects.

Oftentimes the models are used to make decisions about the size and shape of a product. They will make a dozen models of a new product, from big to small, and line them up on a table to choose the right size. They eliminate the ones that are too big and too small and hone in on the one in the middle.

Then they iterate and iterate. They keep refining and refining, making new models until they are happy.

Note that most of the work is at the factory. Only a fraction of the designers’ time is spent designing the size and shape of the product. Most of their time is spent in factories figuring out how to make these things in their millions.

What is your favorite Jony Ive product?

The new iPad Air is an amazing device. We’re all a bit jaded because it’s taken a few steps to get here, but if you’d been in a coma since 2007 and were given one when you woke up, you’d think you were in a different century.

For Apple, what was the most important product Jony Ive ever designed?

This is great question and is endlessly debatable. The iMac was important because it saved Apple and made his name as a designer. But the iPod transformed Apple from a niche computer company into a mainstream consumer-electronics powerhouse. But it’s got to be the iPhone, because it’s such a huge step forward. It’s remade the entire tech industry (and a bunch of other industries besides). Multitouch makes computing much more personal, accessible and universal. Toddlers can master it, and you’ll find smartphones in every corner of the world.

Hardware design and software design are two entirely different beasts. Wasn’t it a risk for Apple giving Ive control of the Human Interface aspects of software at Apple?

Ive has stepped into Steve Jobs old role--the visionary that guides this very integrated company. And no, it’s not a risk. In fact, it was a risk not to give one person this role.

That’s what has happened at Microsoft and results in heavily silo’d products. It was happening at Apple too before iOS 7. The company was in danger of having the software division go to war with the hardware. Now it’s under the guise of one person who can provide a single vision and unified direction.

I think iOS 7 is great. iOS used to be the opposite of the hardware. Where the hardware was stripped back and minimalist, the software was loaded up with all kinds of extra frills and decoration like fake leather and canvas. The skeuomorphism of iOS 6 was in contrast to the minimalism of the hardware.

It already makes iOS 6 look dated and old fashioned--even after just a couple of months. It’s more consistent. It’s designed like a physical object. It reacts to the real world--tilt it, and you get a parallax effect as if they are real objects sitting on different planes.

Everything is on clearly defined panes--the background, a middle ground and foreground. I like the way notification screens slide up in the foreground. It’s very logical and easy to understand, because it mimics the real physical world, and not a bunch of different conflicting metaphors like card tables or old-fashioned paper schedulers.

Do you think iOS 7 is something Steve Jobs never laid eyes on?

Many of the elements must have in place before he died. He wouldn’t have seen the final UI, but it looks very much like the earliest iOS mockups that were made when the iPhone was in development, back in the mid-2000s.

He would likely approve. Jobs was always for burning the boats, for making bold leaps forward and not looking back.

Just how much power does Ive have at Apple? Is he more important to Apple than Tim Cook?

Tim Cook plays the same role he did when Steve Jobs was alive. He runs the company day-to-day so that Jobs--and now Ive--can concentrate on developing new products.

Ive is the creative force, the one who leads a team that comes up with revolutionary products. I’m with Clive Grinyer: Ive is more important.

If Ive is more important, does that mean he is irreplaceable?

Just like Steve Jobs led a company full of great talent, Ive leads a studio full of great talent. But because of Apple's air-tight secrecy, it’s not clear if any of Ive’s lieutenants could fill his shoes. Designers Chris Stringer and Richard Howarth have reputations as great designers, but it's not clear if they are good design leaders as Jony Ive clearly is.

That said, Jobs was successful because he knew how to set up a system. The same system made the original Mac, then a string of hit movies at Pixar, and a string of hit products at Apple. It’s based on small, integrated teams working closely together and having a lot of power to call the shots.

There’s every indication that the same system is still in place, but it's an open question whether it would continue if Ive were to leave the company.

He himself has said that the same team of designers, transplanted to a different company, would not be able to function. The design team needs Apple’s wider culture to support it. The entire company has to have a design-led mentality to makes it effective.

Jony Ive by Leander Kahney is out now in hardcover and on the Kindle from Amazon and also available on the iBookstore.