In the second in our series of profiles of Apple icons, we talk about Sir Jonathan Ive, design team boss and stardust sprinkler.
Before reading on, did you take our Jony Ive quiz on Christmas Day? Some of the answers are revealed in the following article.
An Apple watcher in 2013 can sometimes feel like Herodotus dreaming of the Age of Heroes: compared to the larger-than-life bullies, weirdoes and geniuses that peopled Apple HQ in the eighties and nineties, the current crop look disappointingly human-sized. O my Raskin and my Scully long ago!*
With Jobs gone, Wozniak exiled and even loose cannon and erstwhile chosen son Scott Forstall disappeared like a former Stalin favourite, Apple appears to be running short of charismatic icons. But - with the greatest of respect to Tim Cook, calm charm personified - there is one executive left who can capture the imagination of company fans. That person is the senior vice-president of design: Sir Jonathan Ive.
An otherwise uncharacteristically even-handed and informed Daily Mail profile affected surprise that a "British polytechnic graduate" could rise to the top of America's wealthiest technology company, but this is disingenuous: Ive was marked for design greatness from an early age, and the bigger surprise would have been for his talent to go unrecognised.
Born to a silversmith and schools inspector in Chingford, Essex, Ive was versed in the importance of craft, care, detail and quality from his first years. That 'polytechnic' he went to - now known, by the way, as Northumbria University - in fact ran one of the leading industrial design courses in the country. He missed the first day of term because he was picking up a design award; many more would follow.
It was at university that Jony designed his first phone, although the Orator, as he called it, a tiny bit pretentiously, was a long way from the iPhone: it looks more like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (In fact, the production team from a Jackie Chan movie had the same thought, but were told they couldn't borrow it.) What it did share with the iPhone, however, was a set of Ive signatures: simplicity, elegance, and the willingness to reimagine the most commonplace of objects if - and only if - there was a better way.
While he was still at university headhunters were already starting to pay attention, and while the honourable Ive took his first job, as previously agreed, at the firm that had sponsored him through further education, he undoubtedly had other - and more lucrative - offers. His second job was as a senior member of a small design firm in London called Tangerine, in a pleasing botanical coincidence. Robert Brunner, who was running Apple’s in-house design shop, eventually managed to poach Ive (on, he says, the third attempt) after setting up a consultancy contract. Brunner would later push plenty of work Tangerine’s way as an apology for stealing their star man.
And so to Apple, where a few years of struggle were followed by Steve Jobs’ return and the beginning of a beautiful friendship (after Jobs realised what he had, at any rate; for a fair while he considered bringing in a big name from abroad). As Ive’s design principles won Jobs over - and it appears that a lot of the creative inspiration did run in that direction - the Apple CEO gave Ive greater and greater creative freedom within the company. The fruits of the union included such little-known objects as the iMac (most notably the translucent G3 and desk-lamp G4), the MacBook Air, the iPhone and the iPad.
This link to the more recent of Apple’s golden ages is one reason why Ive remains a cult favourite among fanboys, but he’s hardly alone in that. More importantly he offers - and is the last member of the company to offer - a visible X factor that other companies can’t match. Ive (or at least the industrial design team that he heads, and which would be likely to disband were he to leave) holds the potential to come up with products that are unique to Apple. Ive’s minimalist ethos is Apple’s secret sauce, its stardust, its trademark and its bread and butter all rolled into one.
Appropriately for one who learned at the knee of a worker in precious metal, Ive doesn’t worry too much about cost. Indeed, he actively works to prevent his designers from finding out how much their decisions will affect a product’s bottom line; on more than one occasion a significantly more expensive part (a 2.5in laptop hard drive rather than a commonplace 3.5in unit, for instance) has been selected on the merest of aesthetic preferences. Aesthetic preferences - and small details - count. Not that Ive is uncommercial either. He simply sets the goal of creating the best products, and believes that everything else will follow. There have been flops, but in his time Apple has produced some of the most profitable products in history.
The secret of this is a line of devices that most other companies simply wouldn’t countenance: that cost a lot more than they need to, have production values that are off the chart, that look nicer on the inside than rivals do on their front plates. (When Apple decided to make the aluminium Power Mac G5 user-upgradeable, Ive resolved to make the internal components just as beautiful as the exterior, reasoning that tinkerers shouldn’t see sloppy work either.) It isn’t entirely hyperbolic to talk about Apple products during the Ive era as modern works of art, and a number of museums - including the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco - agree.
Can we criticise Jony Ive at all? It isn’t much of an issue any more, given that for a while now he has answered directly to the CEO, but Ive hasn’t always obeyed the chain of command, and can be a fierce (if perhaps reluctant) exponent of the art of office politics. He famously went over Jon Rubinstein’s head when the former head of hardware was his boss - getting Jobs to intervene when Ruby turned down a request for extravagantly expensive screws on the G4 - and gossipmongers said Forstall left because he lost a power struggle to Ive, who promptly took over the iOS team and removed Forstall’s beloved skeuomorphic elements.
Which suggests that when the time is right Ive won’t be shy about leaving Apple for a better gig elsewhere. The only thing is that few other gigs can compare. Money-wise Ive is patently exceptionally well looked after, with a country pile in Somerset and a string of muscle cars ample proof of his employers’ largesse. And although rivals like Samsung could match the cash, the corporate ethos at Apple is probably unique. Its tight-knit industrial design group are treated like princes.
So while Ive’s plans for the future are probably one of Tim Cook’s recurring worries (not that he strikes me as the worrying type), I can imagine him staying at Apple for a good few years to come. Let’s hope so, anyway. It won’t be long before we’re all looking back, wondering where all the real characters have gone, and reminiscing about the Ive era.
* My colleagues insist that they don’t recognise this reference. For those who are similarly uncultured, here are the last lines of ‘At Lord’s’ by Francis Thompson:
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!