Sir Jonathan Paul “Jony” Ive is the goose that lays golden egg after golden egg for Apple. At least that’s what the world at large has learned to believe, especially after a long string of truly iconic product designs that have changed the landscape of computing as well as consumer electronics.
Taking a newly created role of Chief Design Officer, Ive seems to have received a promotion. Although, he’s actually taking a bit of a step back in order to focus on “special projects.” He has also relinquished many of his managerial tasks to his lieutenants.
The soft spoken and often reclusive Ive has long played the Yin to Steve Jobs’ Yang, a calm and grounded counterforce to Jobs’ fiery and mercurial temperament. It was a team-up that worked.
Together, Ive and Jobs would pore over the minutest detail of every corner, button, surface, and bezel of every product before letting in teams of engineers and designers to help create the magic.
Because of his close association with Jobs, Ive answered to no one else at Apple. He wasn’t at the beck and call of the board or other senior managers, which allowed the design wunderkind to focus on creating great hardware.
After Jobs’ death, Ive’s responsibilities within the company grew exponentially. He became the key sounding board for new ideas and design directions, not having the opinionated Jobs around to lend his ideals and aesthetic sense.
While Tim Cook is no doubt an excellent CEO, having multiplied Apple’s fortunes despite declining PC sales and surging competition, the rapport between Cook and Ive was nowhere as developed as the symbiotic relationship with Jobs. When Jobs was around, it was part of his role to shield Ive from distractions. And once Jobs passed away, it seems the walls came down and Ive was now more involved in other aspects of the business than ever before.
While Ive has been leading industrial design at Apple, the role of unifying user interface was shifted to him soon as Scott Forstall left the company. This meant that not only was he working on hardware, packaging, and new technologies, he was now charged with the look and feel, the layouts, icons, fonts, and even the animations behind every new iOS and Mac software.
When Apple needed a new product category, which became the Apple Watch, Ive was the fulcrum and the overlord of the project, even if he had to bring in various new collaborators from the fashion and watchmaking world. Apple Watch wasn’t just one product but a multi-edition extravaganza that featured an aggressive series of peripheral straps (each designed to work differently). There’s evidence that Ive exhausted himself during the three years he worked on Apple Watch (while making new iPhones, iPads, Macs and other products).
So, as Ive is bumped up to Chief Design Officer, senior team members Richard Howarth and Alan Dye take on vice president positions for Industrial Design and User Interface Design, respectively. Howarth and Dye were likely handpicked by Ive to focus on their respective areas. Both have been around long enough to know instinctively what approaches to take on day-to-day decisions while conferring with Ive on a regular basis. Howarth was instrumental in the creation of the iPhone, while Dye can be credited with a lot of the software engineering for Apple Watch as well as iOS 7 and iOS 8.
Considering that Ive has been with Apple since 1992 and has been witness to the company’s lowest points as well as its renaissance and eventual rise to the top, he’s also been the longest standing member of the senior team to have worked on every product launch since that time.
It’s easy for us to sit and wait for the next Apple product, many of which now come in predictable yearly cycles, and forget the insane amount of work required to design, iterate, build, refine, engineer, and produce each iPhone, Mac, and Watch into a cohesive and saleable product.
For Ive, who is likely working on two or three generations of future products, the range of involvement and personal investment is incomprehensible.
A well-deserved break
Reading many of the stories that came out leading to the Watch launch, I got the sense that the process of creating the Watch was an all-consuming effort for various teams at Apple. Ive especially had to help steer the course of the biggest product launch since the iPad. The Watch had the added complication of being an entirely new product category that transcended consumer technology and faced off with the fashion industry.
Ian Parker’s kilometric feature on Ive and Apple for The New Yorker, “The Shape of Things to Come,” kicks off its first paragraph with Ive describing himself as “deeply, deeply tired” and “always anxious.” The article, which talks largely about the Apple Watch and its creation, later on reveals that, “On a day when Ive was so exhausted that it seemed possible he might fall asleep while talking, he became animated when describing the ‘primitive’ design geometry that was usual before the computer era….”
With the Watch successfully launched, it’s as good a time as any for Ive and his team make some changes that will allow him time to shift focus, get some well-deserved rest, and, as he relayed to comedian Stephen Fry, to travel more.
I attended the WWDC 2015 keynote and Ive was nowhere to be seen on the stage or in the first few rows reserved for Apple’s top brass. Being a developer-focused show and with no new hardware announcements, Ive’s presence wasn’t critical and while this may not mean anything, it shows that he can step back.
It has been hinted that Ive and his family want to spend more time in England, so these new appointments make that a possibility. The appointments also address the unpleasant but necessary issue of succession. It ensures that Apple’s distinct design DNA is preserved in the event that Ive should ever step down or retire.
Under Tim Cook, Apple has proven to be agile enough to make big changes and if they don’t work, easily reverse them. People should be confident that this new role for Apple’s design head has been carefully thought-out and timed.
This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of 2nd Opinion.