Audio: Jony Ive tells his origin story
Sir Jonathan Paul “Jony” Ive, KBE (born 27 February 1967), is an English industrial designer who is currently the chief design officer (CDO) of Apple and chancellor of the Royal College of Art in London. While working for a design firm in London he was asked by Apple, then a struggling company, to create a look for a new laptop. He took the design to Apple and was hired immediately. Ive oversees the Apple Industrial Design Group and also provides leadership and direction for Human Interface software teams across the company. Ive is the designer of many of Apple’s hardware and software products.
Ive has received a number of accolades for his work. In 2003 he was the inaugural winner of the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year Award. In 2006, he was appointed as an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and in 2012, he was knighted at Buckingham Palace for “services to design and enterprise”. In a 2004 BBC poll of cultural writers Ive was ranked the most influential person in British culture.
In the interview Ive talks about what got him into design, what it is to be a designer, to design a product and the level of uncertainty you have when formulating ideas. We like how he describes his reverence for the design process, how before starting the process there was nothing, and suddenly out of it comes something.
The only problem with his talk is that it was miss-titled. It has very little to do with ‘the future of design’, but more what design is. I think a more accurate title would have been ‘The Nature of Design’. Like many ‘natural processes’ these things are somewhat timeless.
There is one very important future perspective he offers though around the increasing complexity and inter relatedness of products and how this requires more effective multidisciplinary working practice to create these products. He explains how they’ve designed Apple’s new donut-like ‘Ring’ HQ to enable them to create more fully multi-disciplinary design teams, where industrial designers, sound engineers, hardware and software guys, UX people, electronics engineers etc, can all work together throughout the process.
Realise are strong advocates of multidisciplinary creative product development – but without Apple’s resources, it’s historically been really tough to achieve practically. What’s exciting is how fast the world is developing online communication, collaboration, VR and working practices (such as ‘Agile’) that will make truly flexible and multidisciplinary creative team work increasingly possible and effective in future. Whilst some people argue this makes ‘The Ring’ an anachronism, but as ‘Sir Ive’s’ talk highlights, I think the need to work together physically to nurture and develop ideas, means that for the foreseeable future, we’ll still need physical spaces to collaborate effectively on developing physical things.
Anyway, title aside, it’s a great interview and certainly worth listening to if you have any interest in emulating Apple’s success with the design process in generating great products.
The audio quality is a little ropey (beware of clapping interludes!!) So we’ve pulled out some of the best bits of the interview. The full audio clip can be found above:
Jony Ive – Future of Design
Rick Tetzeli (Moderator): How did you start in design? What did you learn from your (father) parents for other significant people in your life that got you into this profession?
Sir Jony Ive: I always felt enormously fortunate that I found what it is that I loved to do very, very quickly, a long time ago. And that was partially down to realising that there was an awful lot of things that I couldn’t do. So that was useful (ha ha!) in narrowing the choices down.
What is something that you couldn’t do?
Oh, it’s a hopelessly long list! What I did find I could do, I was interested crudely in the utter grandeur, and the nature of objects. If you look around here, every single thing is the product of a thought process, design and manufacture. And while I couldn’t have quite consciously expressed it, that I was just intrigued by “why is that, that way”
And so, I think from that grew, as you try to understand that and question the nature of objects, and the nature of the manufacturing environment, you then, quite naturally, start to draw. And what I found us that I loved drawing, but the drawing was never the goal, it wasn’t a means of self-expression, drawing was a means to an end, and that end was to clarify my thinking or understand myself or the object better; and that became the process of making. So, it was drawing to try and figure out a though, drawing to communicate a thought, and then the actual process of making.
And I enjoyed both and I came to learn that that was a profession that you could make money from, called design.
So, your father was a Silversmith and a professor?
Yes, my father trained as a silversmith and a teacher. I think one of the things that I was very, very fortunate to learn early on that you learn an awful lot about the nature of a materials if you work it yourself. It’s one of those things you can understand academically, but until you manipulate and process a material, you don’t really understand its nature and much more importantly you don’t really understand its opportunity. For example, if you watch someone hand raise from a sheet of silver, raise that into a vase, it’s a such a beautiful process, sometimes more significant and profound than the actual final object. But it’s very clear that this shape is defined, not only by the craftsperson, but by the material. Because different materials obviously, you process and manipulate differently. So I was lucky enough to see his work and I was lucky enough to actually make things with him.
You’d even work on stuff together as part of a Christmas present, right?
Yes, we didn’t have a lot of resources (which is another way of saying we were very poor!) and my Christmas present would be at the college he worked at (where there were wonderful workshops) was a couple of days of his time sneaking in to the college where he worked during the Christmas break and making things with the understanding that I would have an idea, have thoughts, and express those thoughts with drawings. So it wasn’t just a case of going in and figuring out what to do with a bunch of stuff. … Serious business!
Wow, so what kind of things did you make?
Oh, all sorts of things. From furniture; to go karts; to treehouses.
So, from the beginning, designing was never esoteric for you, you’ve always tried to make it?
Don’t know how you can be a writer without writing? So to be a designer without making just doesn’t make any sense to me. But one of the challenges now is you can be a designer and you can define objects without leaving the computer, and communicate what the object is incredibly effectively. The tools are so sophisticated and powerful, that you can kid yourself that this is an object. And it’s not. It’s a digital representation of an object [that is untested in the real world] and there is a huge gulf between that representation and a real object. And there are many attributes of an object that define your sense of it and your experience with it – [that the computer cannot tell you].
This is one of the things our design team struggles with. We use very sophisticated tools to help us in our process, but one of the characteristics of the studio is at the end are some enormous CNC machines (computer numerically controlled Milling machines) and a workshop. And it’s a reminder, and also useful and convenient, but a reminder that the product of what we do are objects. If the product of what we do was a compilation of images in a book, then we wouldn’t need that stuff. But what we are trying to do is make products, and there are so many things that influence your sense of an object from material, to weight to of course, all the soft user interface.
You have 20 industrial designers for the most valuable tech company in the world. Don’t you feel the urge to make the group bigger?
No, I feel the urge to make the group smaller! No we’ve grown with with huge intention and very carefully. One of the things that strikes me is I was very very fortunate to discover what it is that I love to do. I am even more fortunate to do it with this group of people. Many of us have worked together for over 20 years. So we’re very close. We’ve been part of that pool, we’ve seen that pool grow and evolve. I don’t see Apple as this esoteric brand. Apple for me is a collection of people, united with the same set of values and goals. And it’s a very diverse group of people.
But the one thing I have found is that when you are dealing with abstract ideas, that’s the part of the process that is probably most challenging as these ideas are so fragile. So that’s the point at which it’s so important that the team is small enough that you can all communicate what are tentative, very hard to articulate ideas. It gets easier when you can give them body and they become a three dimensional thing, but way before then, the ideas are extraordinarily tentative.
Are you talking about one of you having a drawing that they want to talk about? You mentioned last time that everything changes when you have a prototype – how?
It’s interesting, I look back and I see I have been doing this for a long time. And yet I remain in awe of the creative process. It is an extraordinary process. And I’ve mentioned before, there’s a large group of us called Apple, and large groups of people tend to want certainty. And then over here, we’ve got what we’re doing which is incredibly uncertain – great ideas are unpredictable – and so the whole process is fabulously terrifying.
But, it generally always starts this way, which is – there is an idea; and I love the fact that the day before, there wasn’t an idea! I know that sounds incredibly naïve, but isn’t that incredible? On Tuesday there’s nothing, except expectation and pressure. And then on Wednesday there’s an idea. It’s usually in one person’s head, so it’s a singular thing. And the challenge is that someone then needs to explain the idea. This usually starts as just words, idea words and then tentative drawings. But it’s really hard to draw something that is barely an idea, just a thought. And this tends to be quite an ‘exclusive’ point of the process – this happens in a very small group of people. And then the idea is bashed around, you may need to draw it yourself just to figure it out, and it’s communicated between designers.
And then in the whole project, which can sometimes be multiple years long, the most significant change happens when you bring into a room, a model. A lot of people can’t understand drawings, completely. So, with a model you go through this dramatic shift where you go from something exclusive, to suddenly you have something which is inclusive, which suddenly can galvanise people; and at last everyone is looking at the same thing; rather than just looking around and wondering when they’re going to be done!
I think that’s why as a team, we feel very fortunate that we get to be part of that transition, from abstract idea to something that is tangible. Our goal isn’t just to make models – that would be selfish! It’s [to move the process on] to a different stage.
What is the advantage of familiarity as you’ve all worked together for so long?
That’s a lovely question! It’s funny isn’t it, because very often we’re preoccupied with the future and new, there can sometimes be the danger that we don’t value longevity and tradition. And I am becoming increasingly sure that in 30 years’ time, what I’ll look back at, with such fondness, will be the way we worked, more so than the things we do.
So, I think the advantage is, we have so much trust as a team, that we don’t sensor our ideas, because we are nervous or scared that they might sound absurd or not very compelling. And when you are talking in such an abstract way, if you’re close and you listen – and that’s an interesting thing, the way I often see the creative process exercised in a group, there’s a tendency to listen to the biggest loudest voice – and an awful lot of this process is about listening I think. And what we’ve found is often the very best ideas come from the quietest voice. And if you’re not listening, you’re going to miss that.
And also, when you have trust, it’s not a competition, so we don’t have to deal with the bizarre problems that come with a selfish thrusty ego. There isn’t some league table with points – our interest as a team is we are genuinely, genuinely trying to figure out how we can make the very best product possible. And of course, there are many occasions when we don’t get there. It’s not about who does what, but ‘did we make a good product?’
(Realise Note – Where does creative ‘overview’ and leadership fit into this? I.e. when decisions have to be taken around which idea is better etc, how do you ensure that the project leader is properly empowered with the overview to do that, i.e. where does clarity of purpose and experience fit with avoiding these being ego driven or personal bias based decisions?)
Ed Catmull at Pixar once talked to me about listening and if you talk with Ed, there’s always a 2 or 3 second lag after you’ve spoken. He doesn’t ever interrupt and it’s because he’s listening so carefully and then he comes back to you with something that’s well crafted. And it sounds like you are trying to get that kind of conscious, careful discussion going amongst all your team.
Yes I think so, it’s not necessarily that we’re wanting to come back with something well crafted. Partly it’s a fear thing. I just wonder how many great ideas we’ve missed and how many we’ve screwed up.
I think the process is a convoluted, uncertain and unpredictable one, and we are so unbelievably lucky to be doing what we love and to be a participant in this process. And I think we have real reverence for it, because it’s much, much bigger than us and it’s extremely humbling. I mean in many, many disciplines and areas of expertise within Apple – they are predictable. You can say if I spend this resource for this long, I can be fairly certain of this outcome. And that is not the case for us. We might be super-fast with some surprisingly lovely ideas, or it might just be a hard slog.
All the rumours about the next Apple model – do you find that amusing, irritating, or what?
It’s irritating, as it’s a load of rhetoric that has little basis in fact, it’s cynical and opportunistic. But this gets at something else. Every culture, every collection of people has different standards, different set of values. Apple has been practicing trying to create and develop hardware, and software for decades. And there are a couple of consequences to that.
One is the hardware and software that we’ve made.
The other is that we’ve started to learn. And from our experience we’ve found it’s better to do the work and then say ‘hey look we’ve done this’, than announce to everyone ‘hey we are going to be doing this’. I think that would just be a cynical, opportunistic PR move and I think it’s just better to just do the work. From our experience, a lot of what we do fails in terms of what we explore as a team; and it just seems that is something we should be dealing with, not dragging everyone else through. So, we tend to have our heads down and just work and if something is coming out well, then we talk about it.
(Realise Note –That approach is admirable. But interesting the difference between the privileged position of Apple (any other large organisation) and a start-up that is forced to “go public”, certainly earlier than the design team would wish, to raise money or pre-launch to make a launch possible. We know from experience of Headkayse for example this is a very uncomfortable position).
Apple’s products improve incrementally in each version to the point they become entirely brand new (e.g. iPhone 1 vs iPhone X). How do you figure out what to change or improve in each version?
That’s a good question, I think when we make something, you know you I think its part of the our nature – that tenacity and ambition for it always to be better. And as a team we’ll have a look at what worked well, and we’ll think ok, but we’ll spend all the time thinking – oh, I wish this was better.
I think sometimes we are aware that there are technologies that, for instance when we did the first watch there were technologies that we wish we could have exploited and used. There are technologies when we were doing this one that we wished were a little bit further along in terms of their development. So, sometimes it is very conscious, we are aware where this product is going to go. Then there are things where you don’t truly know until you’ve made them in large volumes and really diverse group of people have used them. And then you learn, and you’re surprised; something’s aren’t intended.
But, one of the characteristics of our diverse team, one of the most profound things that unites us is that sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness, and taking such delight in being surprised – and being wrong – and then learning. And there is something very special about learning as a community and learning as a group. It’s sort of like when you walk past something and think ‘goodness that’s beautiful’, ‘that’s a nice tree isn’t it!? – it’s so cool if you can be with three other people and you can all agree ‘that’s a lovely tree’! So there is something very special about learning as a group – having a shared curiosity, going hand in hand with a sense of really wanting to make things better.
One of the great things about Apple products is that moment when you start using it and for example my 11 year-old says ‘Oh! That’s fantastic, that’s the way all computers should be!’. Is there a corresponding moment during the development process when you all look at yourselves and say ‘Oh my God, we’ve done it!’?
Umm, you might say that, but your tummy might be doing something else! Because you don’t know.
You see… I wish I could explain this well, I know I am going to do an appalling job… But you don’t realise how profoundly your perception of all of this is defined by the fact that it’s a finished thing.
So the difference between an idea or an early model, isn’t in its time, but that you’ve solved a bunch of it’s problems. For 99% of the design process, or the development process, it’s failing. And it doesn’t work. If it did work, we’d be shipping it!
So you spend most of your time worried, and thinking ‘this is not working’. I know that sounds really obvious, but that’s a really big deal. And so there’s this really weird faith that you have and that’s where you depend again on the group of people that have been doing this for years and years. We can look at each other, with that slightly startled, terrified look, and when your experience, not only as an individual, but as a group is really important.
(Realise Note – This Faith is really important – in the face of having to solve yet another problem that no one has ever solved before and the terrifying potential for failure, as people’s houses and livelihoods might be riding on this; you have to fall back on faith, both in each other as Jony says, but moreover in the process, that following the process the way we do, will give us the very best chance of solving this to a high enough level to move us one stage closer to reality)
… Jony does continue, going on to talk about how their new HQ will improve their multidisciplinary co-creation process, the technology miniaturisation journey and how Apple’s aim is making technology ‘personal’, and how reducing size is an important component in increasing technology’s accessibility. He also explains how Apple Park really is a product for them, to help them make better products – and he makes a nice point about other people’s criticism of it is a bit ridiculous as Apple Park is designed by Apple for the way they work, and surely they know better than anyone else how they want to work!
Finally Jony says some poignant and interesting things about working with Steve (Jobs) and the debt they owe him, not just in his contribution to the historical steps that have got them to this point, but also to the spirit and way of working that they will take forward into the future.
To hear the full interview listen through the link at the top of the page.
Found this enlightening or even frustrating?…
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