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From the beginning, Jonathan Ive was a design sensation as an undergraduate at
Newcastle Polytechnic, winning the studentâ€™s award for design from the Royal Society of Arts twice, a rare feat in itself. Catapulting from the success and hype of his undergraduate career, Ive co-founded a designing consultancy firm Tangerine straight out of university with Grinyer, a designer at the Roberts Weaver Group where Ive interned at, where he tried his hand at designing a wide variety of consumer items, including hair combs and power tools. While his British clientele failed to appreciate his work, one of his clients, Apple Inc. of Cupertino was impressed enough to extend a job offer to Ive in 1992, who accepted and birthed the design of the iconic iMac in 1998, the iPod in 2001, and the PowerBook in 2003, all of which sent ripples through the consumer design community. He is currently Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc.
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Ive, for his work, was the recipient of the Design Museumâ€™s Designer of the Year for the
2002 iMac and iPod, as well as in 2003 again. He was also awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry by The Royal Society of Arts and continues to win accolades for product design for Apple, including the Industrial Designers Society of Americaâ€™s Industrial Design Excellence Award, the National Design Award (2007), and the MDA Personal Achievement Award (2008). His work is featured on permanent display at MOMA in New York as well as the Pompidou in Paris, and he is consistently ranked as one of the most influential Britons in America.
With technology, the function is much more abstract to users, so the product’s meaning is almost entirely defined by the designer.” Ive defined his overarching design principles as “simplicity, accessibility, honesty, and enjoyment. It’s more about how you look at the world. When you look at how a satellite is made – the formal solution that has to answer a bunch of imperatives, what goes in, what doesn’t, how you fit it together, there’s so much stuff that people don’t think is consciously designed. Interview for Globe and Mail (2007)
Materials, processes, product architecture and construction are huge drivers in design. Polymer advances mean that we can now create composites to meet very specific functional goals and requirements. From a processing point of view we can now do things with plastic that we were previously told were impossible. Twin shooting materials - moulding different plastics together or co-moulding plastic to metal gives us a range of functional and formal opportunites that really didnâ€™t exist before. The iPod is made from twin-shot plastic with no fasteners and no battery doors enabling us to create a design which was dense completely sealed. Metal forming and, in particular, new methods of joining metals with advanced adhesives and laser welding is another exciting area at right now. Being superficially different is the goal of so many of the products we see . . . rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better. Interview for The Globe and Mail (January 2007)
The defining qualities are about use: ease and simplicity. Caring beyond the functional imperative, we also acknowledge that products have a significance way beyond traditional views of function. Interview for Design Museum (2003)
Design is the most immediate, the most explicit way of defining what products become in peopleâ€™s minds. Interview for Design & Technology Online
The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context,” states the man behind some of the most understated yet revered designs of the last decade – from iMac to iPod, his massmarket consumer products are as sculptural as they are purposeful. Interview in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine with Nick Carson
Making the solution seem so completely inevitable and obvious, so uncontrived and natural – it’s so hard! But that is what we’re trying to do here. Interview for The Guardian UK (2009)
We push ourselves to ask, can we do the job of those six parts with just one? One part that provides so much functionality that it enables one product. It wasnâ€™t design of the physical thing, but it was figuring out the process. It is about whatâ€™s important and whatâ€™s not important. It is important to remember things that are important and not important and then removing things that are vying for your attention. Interview for BBC
How do you connect to the product? A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that is getting design out of the way. With that sort of reason, it feels almost inevitable, almost undesigned and it feels almost, like of course it is that way. Why would it be any other way? Interview for Objectified (Documentary)
The memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work. Interview for BBC
In favor “Ive -- with an assist, of course, from CEO Steve Jobs -- has been the company’s lodestar in its journey to global trendsetter.”
“Ive has a talent for imagining beautiful things that work with minimal hassle. He changed home computers in 1998 with his translucent iMacs, and has continued to shape the way we work and play, most recently with the iPhone. Most of the products he creates with his team are radically new. Often, we’ve never seen anything like them. But it is part of his genius that he empathises with the user, guiding us by look and feel so that almost instantly, what was shockingly new seems familiar.”
The Fast Company (2009)
“Critics regard Ive’s work as being among the best in industrial design, and his team’s products have repeatedly won awards such as the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Industrial Design Excellence Award.”
“Apple’s designs are, well, elegant. There is no better word for it. Sony and Toshiba can come close at times, but, on average, Apple has the best-designed hardware from an aesthetics point of view of any vendor. It is amazing that, after several years, no one has been able to design a better hard-drive-based MP3 player than Apple did with the iPod. Even Toshiba’s design, which used many of the same components, sucked.”
“Have you noticed that Apple doesn’t live by the version-three rule? In the PC industry, there is this rule that some of the branded vendors take three tries to get something right. Apple often gets it in one try.”
”The first iteration might not be perfect, but it is often so close to the ideal that the difference is insignificant. I’m clearly one of those folks who wish this rule didn’t apply so well to companies other than Apple. Sometimes it’s the little things. For instance, if you look at the laptop hinges on the new PowerBooks and iBooks, you’ll see the way screens should be attached to laptops. The screen opens out and down, minimizing the height of the open laptop and making it much more practical for airplane use. The hinge itself is not only robust, but also protected, so it would be difficult to break. The end result is like a Porsche design in a good year: clean, understated and elegant.”
Tech News World (August 2004)
“That it is simple to use and just so damn desirable is down to Apple’s small, close-knit design team, led by Ive, a 42-year-old from Chigwell in Essex. He once showed me a notebook in which he had sketched every possible knob, lever, button or control device before settling on the idea of the wheel, and everything on an Apple product is similarly considered, explored, improved and designed to be as easy and as uncluttered as possible.”
“Jonathan’s designs have touched millions of people’s lives and transformed the workplace. He once designed a computer mouse by observing a drop of water, that’s lateral thinking. The New York Times recently described Mr Ive as “perhaps the most influential designer in the computer world”.
Sir Paul Smith for BBC (2003)
“Apple, with its laptops and iPods, is certainly, from one perspective, a geek thing; but, from another, much more interesting perspective, it’s an art thing, the story of how, even in our time, art and art alone can make, break, remake and, above all, express a contemporary cultural reality.”
Bryan Appleyard for The Sunday Times
Ive has a talent for imagining beautiful things that work with minimal hassle. He changed home computers in 1998 with his translucent iMacs, and has continued to shape the way we work and play, most recently with the iPhone. Most of the products he creates with his team are radically new. Often, we’ve never seen anything like them. But it is part of his genius that he empathises with the user, guiding us by look and feel so that almost instantly, what was shockingly new seems familiar.
“First, there what we might call the curse of the default: someone decided that a rectangle with (again) radial corners was a good solution for something, and suddenly that detail spreads everywhere: around the button images, the microphone, the camera lens, the slide on-off switch, the elevation of the phone itself. Sometimes its elongated variant, an extended capsule-profile, shows up for slots and slits. Each time the detail recurs, one’s suspicion of a progressively stylistic delamination between form and function is reinforced. Basically the iPhone is a 1996 Ford Taurus — that car in which all design problems, from logo to windscreen, were solved with an Illustrator-stretched oval.”
“Secondly, and conversely, there is the problem of not applying a de-
fault obsessively enough: there is an all-too willing exceptionality at various design moments. There are lots of semi-circular and circular details on most iPods, and yet obsessive examination of these reveal that seemingly concentric curves, are in fact, oddly unaligned: somewhere in Cupertino someone still weeps at how the center of the “hold” button on generations of mini-iPods almost-but-didn’t rest precisely at the center of other localized geometries on the case. As for the iPhone, forensic examination of its published images is not promising: one hopes very much that it is a mere trick of the light that gives the appearance that the exterior and interior radii of the chrome trim around the edge of the iPhone’s casing appear to deviate at the corners and base: a jarring disruption to the strongest piece of visual rhetoric on the object. That one can even reasonably speculate on this likelihood is, of course, appalling. Similarly, the curved profile of the
phone’s front-to-back edge is asymmetrical: a missed opportunity to give the phone the tactile and visual crispness of a new bar of soap; a matte black casing component on the back almost-but-doesn’t address a similar black strip on the front. Surely a few inspired alignments and resonant details in these objects would itself align with Apple’s own rhetoric about sleek systemasticity, about fluid conversational exchanges between multiple operational components? Now, there must be reasonable reasons for these “exceptions,” to do with manufacture or what have you, but the thought that the design team of this object decided to live with these grim little details is, for a company ostensibly distinguished by its devotion to design, deeply discouraging.”
“Perhaps Apple’s problem is to be found at the site of its greatest seeming success: that intersection between hardware and software. Often, elegant code or other software creations appropriate the name and language of architecture, and its attendant implications about the relationship between structure and content, intention and processing. But the problem with Apple may be that a software approach is being applied to the design of hardware: a seemingly economical application of default settings that progressively dissolves the integrity of each individual application of that setting or solution; and a paradoxical willingness to patch together case-by-case solutions that compromise the integrity of the overall composition in the interest of localized utility. Or to put it another way, if you round too many corners, you lose your edge.”
Thomas de Monchaux
“The main reason why Apple is bad for design is that they’re a highly idiosyncratic organization. As such, it’s nearly impossible to copy them, because no other organization has the elements that allow Apple to product great design. This means that when others do try to copy them, they focus solely on the superficial aspects of the design. I would argue that the main reason Apple is bad for design is because they’re so secretive about their work. So, while they benefit design because they demonstrate the value and power of design in the marketplace, they prove a detriment to design because they don’t share how they achieve such brilliance. “
“And because they don’t share, they make it look too easy. Which leads to people coming to Adaptive Path, and saying, “We want to be the iPod of [product category],” without any understanding of the deep commitment that it takes to get there. “
“Apple is bad for design because they contain a brilliance that simply cannot be emulated. And that brilliance allows them to approach design in ways that are harmful for those organizations that aren’t brilliant.”
“Integrated design has some inherent tradeoffs that have garnered criticism. In The Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower, Dan Frakes of Macworld suggests that with the iMac occupying the midrange of Apple’s product line, Apple has nothing to offer consumers who want some ability to expand or upgrade their computers, but don’t need (or can’t afford) the Mac Pro. For example, the iMac’s integration of monitor and computer, while convenient, commits the owner to replacing both at the same time.”
Macworld (June 2007)
Jonathan Ive has two mantra words which resonate with me: ease and simplicity. It is of no surprise to me why both elderly and young alike celebrate his work, because at a primal level, beyond words like “beautiful” that we throw out in desperation to describe our satisfaction, we enjoy the fact that his products can be understood without a user manual. Human nature is to make sense of things, and nothing pleases us more than when everything makes sense. It is truly remarkable how even a toddler is able to pick up an iPhone and immediately ascertain the functions and the features simply by viewing and taking in the form and design, all before learning to walk. This simply doesn’t hold true with the Nokias and Blackberrys of the world. Ive’s products are an opiate in a world where we understand little and toil lots to find answers, because they present one less problem to solve.
But perhaps what resonates with me more is his understanding of the design discipline as something beyond the final product and materials. After all, Ive is foremost a designer of the means to an
end, not the end itself. In fact, it would be a great insult to define him by the anodized aluminum, black glass, and white polycarbonate that only superficially praise the achievements of his design. It is important to realize that Ive deludes most of the public into thinking he is a man of visual aesthetics. But those visual aesthetics, in my opinion, are just a pleasant side effect. The better reality is that Jonathan Ive is a man on a warpath to capture function into form, to disintegrate the divisions between these two timelessly juxtaposed forces, to smelt function with form. While we are taught that there is a division between form and function, Iveâ€™s mission seems to be to dissolve this barrier. We take for example, the unibody Macbook: the entire structure being carved out of a solid block of aluminum blurs the line between whether this design decision is an embellishment to function, or to form. Sure, it adds aesthetically by creating smooth, uninterrupted lines around the entire device as a feature of form, yet this feature of form is also a feature of function, adding unprecedented rigidity to the product. This inability to distinguish between the two, the symbiotic nature of these two forces
is the credo of Iveâ€™s design, and the relationship at play here is far more intimate than simply describing it as form following function. His background in industrial design has developed into an acute sense of understanding the aesthetics of usability, rather than the aesthetics of physical design, and in this regard, I can only praise.
But this mentality and reductionist simplicity comes at a price as well. Reductionism implies by nature, a heavy dosage of interpretation on the designerâ€™s part, and in the case of designing consumer electronics, there is no avoiding the balance between simplicity and feature set. Iveâ€™s reductionist design philosophy has pushed him to enter the dangerous terrain of authoritarianism: discerning for the consumer which features are left out, which buttons, which switches, which peripherals stay and go, all without direct feedback from the ultimate end-users of his products. Make no mistake, by deciding unilaterally on these aspects, Ive in many cases limits and dictates how the consumer will use a device. The significance of this approach, again, is that it flies in the face of a market that
has been driven for decades by responding to our wants. Iveâ€™s reductionism precariously assumes he already knows what we want, encroaching upon a right we have come to enjoy in a consumerdriven economy. This criticism resonates in multiple offerings by Apple. The Macbook Air, which forgo-ed optical drives (alienating software users and purchasers) and heavily restricted access to USB ports and a lack of ethernet port, forcing mobility users on a tiring edge of limited function/ultra-portability, all in the interest of fulfilling Iveâ€™s design agenda. The iPad, with its deliberate lack of USB port that necessitate the purchase of expensive proprietary adaptors for each different function required. The entire Mac line, even, with an abolition of industry-standard VGA output ports in favor of proprietary Mini-DisplayPort ports necessitating the purchase of adaptors. The list goes on.
Ive commands a totalitarian fist that is beginning to eat away at the freedom of the consumer to maximize the function of the device, a serious flaw when it comes to good design. A stronger than
normal proprietary lean is beginning to develop that finds echoes throughout Appleâ€™s history, an aspect which I find to be a major criticism of Iveâ€™s design.
It is in many ways, dangerously self-fulfilling. The media hype from earlier successes only drives Ive deeper and deeper into reductionist territory, and consumers swept up by the hype of previous successes, are led to believe they desire whatever Ive concocts next, pressing down on Iveâ€™s gas pedal of reductionist design.
The fundamental problem here is that Ive dictates not just the way a consumer uses a device, but what a consumer ultimately desires in the first place. This usurpation of the natural and original function of design necessitates a criticism of Ive for transcending and encroaching the purpose of good design. Design is not meant to dictate our wants; it is meant to facilitate them.
Relation to British Design
What is interesting about Ive’s design is that it is void of the cultural and regional ties or corresponding hints and subtleties that typically find their way into most designers’ repertoire. It is sterile to ethnic or national identity - instead it attempts to embrace universal principles that Ive draws from Dieter Rams’ ten commandments of good design. Ive adheres to the faith that products should express their functionality in the most empirical and reduced form, evidenced by the ubiquity of his products. Simple, sleek, and function-oriented, Ive’s designs fit just about any environment and culture. But his attempt to transcend borders and universalize the language of his design, in a twist of irony, is in a way quintessentially British. British design has always been shaped by the imperialist nature of its trade-based society, the success of designer goods relying largely on the goods’ appeal to a wide range of clientele
across the globe. On the part of designers, this demanded a universal, multi-cultural style of design that respected the tastes of the world. In this respect, the only significant difference between Ive and former British design greats like Thomas Hope, is that while his predecessor took a more piecemeal mentality to design, amalgamating different cultures and stylistic elements into single pieces like the Hope chair, Ive takes the opposite approach to achieve the same end goal: he chooses to strip away the proprietary and unique identifiers of regional culture and heritage, distilling the product into the equivalent of designâ€™s greatest common denominator. Even this approach cannot escape precedence: this reductionist style is found in an early form in the style of Augustus Pugin who championed the stripping of ornamentation â€œif a part of a building is not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety.â€?
Then there is Ive’s obsession with cutting-edge materials and technology--new production processes and technologies such as unibody aluminum construction, layered battery cell technology, laser-cutting prototype machines, and an assortment of ambient sensors. But even this is also heavily reminiscent of the post-Bauhaus period of British design. Visionaries like Wells Coates and his Ekco radios, which used bathalite, a very early form of plastic and cutting edge at that time, exhibited the same kind of passion for testing the limits of the materials available to them. This intrigue with the properties of material and Ive’s subsequent mastery and familiarity with aluminum reminds us of the Bauhaus curriculum’s focus on understanding the medium and the school’s many alums including Mendelsohn and Chermayeff. In fact, their De La Warr Pavilion, as well as the Finsbury Health Centre and Penguin Pool de-
signed by Lubetkin all exhibit the same addiction with pioneering new ways to use materials, as evidenced by the cantilevered patios, tubular rails, and heavy use of modern materials throughout.
Perhaps more profoundly resonant of British design history than simply the visual stylistics of Iveâ€™s deisgn, however, is the mentality towards design that Ive embodies: total design. Iveâ€™s meticulous and perfectionist attention to detail and his command over his Chinese manufacturing partners to develop proprietary manufacturing processes to recreate his designs with remarkable precision is the modern embodiment of total design in its purest form. Ive, as the designer, holds complete control of the design and leaves no room for interpretation by the manufacturer to decide how to produce his products. Ive is notorious for his attachment to cut-
ting-edge prototyping and impossibly accurate production techniques, leaving literally nothing in the hands of the manufacturer - his impeccably tight quality control is the modern interpretation of total design.
It is in these ways, that we see Ive as not being a departure and revolutionary of design so much as he is a modern interpreter of the principles and perspectives that came before him. In many ways, he is a product of the rich design heritage that Britain has had the privilege of experiencing throughout its long and storied existence. To argue that Ive is something weâ€™ve never quite seen before is a naive statement on these grounds.
Relation to Thackara’s “In The Bubble”
One of Thackaraâ€™s main takeaways is that good design should not just be about the end product, but everything surrounding the product, particularly the ecosystem around it, an oft ignored aspect of consumer goods. He argues this lack of holistic ecosystemcognizant thinking results in untold amounts of emissions, waste, and pollution. Take for example miniaturization in technology, which has not decreased material use, but actually increased it on a waste per gram basis; or the speeding up of commuting, which has only resulted in the population moving further away from metropolitan areas, keeping commuting times stable while increasing emissions tenfold. There is a dire lack of holistic analysis when designing products that leaves a looming question mark over the overall impact on society these seemingly harmless product innovations have. In other words, design is becoming near-sighted.
Ive squares with Thackaraâ€™s vision in that he is constantly attacking the process of the product, the design of the way it is used, more than focusing just on the product itself, resulting in products that truly echo and reflect its function. Evidence of this ability to see the holistic social effect of his products is seen in his Macbook line where he eliminates the need for a removable battery by creating a proprietary thin-layered power solution that will not need to be replaced to begin with. By eliminating the ability to replace the battery, Ive cuts huge amounts of waste that would normally be spent creating the supply chains for battery replacements, as well as material waste in the mechanisms to allow for the battery to be removed. The aluminum unibody production process also allows for an almost 100% recycling efficiency as all the shaved aluminum parts are melted and reused in a seamless cycle. The
replacement of mechanical latches to magnetic clutches on the laptop opening system eliminates the potential for latch breakage, thereby eliminating emissions spewed traveling back and forth by consumers to fix latches at Apple Stores, as well as transporting replacement parts. Iveâ€™s obsession with reductionism is reducing potential sources of defect in his products, thereby reducing the size of an environmentally and socially expensive network of replacement parts suppliers. He focuses on simplifying production processes, eliminating waste, eliminating points of potential confusion or indecisiveness in user behavior. By building a product based on a production system, instead of a production system based on a product, Ive prioritizes and accomplishes Thackaraâ€™s vision of reducing waste through design as a foremost concern, rather than an afterthought. Ive also aligns with another of Thackaraâ€™s ten points
outlined in his book: literacy. A primary goal of Ive’s design is to design products that are understood immediately, intrinsically - a sort of haptic relationship of instinct. As Thackara points out, “Design’s task is to make information digestible.” The problem in his words, is “the unfiltered, unsorted, and unframed…lacking mechanisms to select what’s important.” Ive’s iPad, iPod, and Macintosh product lines consistently attempt to streamline visual stimuli to prioritize important information in product design. Take for example the power indicator on the right corner of Macbook notebooks, which are only visible when the lid is closed to prevent distraction when using the laptop. Even the LEDs themselves are hidden behind a laser-perforated thin section of the aluminum monocoque that is seamless with the rest of the body, making it seem as if there is no light to begin with. This consolidation and reductionism promote the “literacy” or prioritization of information that Thackara proposes be a guiding light in the future of design. Ive, at his primacy, is a designer of experiences, not a product, which bodes well in light of Thackara’s call for a transition from “design as a product to a design as a service.” It is in these ways that Ive finds himself in alignment with Thackara’s future.
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A study of Jonathan Ive for Professor Brian Hanson.