October 11, 2011
“A big definition of who you are as a designer is the way you look at the world”
– Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President and Head Industrial Design, Apple
Early in the 90’s, in the backyard that housed the design studio of Apple, now considered the world’s trendiest consumer electronics and computer firm, a young designer was putting in 70-hour workweeks in his quest to make clunky personal computers more aesthetically pleasing and human friendly. Months later, the fruit of the designer’s labor took form. Before him stood a computer prototype with two hinged doors that opened to reveal a smiley clock in the center. When a 5-year old boy was brought in front of the computer, he hugged it, exclaiming cheerily that the two winged doors of the computer were like two arms reaching to him. Gratified at his computer’s teddy bear-like effect on the boy, the aspiring 25-year old designer named his computer Happy Mac.
Now two decades later, Apple has emerged as the world’s largest tech company, and alongside, the designer behind Happy Mac, the 44-year old Jonathan Ive, is taking the up the mantle as creative genius from the late co-founder of Apple, the legendary Steve Jobs.
With the recent death of Jobs, who until recently served as Apple’s guiding light, many view that the trendy firm’s fortunes lie in Ive’s continued ability to conceive novel designs for the company in the coming years. After all, over the past two decades, it was the collaboration between Jobs and Ive that brought the world sleek and stylish devices such as the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and more recently the iPad. While the legend of Jobs in the corporate world will go unmatched for a long time to come, the quiet story of how Ive grew up in the shadow of Jobs and eventually was bestowed the title ‘Armani of Apple’ is indeed compelling.
Ive was born in England to a design and technology teacher who later became a school inspector. The young boy’s early lessons in design were learned by observing his father. A bright and diligent student, Ive was noticed for his modesty. One of his teachers describes Ive as “frighteningly intelligent”, while the captain of Ive’s rugby team in school calls him a “gentle giant,” pointing to the unassuming way in which he would step forward to take challenges. Soon after school, Ive earned a degree in industrial design from Newcastle Polytechnic.
The young Ive then started off for foggy London to work for a design consultancy called Tangerine. While there, Ive started chalking out trendy designs for bathroom-fittings. When Tangerine put Ive on an assignment that would require him to work with Apple, Apple’s then Chief of Industrial Design Robert Brunner, impressed by Ive’s designs, offered him a job.
“…my tombstone will say ‘The Guy Who Hired Jonathan Ive’”
– Robert Brunner, Apple’s former Chief of Industrial Design
Ive duly packed his dreams and bags and crossed the Atlantic to reach Apple’s Cupertino campus in 1992. He was just 24-years old then. But, to his great amazement, he found Apple in a state of disarray. The company, despite pioneering the sale of personal computers a decade ago, was a skeleton of its former self in the early 1990’s. The firm’s bitter rivals Microsoft and IBM were trouncing Apple in the personal computer market. More importantly, the company had done away with its visionary founder, Jobs.
At this time, Apple was selling its computers in cookie cutter fashion like other firms, deviating from the Jobs mantra: to fascinate the consumer with a computer that no other firm could produce. With design sidelined in Apple, many of Ive’s prototypes like the Happy Mac never made it out of the design studio.
But just like Jobs, Ive proved to be a man ahead of his time.
When all looked gloomy and Ive was considering leaving the U.S. for good, fortunes changed. The news of the ousted Jobs’s return to Apple came as a pleasant surprise for many employees, including Ive. As Jobs joined Apple again, he made his intentions crystal-clear: design would be king. The design studio received a much-needed makeover. Jobs procured an expensive prototyping machine to assist Ive. He emphasized increased security measures to prevent the leaking of information from the sacrosanct design studio, and even gave permission to install a posh kitchen adjoining the design think tank.
Ive designed the first iMac that was ready for sale in 1998. The iMac was like no other computer available in the market. It did away with the dull institutional beige monitor and introduced a curved monitor in an array of candy colors that were more soothing to the human eye, and perhaps more importantly, appealed to a young generation of consumers. In its first year of distribution, two million iMacs were sold, resurrecting Apple’s status in the computer market and ushering in the age of Jobs. Without question, Ive’s work in designing the iMac was substantial. He even camped out in the Asian factories and shop floors to ensure that the candy colors, for which the iMac became famous, were indeed perfect.
Various hits followed. The Ive-conceived iPod was an experiment in minimalism. Jobs used the iPod to establish Apple’s presence in the music market. The iPhone, another collaborative effort headed by Ive, was a meteoric hit that laid the foundation for Apple to become the world’s largest technology company.
Yet, apart from their passion for design and details, there was little in common between the two Apple men. While the words mercurial, fiery, temperamental, and dictatorial have been used to describe the late Mr. Jobs, Mr. Ive has been someone described by adjectives such as self-effacing, modest, quiet, and down-to-earth. Many of his colleagues in the ego-ridden design industry consider Mr. Ive as one of those rare breeds that is both brilliant and unassuming.
In his relentless quest for design inspiration, Ive has left no stone unturned. The young designer once took a 14-hour flight to Japan to watch the great Japanese artisans strike hot steel while making the ‘katana’, the blade that forms a Samurai’s sword. The thinness of the blade apparently gave Ive the inspiration to slim down the iPad into iPad2, Apple’s tablet that currently is in a headlong lead.
Still other times, Ive conceived his designs from the forms of nature. One of his iMac upgrades was based on a sunflower, and it was hailed by Jobs “as quintessence of computational coolness.” Design critics point out the simplicity of Ive’s designs, which are rooted on the principals of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who said “… good design is honest”. Ive himself bets on simplicity, saying he “loves the obviousness of everything.”
It is now accepted that Apple’s design was mainly driven by two great artistes – Jobs and Ive. But the man who evoked a feeling of religious fervor among his consumers, Jobs, is no more. His work now falls on the shoulders of the executives that Jobs himself had carefully groomed; and key among them is Ive. Ive might not have the same stage-presence as Jobs, but he shares his knack for design. After all, the man who enthralled a 5-year old with a Happy Mac shares credit for captivating 50-year olds with the design of the iPad. Right now investors believe Ive along with other seasoned Apple executives can indeed pull it off. And no doubt, Ive will be using all of his creative juices to prove them right.
Subscribe to get our global publications by email.