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article imageDesigning products that change the world Special

By Les Horvitz     Oct 23, 2017 in Technology
New York - Taking things apart – and putting them back together – was what Jony Ive loved to do as a kid. Now he’s designing iconic products for Apple. You might even have one in your pocket.
“Every single object that has been made testifies to the values and aspirations of the people who made it,” Ive told an enthusiastic audience at The New Yorker’s TechFest earlier this month.
At 49, Sir Jonathan Ive is chief design officer for Apple and can boast (if he was the boasting type) that he has more than 5000 patents to his name. Success hasn’t exactly gone to his head. Jony, as he prefers to be called, describes himself as “a dreadful businessman,” bad with numbers, and “always anxious.”
He can’t look at an object without thinking about the work that went into making it. “What is behind an object? It’s the culmination of multiple decisions. Most things are built in an opportunistic way. We may not consciously be able to describe why we like something, but we can sense the care in its creation in the same way we sense carelessness.”
Raised in London, Ive joined Apple in 1992 not because of its technology but because of the company’s reputation and its culture. But its reputation was taking a hit as Apple began to decline following the ouster of its legendary CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs in 1985. “The company broke my heart when it drifted into irrelevance,” he told TechFest attendees.
Although it was “an extremely painful time,” the experience allowed him to learn a lot about how people work together under pressure – or don’t. “I got to live through a succession of CEOs who tried to turn the company around.” They were fixated on making more money than they lost, but it was a strategy that led to their failure.
Steve Jobs Returns
When Steve Jobs was brought back to rescue the company in 1996, he took an entirely different – and counterintuitive -- approach. “He didn’t talk about money. We were losing fabulous amounts every quarter.” Instead, Ive says, Jobs focused on making a good product “We established an immediate understanding. He realized that there was a huge disconnect between design and what Apple was doing. He said I was completely ineffective and he was right.”
Ive soon learned how to design products that reflected Apple’s aesthetic. “I had the most wonderful teacher in Steve.” And one of the most important things that Jobs taught him was how to focus – and stay focused. “It’s not that you decide to be focused for one month and then trundle on. One of the measures of focus is how often you say no to an idea that fascinates you. You need to put it aside even if it’s great.” It’s just too distracting. “Steve was marvelous at that, but it’s exhausting to sustain.”
Their collaboration flourished over the years; Ive and Jobs met regularly for lunch, meetings which would stretch on into the afternoons. It was a creative process that he still finds remarkable, almost miraculous. “Tuesday’s there’s no idea, Wednesday there is an idea.” But at the beginning, he adds, “it’s very tentative and fragile.”
Creating the iPhone
And where do these ideas come from? “There are things that drive you crazy, the feeling that there has to be a better way. Steve and I were looking at the phones we were using – they were poorly made and reflected a lack of ambition. We found it hard not to take affront at that.” It was that sense of dissatisfaction with the way things were that eventually led to the creation of the first iPhone.
The iPhone (iPhone 10 was just released) arguably owes much of its popularity (and profitability) not just to its technology but also to its sleek, stylish look. “It didn’t make any difference functionally,” Ive told Time . “We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”
The Thrill of Collaboration
Teamwork, Ive says, is essential to the design’s success. “There’s something quite special when you learn as a community. These products are so complex that we need multiple people (to work on them) with a broad range of expertise. What I’ve remember in retrospect most fondly is not the products but the process… how fortunate I’ve been to work with some of the most extraordinary people on the planet… If I get to sit down for two hours with one of the world’s best silicon designers I could not be happier."
Can Apple still Make Revolutionary Products?
Ive admits that he’s so preoccupied with designing new products that he doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to the influence the iPhone, iPad, Apple watch and other Apple products have had on the culture. It was a response that may have disappointed the audience hoping that he'd go into more detail. “I just feel joy when people connect with products,” he says, citing feedback he receives from people describing their experiences with devices he’s designed that he would otherwise have no way of knowing about. He acknowledges that these devices can be misused – in the case of the iPhone by overuse. “We fill space because we can, not because we should.”
Has Apple has lost some of its creative edge? Some critics contend that many of the post-Jobs offerings are essentially upgrades of existing products rather than breakthroughs like the iPhone and iPad. Ive scoffs at the idea. He believes that the company will continue to turn out revolutionary products under Jobs’ successor Tim Cook. “We’re waiting for technology to catch up to some of the ideas.”
Just because a new device hasn’t been introduced to consumers doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t working on it. He points to facial recognition – a feature of the iPhone 10 – which took five years to develop. “But for 99 percent of the time it didn’t work for us.” If something hasn’t been created before, he adds, it’s probably because there’s a good reason why no one’s done it, and if there’s one reason there are probably fifty.
Is there a secret to his success? After all, he’s been designing beautiful – and staggeringly successful -- products for Apple for over fifteen years. He acknowledges that it hasn’t always been easy. To be a top tech designer requires him to constantly toggle between “two distinct behaviors.” On the one hand, he says, you need to be inquisitive and light on your feet. On the other, you need to be focused, resolute and determined.
Moving from one mode to another and then back again, he admits, comes at a cost especially to your personal life. In addition to being both flexible and focused, you also need to be prepared to fail. And that’s OK. “Failure can be a valuable lesson.”
More about Johny Ive, Apple, iPhone, iPad, Steve Jobs
 
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