Think back to the first iPod – it was truly a game-changer. Why is that? There were many mp3 players that came before it. What made the iPod take off the way it did? The answer is; it was unbelievably simple.
“It was about being very focused and not trying to do too much with the device – which would have been its complication and, therefore, its demise. The enabling features aren’t obvious and evident, because the key was getting rid of stuff,” said designer Jony Ive.
Like an on/off switch which Ive decided to leave out of the final product. It drove everyone crazy at first, but soon became the defacto way of doing things – a “stroke of minimalist genius” according to author Leander Kahney whose new book Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products goes on sale this week.
In the book, Kahney, CultofMac.com editor and publisher and former Wired writer who has covered Apple for over a dozen years sheds light on Ive’s rise through the design team at Apple, his close relationship with Steve Jobs and ultimate responsibility for Apple’s product line.
The book is based entirely on interviews Kahney conducted with former Apple execs and designers, as well as interviews he himself conducted with Ive in the past, but he tells me none were done specifically for this book. Apple is notorious for not allowing anyone but Steve Jobs to speak and putting up a wall of protection around its execs. When Kahney describes approaching Ive for an interview at MacWorld, I smiled knowingly at the description of the ever-present PR team silently shaking their heads no, even though Ive said yes.
Kahney manages to put together a comprehensive description of Jony Ive’s life as a young designer in his native England who, like Steve Jobs, was heavily influenced by his father who was himself a designer. We follow along as he earns design awards, becomes part of a design team, and ultimately is lured away to work at Apple’s ID design group. He paints a picture of a quiet man, not interested in fame or title, though Ive was Knighted by the Queen of England, who is devoted to his work.
What few people know is when Ive started at Apple, the design studio was an afterthought, housed in a different location separate from Apple’s main building. There, Ive built on his ‘every product has a story’ way of designing and became an integral member of the team. He wasn’t always happy though, at one point he almost quit, saying Apple was a company that wasn’t innovating. He was convinced to stay by his boss Jon Rubenstein who had just taken over as head of hardware.
At that time, the hardware team had the power but it wasn’t long before Jony Ive and his design team became the driving force behind Apple’s hardware output. Of all the design principles that Ive adheres to, none is more noticeable in his work than his “reduce and simplify” motto. We read story after story of how Ive wanted products to be simpler, with fewer buttons, fewer clicks, where the screen can speak for itself.
His team eventually moved back to Apple’s campus when Steve Jobs returned to power. His design studio became a super-secret destination not many had security clearance to enter. Even former iOS head Scott Forstall wasn’t allowed inside.
The person who did spend lots of time there was Steve Jobs. Kahney says Jobs spent most of his day in the studio talking to Ive about products and design. He describes a long table where various prototypes were put on display for Jobs to evaluate and choose from.
Jobs came to depend on Ive, turning to him for advice, and Ive seemed to understand how to get Jobs’ approval.
He would always give him a prototype he could trash. For instance if they were choosing the perfect white color for a product, Ive made sure there were various shades for Jobs to choose from and ultimately help him narrow down his decision.
I had this vision of the “cool kids” at school when Kahney described stories of Ive and Jobs eating lunch together every day. I could imagine the two of them sitting in a corner at a large table talking to each other and not letting anyone else venture over.
Jobs and Ive became great friends, in fact after his cancer surgery he asked to see two people; his wife Laurene and Jony Ive. The creation of the iMac forged a bond between Jony Ive and Steve Jobs, changing Apple’s engineering-driven culture to one driven by design.
When I asked Kahney what surprised him most in his research, he told me it’s how much power Jony Ive wields at Apple. He doesn’t have the CEO title – Tim Cook has that – but he has a privileged position, one in which he doesn’t have the responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the company, just the products.
Jobs is quoted as saying (Jony Ive) “has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me”
and that still holds true today two years after his death. Ive is responsible for the sleek, innovative products you see today and will be the genius behind the products of tomorrow.