The New Yorker has published an extensive profile on Jony Ive, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design. Many newspapers have written up articles on Ive in recent years, but this latest account by Ian Parker is by far the most detailed and (arguably) the most interesting, revealing new anecdotes and tidbits on Apple’s latest products in the process.
The story tracks how Jony arrived at Apple back in the late 90’s, how his relationship with Jobs developed over that period, and how he is adapting to ‘leading’ design in post-Jobs Apple. The piece includes some new details about how the Watch project and the newest iPhones formed, as well as incorporating quotes from Tim Cook, Bob Mansfield, and others.
Read on for some select excerpts from The New Yorker’s story.
The piece opens with an introduction to Ive and Apple’s secretive design studio describing how the room is dominated by work tables and backs on to a wall of CNC milling machines. Each of the tables focus on a particular element the design team is working on—naturally they were all covered in silk for the reporter’s visit. Of note, The New Yorker talks to members of Ive’s sixteen-strong design team that rarely get public attention.
“We put the product ahead of anything else,” he said. “Let’s say we’re talking about something that I’ve done that’s ugly and ill-proportioned—because, believe you me, I can pull some beauties out of the old hat. . . .
“I had one last week,” Akana said.
“Which one?” he asked.
“The packaging thing,” she said.
“That’s true,” Ive said, laughing. “It was so bad.”
Akana had proposed that an Ultrasuede cloth inside the box for a gold version of the Apple Watch should be an orangey-brown. Ive had objected with comic hyperbole, comparing it to the carpeting in a dismal student apartment.
The candidness of his criticisms comes from Jobs. The article describes when Ive and Jobs first met, where Steve criticized Jony for vainness—for caring what people thought of him. This leads to one of the most prescient excerpts in the piece, about what Ive misses now since Jobs died.
Jobs visited the design studio and, as Ive recalled it, said, “Fuck, you’ve not been very effective, have you?” This was a partial compliment. Jobs could see that the studio’s work had value, even if Ive could be faulted for not communicating its worth to the company. During the visit, Ive said, Jobs “became more and more confident, and got really excited about our ability to work together.” That day, according to Ive, they started collaborating on what became the iMac. Soon afterward, Apple launched its “Think Different” campaign, and Ive took it as a reminder of the importance of “not being apologetic, not defining a way of being in response to what Dell just did.” He went on, “My intuition’s good, but my ability to articulate what I feel was not very good—and remains not very good, frustratingly. And that’s what’s hard, with Steve not being here now.” (At Jobs’s memorial, Ive called him “my closest and my most loyal friend.”)
On cars, a product area Apple is now believed to be actively developing, Ive discredits much of the industry saying “there are some shocking cars on the road”. Ive denigrates a specific model they are passing, for its lack of thought.
To his right was a silver sedan with a jutting lower lip. Ive said, quietly, “For example.” As the disgraced car fell behind, I asked Ive to critique its design: “It is baffling, isn’t it? It’s just nothing, isn’t it? It’s just insipid.” He declined to name the model, muttering, “I don’t know, I don’t want to offend.” (Toyota Echo.)
Ive also disapproves of SVP Operations Jeff Williams, who drives a Toyota Camry: “Ive’s verdict, according to Williams, is “Oh, God.””
In the interview, Ive also mentions his transition from hardware designer to leader of human interface, primarily the iOS 7 release. Ive said that his thoughts on skeuomorphism had been made clear in the past, but he was too connected to his actual work to intervene. Cook said that it was clear ‘Ive could add a lot’ to software when he began his company reorganization in 2011.
When Ive took control of Human Interface, in 2012, his immediate task was reforming the iOS. Jobs had liked digital facsimiles of analog designs; reportedly, the stitched leather in Apple’s desktop calendar quoted the interior of his Gulfstream. Ive’s view was that such effects were appropriate for the iPhone’s launch, when “we were very nervous—we were concerned how people would make a transition from touching physical buttons that moved, that made a noise . . . to glass that didn’t move.” But, he went on, “It’s terribly important that you constantly question the assumptions you’ve made.” (The bulbous iMac, a design with a similar desire to put people at ease, was replaced after three and a half years, and looked dated before then.) Ive was also itching to smooth the corners of iPhone app icons. “They drove me crazy,” he said. “All I could see were these unresolved tangency breaks.”
On the iPhone 6, the report indicates that design discussions around larger phones (that eventually culminated in the 6 and 6 Plus) began in late 2011. Before then, the company had seemingly modelled an enlarged version of the iPhone 4, which Ive had dismissed as “clunky”. The team made prototypes with screen sizes from 4 to over 6 inches. Ive also addresses the infamous ‘camera bump’ decision.
A few years ago, Ive and his colleagues assessed each prototype size of the future iPhone 6 by carrying them around for days. “The first one we really felt good about was a 5.7,” he recalled. “And then, sleeping on it, and coming back to it, it was just ‘Ah, that’s way too big.’ And then 5.6 still seems too big.” (As Cook described that process, “Jony didn’t pull out of his butt the 4.7 and the 5.5.”)
I asked Ive about the slightly protruding camera lens that prevents the iPhone 6 from resting comfortably on its back. Ive referred to that decision—without which the phone would be slightly thicker—as “a really very pragmatic optimization.” One had to guess at the drama behind the phrase. “And, yeah . . .” he said.
The story dedicates many words to the creation of Apple Watch. As previously documented, the story confirms that a watch project began life in late 2011 within Apple, “conceived “close to Steve’s death,” Ive said.”. The story also confirms that Marc Newson, although only being named as an Apple employee last year, was working on the Watch since its inception. Newson describes the creation of the wearable as a prediction of the future. Ive takes the opportunity to share his feelings about Google’s efforts with Google Glass—’a flop’.
“The job of the designer is to try to imagine what the world is going to be like in five or ten years,” Newson told me. “You’re thinking, What are people going to need?” In 2011, largely thanks to advances in the miniaturization of technology, the answer seemed to be a wearable notification device paired to a phone—making it yet simpler to exchange messages of love, or tardiness. That summer, Google made an eight-pound prototype of a computer worn on the face. To Ive, then unaware of Google’s plans, “the obvious and right place” for such a thing was the wrist. When he later saw Google Glass, Ive said, it was evident to him that the face “was the wrong place.”
Interestingly, the report brings up many of the issues discussed by outsiders in the weeks following the launch. For instance, Bob Mansfield is quoted as being worried that a luxury product like a watch could cause a separation in Apple’s customer base.
Yet Ive still had to make a case to Apple, and Mansfield recalled “a lot of resistance.” It wasn’t clear how the company would display such things in stores; there were also concerns about creating a divide between wealthy and less wealthy customers. (As Mansfield said, “Apple wants to build products for everybody.”)
The report discusses how Ive’s team wanted to offer a range of watches, but faced tensions with Apple’s usual blunt approach to design. Although not named explicitly, Ive describes how the Moto Maker was an insult of an idea as it gave over too much freedom to individuals to decide.
In one of our conversations, Ive was scathing about a rival’s product, after asking me not to name it: “Their value proposition was ‘Make it whatever you want. You can choose whatever color you want.’ And I believe that’s abdicating your responsibility as a designer.” Cook told me, “Jony has better taste than anyone I ever met in my life,” and Ive might not demur.
Ive also directly addresses why the Watch is square, rather than circular like the Moto 360.
For the watch, it was a year before Ive settled on straps that clicked into slots. Ive later tested watchbands by wearing them outside the studio with other watches. The shape of the body, meanwhile, barely changed: a rectangle with rounded corners. “When a huge part of the function is lists”—of names, or appointments—“a circle doesn’t make any sense,” Ive said. Its final form resembles one of Newson’s watches, and the Cartier Santos, from 1904.
There is also a significant discussion about the Apple Watch’s digital crown, which is used for navigation around the screen in combination with touch input. Ive tackles why the crown is not aligned in the center of the unit, saying it evokes something about how the crowns of traditional watches work, which is not the case with the Apple Watch.
Ive explained that, had he centered the Digital Crown, the watch would be a quite different product. “It’s just literal. And you could say, ‘Why is that an issue?’ Well, if it’s literally referencing what’s happened in the past, the information about what it does is then wrong.” The crown rotates, which is reassuring, but it doesn’t wind the watch or adjust hands. The goal, Ive said, was to create “the strangely familiar.”
The piece also notes how the Watch has given Apple designers a chance to explore more than they have with recent iPhone and iPad designs, which are tending towards single pieces of glass. The many alloys and strap designs necessitated by the watch are very different to Apple’s other products.
People, he noted, were saying that the watch’s face was made of “sapphire glass”: “It’s not glass, it’s sapphire crystal—completely different structure. And then the stainless steel is super-hardened. And the zirconia ceramic on the back is co-finished with sapphire as well.” He added, “This would cost so much money if a different company was making it—Rolex or something. It would be a hundred grand or something.”
“We sell it for just fifty thousand,” Hönig said, joking.
In case it needed any further confirmation, Ive reiterates that the display technology of the Apple Watch is OLED, not LED. This causes deep blacks to mesh the end of the screen and start of the bezel.
He picked up his iPhone 6 and pressed the home button. “The whole of the display comes on,” he said. “That, to me, feels very, very old.” (The iPhone 6 reached stores two weeks later.) He went on to explain that an Apple Watch uses a new display technology whose blacks are blacker than those in an iPhone’s L.E.D. display. This makes it easier to mask the point where, beneath a glass surface, a display ends and its frame begins. An Apple Watch jellyfish swims in deep space, and becomes, Ive said, as much an attribute of the watch as an image. On a current iPhone screen, a jellyfish would be pinned against dark gray, and framed in black, and, Ive said, have “much less magic.”
He was a few days from starting a three-week vacation, the longest of his career. The past year had been “the most difficult” he’d experienced since joining Apple, he said later that day, explaining that the weariness I’d sometimes seen wasn’t typical. Since our previous meeting, he’d had pneumonia. “I just burnt myself into not being very well,” he said. He had discouraged the thought that Newson’s appointment portended his own eventual departure, although when I spoke to Powell Jobs she wondered if “there might be a way where there’s a slightly different structure that’s a little more sustainable and sustaining.” Comparing the careers of her husband and Ive, she noted that “very few people ever get to do such things,” but added, “I do think there’s a toll.”
We drove around the building’s perimeter. “This is something that Steve cared about passionately,” Ive said. “There is a bittersweetness here, because this is obviously about the future, but every time I come here it makes me think of the past as well—and just the sadness. I just wish he could have seen it.”
Read the complete profile at The New Yorker’s website (highly recommended).