The Apple world this morning seems divided between those who seemingly haven’t grasped the implications of Apple’s ‘promotion’ of Jony Ive, merely taking Cook’s memo at face value, and those switching into full-on ‘Apple is doomed’ mode. The reality is, I think, a little more nuanced.

It seems pretty clear that this move is, as Seth outlined earlier, about Ive taking more of a backseat role – and especially being able to spend a lot more time back in England. Apple’s decision to announce the news on a day when the US markets were closed was obviously not coincidence.

Apple didn’t want to see a knee-jerk panic reaction on Wall Street setting its stock diving. But is there reason to panic? Or is it all much ado about nothing? Or something between the two … ? 

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Let’s start with Ive giving up management responsibilities. This is, in my view, a non-event. For all I know, Ive may be the best manager in the world, the master of budget forecasts, the maestro of people management, the– Ok, I’ve run out of superlatives beginning with M. But given that he speaks with great passion about design, and barely mentions management in any of his interviews, I strongly suspect that he has merely tolerated management responsibilities as the price of being in charge of design.

But what of taking a more back-seat role on design? That, surely, is a pretty big deal?

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There’s no question that Ive has been massively influential in modern industrial design, and his work a huge part of Apple’s success. For all his famed modesty in interviews, his talk of teams and saying ‘we’ far more than ‘I’, there’s no doubt that Apple’s design language is very much born from Ive’s personal vision.

But his modesty does also reflect a reality of large corporations. Apple works very hard to present itself to the world as a small entity run by a few friendly and familiar faces. Steve Jobs was for many years almost the sole face of Apple. Today, we see more faces than we used to. Not just Tim Cook and Jony Ive, but also Eddy Cue, Craig Federighi, Phil Schiller, Angela Ahrendts.

But that’s still a pretty small small group of faces for the largest company in the world by market cap. For every familiar face, there are hundreds of unknown ones, quietly doing incredibly important work behind the scenes. And that’s true of industrial and user interface design too. There’s Richard Howarth and Alan Dye, of course – both faces we’re going to see a lot more of in the coming months. But behind them are a whole army of talented designers and UX experts.

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There’s no contradiction here between the two views I’ve expressed: that Apple’s design language stems from one man’s personal vision, and that nothing Apple produces is ever designed by one person. The vision may be Ive’s, but the realization of that vision is the work of a whole team of people.

We don’t even know for sure if the change announced represents much of a shift from what happens today. Does Ive spend most of his time beavering away on CAD systems, making clay models and personally exploring the properties of hundreds of different materials? Or does his team do most of the hands-on work while Ive provides the direction, the feedback, the suggestions, the yes or no decisions?

It could well be the latter, in which case very little need change.

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But either way, it’s not hard to see that the latter approach could serve Apple well in future. Ive has created a very well-established Apple design language. He works with a team of bright, thoughtful people who have years of experience at working within that language.

Even for a completely new Apple product, it’s not like Ive is the only man on the planet who can come up with an amazing design that completely fits into the Apple product family. If Ive were to do nothing more than set the criteria and outline the vision, providing feedback and guidance on the different iterations, we’d still get great designs. Indeed, given the experience his team has, we’d still get great designs if Ive just waited for his team to come up with ideas and said ‘add X, remove Y, change Z then come back and show me another one.’

future But I doubt that’s what’s going to happen here. Sure, management responsibilities are difficult to fulfill remotely – but design can be done from anywhere. Ive would be as capable of leading design direction whether sitting in a lab in Cupertino or in a home office in England.

And while he could clearly well afford to retire, I don’t see that happening. Offload management stuff, absolutely. Reduce his day-to-day workload, definitely. But it’s clear Ive still loves, eats and breathes design. He couldn’t give it up if he wanted to. And, honestly, Apple would be pretty dumb to give Ive a new C-level title (only the third one in the company) shortly before having to announce his retirement.

So I suspect his new role will be somewhere between the two extremes. A certain amount of hands-on design work. A certain amount of strategic direction. A certain amount of feedback, guidance, decision-making.

But even in the worst of cases, no one individual is indispensable. Apple clearly has an amazing team of designers, well-versed in what it is that makes a design ‘Apple.’ With or without Ive, they will continue to do great work. Life would go on. Apple design would go on. Apple would not be doomed (though the pronouncements that it is would go on).

Top image: fastcolabs.com

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