Jonathan Ive is not only Apple's most senior designer, he's held the title for 15 years. He's the man behind the look of a lot of the company's most iconic — and successful — gizmos, and has worked on the likes of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, as well as the iMac and Air.
Steve Jobs even referred to the 45-year-old designer as his "spiritual partner" at Apple in his biography by Walter Isaacson, and Ive's native Britain bestowed knighthood upon him. Read: he's probably got a few lessons to share.
Ive recently spoke to the U.K.'s Evening Standard. The questions were simple and the tone casual, but there are some real gems in there for someone with a mind for design, or anyone who thinks about the work that goes into crafting technology besides.
Hop on in for five design revelations from Jonathan Ive.
Before I dive in, with respect to the work done by Evening Standard's Mark Prigg, you can read the full interview with Jonathan Ive for yourself here.
1. Don't Think Different, Think Simple
Apparently Apple has slyly led the world astray with the company's famous "Think Different" ads. That's not what it's about in the least, according to Ive, who said that "most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new — I think those are completely the wrong goals." Click here for the appropriate sound of a record scratching.
So, what is it all about? "A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that's what drives us — a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better," Ive said. Later in the interview he really drove it home: "Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can't imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object."
Consider the iPod Shuffle: it doesn't even have a screen, and all it is (in its fourth generation, anyway) is a flash drive with a click wheel attached. An MP3 player doesn't get much functionally simpler than that.
2. Always Ask Questions
We all hear it growing up. There's no such thing as a dumb question. Ive takes it a step further, in fact, saying that you should be asking questions while being "interested in being wrong." That's because, if you are truly innovating (not just creating something different, mind you), you're working on a problem for which there is no solution yet.
How, then, do you solve the previously unsolved?
A "wonderful fascination with the what if questions" and "absolute focus and a keen insight" all help, but what it really boils down to, according to the interview with Ive, is this:
"What is more difficult is when you are intrigued by an opportunity. That, I think, really exercises the skills of a designer. It's not a problem you're aware of, nobody has articulated a need. But you start asking questions, what if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful? This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device, rather than tactically responding to an individual problem. That's the real challenge, and that's what is exciting."
3. There Is No "I" In Team, Not Even An iTeam
One thing Ive is clear to emphasize is that the design work at Apple is not just Ive: "The way we work at Apple is that the complexity of these products really makes it critical to work collaboratively, with different areas of expertise… We're located together, we share the same goal, have exactly the same preoccupation with making great products."
The design teams at Apple, according to Ive, are small and diverse, which means the way a product looks and operates comes together organically. "I work with silicon designers, electronic and mechanical engineers," Ive said, "and I think you would struggle to determine who does what when we get together."
So, a designer isn't an island scribbling designs down onto a pad that an engineer then has to try and realize as a product. This marriage of designers to engineers and more is probably why we have the likes of the click wheel and MagSafe charger. It's a hollistic approach, and one that offers "collective confidence when you are facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge," according to Ive.
That said, the designer still has clear responsibilities, as you'll see next.
4. Trust Your Instincts (Or: Know Who Not To Listen To)
As you might expect from a high profile designer such as Ive, who is responsible for a wealth of definitive products, he's got quite a bit of trust in his own instincts. This is more a guiding design doctrine, however, and less ego: "It's unfair to ask people who don't have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design."
In other words, if you asked a bunch of people in a room back in 2007, people used to using dial-pad feature phones, if they wanted to have to tap their phone screen to do everything, or press a big glass screen against their face while making a call, the room may have generated a lot of negative interest. If you handed those people fully realized iPhones, instead… Well, let's just say that turned out pretty well for Apple, didn't it?
"We don't do focus groups," Ive said, adding, "that is the job of the designer."
5. It Never Really Gets Easier
Apple has had a pretty amazing run these last five years, which is when the first generation iPhone launched in June of 2007. Since then, the company has knocked it out of the park with new iPods and iPads — which, along with the iPhone, make up 76% percent of Apple's overall revenue right now, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook. With one victory after the next, one would imagine that Ive and other design teams at Apple are rolling in a well-worn groove.
Not so, according to Ive: "For as long as we've been doing this, I am still surprised how difficult it is to do this, but you know exactly when you're there — it can be the smallest shift, and suddenly transforms the object, without any contrivance."
Ive's team and design methodology allow him to keep cranking out hits. It's also why, I imagine, the iPhone 4S didn't depart too much from the iPhone 4, or the new iPad didn't look too radically different from the iPad 2. Because it's not about being different. It's about boiling down an object until "you forget you are using an iPad," according to Ive.