Jonathan Ive is a man who needs little introduction, which is just as well because not an awful lot is known about him. He is a Chingford-born lad who studied Industrial Design at Newcastle Polytechnic and, after a brief stint with the London design consultancy Tangerine, went on to join the Apple design team in Cupertino, California in 1992. At the tender age of 43 he is now Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc., head of their in-house design department and, some would say, the greatest industrial designer of his generation. Ive and his team have brought us one achingly beautiful object of desire after another including iMacs, Powerbooks, iPods, iPhones and iPads, and given shape to whole new age of multi-touch personal computing, entertainment and communication.
Although he is the public face of Apple’s conspicuously anonymous design team, Ive rarely gives interviews and despite being heaped with honours and awards, does not tend to frequent the events that go with them. Apparently he prefers to spend most of his time working inhuman hours in the Apple HQ at No.1 Infinity Loop fine-tuning prototypes and experimenting with new materials. So it was quite a treat when we got the call asking if we would like to talk to him about his work and his passion for making all things Apple-shaped.
After 18 years living on the West Coast, Jonathan Ive’s North-East London accent is still as broad as the North Circular. He speaks intensely, with great concentration and little of the trade jargon one tends to encounter with other industrial designers employed by large firms. He does not need to sell what he does, his products speak clearly enough for themselves, but he does want to communicate his approach and the intensity of his relationship with the company from which he now seems inseparable.
Ive’s design team at Apple is small, “you would be very, very surprised at how small”, he says, but it is clear this is not going to be a conversation about names and numbers. They have worked together for a long time and he values their ability to understand and communicate with one another, particularly when as a designer “you are barely able to articulate your intent or your view or perception of something that you are working on”. The team’s candid attitude, he says, is also essential: “We can be brutally critical of our work and the personal issues of ego have long since faded. We are very clear on what our priorities and goals are, so being focused and resolute is made much easier when you are a small group that is implicitly understood”.
Ive talks in the first person plural for much of our conversation. It is hard to tell where the use of “we” – meaning Apple Inc – begins and “we” – meaning the design team – ends. This integrated view of himself as part of a whole, rather than a discrete individual is reflected in how he describes the role of design within the context of company and the goals of both his design team and the company. “What we try to do is to design and make the best products that we can” is a phrase that he repeats often, for him it is the foundation upon which everything else is based. “It is important that I said design and make”, he adds: “I think it is absolutely essential that the process is seen as continuous. The object and its manufacture are inseparable”. It is true that design is often talked about by designers as if it were a discrete activity disconnected from the processes of manufacture and this in Ive’s view is a big mistake: “If you are going to be making something in high volume, the actual process of mass manufacture is in many ways more definitive than design. Our manufactured environment speaks volumes in this respect – it is filled with objects that have been barely considered from a design point of view, but the fact that they have been made is incontrovertible…”