Apple Culture : Jonathon Ive

Apple Culture

There has been much discussion recently, including our conversation on the air, pertaining to the future of Apple in light of Steve Jobs apparent health issues. The tidal wave of virtually identical reporting that’s out there focuses almost exclusively on the notion that Steve Jobs is so vast an oracle as to be irreplaceable… that the fate of the company is almost surely tied to Jobs being firmly at the helm.

Now don’t get me wrong… I love Steve Jobs. He’s the man that has orchestrated so many of the tools I hold so dear. He and his company almost never screw up… and when they do, they always seem to make amends. But I started thinking deeper on the notion that what’s inside the company and its culture will best inform Apple’s long term viability.

Patrick Crispen suggested on the air a couple weeks back that “Apple has no Steve Ballmer“… but I would say, upon reflection, that it all depends on how you define Steve Ballmer. Understanding that Apple is an international business and needs to plan and strategize as such… for my money, Apple is primarily a design company… so I thought I’d get off the beaten track a bit and write about someone that many of you may not have heard of… his name is Jonathon Ive and there’s a good chance he has already made his way into your home.

Ive Photo

Jonathon Ive is a British designer and the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Computer. He is internationally renowned as the principal designer of the iMac, aluminum and titanium PowerBook G4’s, the MacBook, the G4 Cube, the iPod, and most recently, the MacBook Pro and the iPhone.

Ive grew up in Chingford, East London, raised by his father who was a teacher and attended design school at Newcastle Polytechnic before transitioning to the working world with a brief stint at London design agency Tangerine in the early 90’s. In 1992 he moved to the United States to pursue his career at Apple, which began surprisingly during the 12 year period that Jobs was absent from the company. Ive rose to his current position with Apple in 1997 upon Steve Jobs return to the company. Since then he has headed the Industrial Design team at Apple responsible for most of the company’s significant hardware products.

There’s not a whole lot on record pertaining to Jonathon Ive. Like Steve Jobs he’s more of a reluctant celebrity… that coupled with the closed ranks that Apple has always presented to the public leaves just a little peak into how things work within their culture, but there are some things that are known.

iMac swivel

Ive is described as the ‘man behind the curtain’ at Apple. While Jobs provides direction and inspiration, Ive embodies Apple’s sense of design and is responsible for figuring out how to bring those designs to life, in a design sense as well as a manufacturing one. In Jonathon Ive, Steve Jobs has found the person that can meet or exceed his expectations virtually every time.

Ive works with a group of 12 senior designers at Apple, when asked to describe the organization of the Apple design team, Ive said this to the British Design Museum back in June of ’07;

“We have assembled a heavenly design team. By keeping the core team small and investing significantly in tools and process we can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare. Our physical environment reflects and enables that collaborative approach. The large open studio and massive sound system support a number of communal design areas. We have little exclusively personal space. In fact, the memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work.”

iPod Classic

Most memorable is the last line. To say something like that you can bet that this team of designers has the support of the company that wraps it… development, marketing, sales. Apple clearly understands its products and the role that design plays in that equation. This is why they continue to innovate and are able to keep a designer like Jonathon Ive content, where his design challenges would certainly be more diverse if he worked as a consultant or started his own company.

In the absence of Steve Jobs, I would guess that this culture of high-design would need to be maintained and nurtured as the cradle from which Apple’s uniqueness in the marketplace is born. Whether it takes the actual Steve Jobs to accomplish this remains to be seen… but Jonathon Ive is obviously the foremost contributor to Apple design over the last 15 years or so, his presence at Apple seemingly key to the companies long-term outlook.

Apple Subwoofer

But it’s not only Ive, it’s his environment at Apple and the other folks that make up his relatively small team of a dozen designers or so, many of whom have been at Apple prior to Ive’s arrival in 1992. They rarely attend industry events or awards ceremonies most likely not wanting to risk information getting out that could help competitors close the gap. All top-shelf designers in their own right, it is said that the team works with very little ego, all working towards the common goal that finds itself manifested in the products we use every day.

Original Apple Cinema Display

The team works closely with engineers, marketers and sales teams… but most notably with the Asian manufacturers that will actually build the products… Not content to simply design an object, Ive and his team are innovators in the use of new materials and production processes that end up setting the pace in the industry. “Apple innovates in big ways and small ways, and if they don’t get it right, they innovate again,” says frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger, who designed many of the original Apple computers for Jobs. “It is the only tech company that does this.”

Original Apple iMac

One example of this would be Apple’s pioneering work in injection molding that made the original iMac possible. It involved figuring out how to inject molten plastic or metal through tiny feed lines into irregularly shaped cavities with just enough designed holes to cool the enclosure to a blemish-free perfection in seconds. Part science, part design and a whole lot of trial and error that Ive’s team shepherded from start to finish. Ive has also said he spends most of his operating budget on prototyping tools for their studio. A forefront concern for how things are made is visible in every Apple product we own.

The Steve and Jony Show

It would be interesting to know how things would shake out for Jonathon Ive if Steve Jobs were removed from the equation. Ive has said that he and Jobs usually speak every day, which is saying a lot. The Steve and Jony Show (pun intended) has been responsible for one of the most amazing product runs in manufacturing history… subtracting one of these two stars from the constellation would surely have an effect… but in the meantime, it’s still probably fine to be waiting on the next big thing.

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3 Responses to “Apple Culture : Jonathon Ive”

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