As Apple’s Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, Sir Jonathan Ive is the driving force behind the firm’s products, from the Mac computer to the iPod, iPhone and, most recently the iPad. With a background in industrial design, the 45-year-old was born in Chingford, England and now lives in San Francisco. The London Evening Standard recently sat down in Cupertino where the corporation has its headquarters to chat to the designer. See the extract below, and read the whole interview here.
Q: What makes design different at Apple?
A: We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers. If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. There’s a sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often.
Q: How does a new product come about at Apple?
A: What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naive, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but then the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.
The nature of having ideas and creativity is incredibly inspiring. There is an idea which is solitary, fragile and tentative and doesn’t have form.
What we’ve found here is that it then becomes a conversation, although remains very fragile.
When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation. But when you made a 3D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes – the entire process shifts. It galvanises and brings focus from a broad group of people. It’s a remarkable process.
Q: What makes a great designer?
A: It is so important to be light on your feet, inquisitive and interested in being wrong. You have that wonderful fascination with the what if questions, but you also need absolute focus and a keen insight into the context and what is important – that is really terribly important. Its about contradictions you have to navigate.
Q: What are your goals when setting out to build a new product?
A: Our goals are very simple – to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.
Q: Why has Apple’s competition struggled to do that?
A: That’s quite unusual, most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. 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. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.
Q: When did you first become aware of the importance of designers?
A: First time I was aware of this sense of the group of people who made something was when I first used a Mac – I’d gone through college in the 80s using a computer and had a horrid experience. Then I discovered the mac, it was such a dramatic moment and I remember it so clearly – there was a real sense of the people who made it.
Q: When you are coming up with product ideas such as the iPod, do you try to solve a problem?
A: There are different approaches – sometimes things can irritate you so you become aware of a problem, which is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging.
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.
Q: Has that led to new products within Apple?
A: Examples are products like the iPhone, iPod and iPad. That fanatical attention to detail and coming across a problem and being determined to solve it is critically important – that defines your minute by minute, day by day experience.
Q: How do you know consumers will want your products?
A: We don’t do focus groups – that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.
Q: How do you know you’ve succeeded?
A :It’s a very strange thing for a designer to say, but one of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.
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. For instance, the iPhoto app we created for the new iPad, it completely consumes you and you forget you are using an iPad.”