Jony Ive Exits AppleBy
On Thursday, June 27, 2019, Jony Ive announced he would be leaving Apple later this year. Ive’s tenure as chief design officer (CDO) ranged over 27 years during which he and CEO Steve Jobs achieved legendary status in industrial design with products such as the iPod, MacBook Air, iPad, and, perhaps the most consequential of all, the iPhone.
Although many have labeled Ive’s departure as the end of an era at Apple, that happened on October 5, 2011, when Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. Ive and Jobs, when together, formed an almost Janus-like partnership based on a single-minded obsession for simplicity out of which emerged the cult of design at Apple. The two directed the company through its most innovative decades. In Jobs’s own words, “He understood what we do at our core better than anyone. If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony.”
Ive was hired to work on the design team in September 1992. At the time, Jobs wasn’t at Apple, having resigned in 1985 to escape an internal power struggle and to found NeXT Inc. and then to fund Pixar.
Almost from the beginning, Ive was unhappy, and after a few years he was ready to leave. “All they wanted from us designers was a model of what something was supposed to look like on the outside, and then the engineers would make it as cheap as possible. I was about to quit.” Building boxes to fit electronic components wasn’t enough to keep him there.
For a young designer grounded in Dieter Rams’s “less but better” philosophy, beige boxes certainly weren’t enough. Given his formal statements about design, you can understand his frustration in those early years. “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style,” he explained. “It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.” That approach also requires knowledge of the product and its purpose. “[You need] to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”
Fortunately, Jobs returned when Apple bought NeXT for $427 million in 1997. The Jobs/Ive era began as Jobs was reinstated as acting CEO of the company he and Steve Wozniak had founded on April Fools’ Day in 1976.
With Jobs’s return, Apple pivoted back to what it had been. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, explains in Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, “Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice-versa. Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integrated to what would make us great.”
The connection between the CEO and one of his young designers was dynamic. Isaacson relates how Ive regarded the return of Jobs. “We discussed approaches to forms and materials. We were on the same wavelength. I suddenly understood why I loved the company.”
It wasn’t long before Ive was given more access and freedom, and in 2015 he was promoted to CDO of Apple. Years later, Jobs explained Ive’s special place at Apple: “He understands that Apple is a product company. He’s not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”
Together, over the span of their 14-year collaboration, the CEO and CDO created the iMac (1998), iBook G3 laptop (1999), iPod (2001), iMac G4 (2002), iPhone (2007), MacBook Air (2008), and iPad (2010). Over the years since Jobs’s death, Ive went on to redesign the iOS7 operating system in 2013 and the Apple Watch in 2014, and he oversaw the construction of Apple’s new circular headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in 2017.
Jony Ive is the last member of the original Apple design team. And today, there’s a question whether Apple is still essentially a hardware producer. An Apple insider recently noted, “The greatest volume of job ads at Apple today is in the Human Interface Design department, which has 49 jobs open.” Those are software jobs.
Shira Ovide, writing for bloomberg.com, offered a comment about Ive’s departure: “The future of Apple and the technology industry will be shaped by software and other technologies that don’t have to look as beautiful as Ive’s designs do. The future is computing woven into anything, and it’s not intended to be noticed or adored.”
And so the Jobs/Ive era closes at Apple, a company in transition.