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Jonathan Ive

Jony Ive "more important to Apple now than Steve Jobs was"

News: Jony Ive is now more important to Apple than Steve Jobs was when he died and the company "would be in trouble if he left", according to the author of a new biography of the computer giant's chief designer (+ interview).

"Ive is now more important to Apple than Jobs was when he died, which I think is a hugely controversial statement," said Leander Kahney, author of Jony Ive, the Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products.

"But in a way it is a testament to Jobs," Kayney told Dezeen. "What he did in the last 12 years was build a company that could survive without him."

Since Jobs' death in 2011 Ive, Apple's senior vice president of industrial design, has become perhaps the most important figure at the company. Last year Ive was given responsibility for software design on top of his role as chief of hardware design.

He added: "It's not clear whether Ive has created a design department that could survive without him. I think that Ive is so central to what Apple does that it would be in trouble if he left."

Kahney, editor and published of Cult of Mac, has spent the last twelve years writing about Apple. His latest book tells the story of how Jonathan "Jony" Ive went from being "a scruffy British teenager" to the most famous and successful designer in the world.

Jony Ive - The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products by Leander Kahney book cover

The key episode in the Ive story is the way he helped returning Apple CEO Steve Jobs save the company with a string of revolutionary products starting with the iMac in 1997.

"The company was going to go out of business," said Kahney. "If it had failed they would have definitely gone out of business. It was a big success and made Ive a famous designer."

In his interview with Dezeen, Kahney explains how Jobs and Ive created a unique design-led culture at Apple that has driven the company's phenomenal success. "At Apple, nobody can say no to the design department, said Kahney.

He added: "I don't think any designer has ever, in the history of industry, ever had such resources at his disposal. It's mind-boggling."

Leander Kahney, author of Jony Ive - The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products
Leander Kahney, author of Jony Ive - The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products

Following dozens of interviews with former Apple employees, Kahney speculated on the future direction Apple will take under Ive's design leadership.

"They're looking at technology-enhanced clothing," he said. "People are talking about watches but I don't think they're going to make a watch. I don't think it would make any sense. A lot of people don't wear watches."

He added: "They're working with all the world's major automotive companies to bring iOS to cars. That could be a huge deal. Thats where most people listen to music."

Here's an edited transcript of the interview with Kahney:

Rose Etherington: What's the book about?

Leander Kahney: It's a biography that traces [Ive's] background, his education, his early career in London, then his recruitment to Apple. And then at Apple, about all the major products that he worked on.

Rose Etherington: What has been Ive's most important moment at Apple?

Leander Kahney: Well I guess the turning point was the iMac back in '97 with Steve Jobs. It changed Apple. Jobs forced Apple's internal culture to switch from an engineering-led one to a design-led one. That forged the relationship between Jobs and Ive, which led to the other successful products.

The iMac was the product that saved Apple. The company was going to go out of business. If it had failed they would have definitely gone out of business. It was a big success and made Ive a famous designer.

Rose Etherington: So the iMac was more important than the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad?

Leander Kahney: Well I guess without the iMac they wouldn't still be here; there would have been no subsequent products. It's difficult to say that there's only one important product. They had other successful computers but they couldn't compete against Microsoft and the iPod really changed that. It turned Apple from a niche computer maker into a much broader consumer electronics company.

Of course the iPhone and the iPad are probably the most important products because they are changing the entire status of computing. It's the biggest change in 30 years. There's certain computer devices and it's switched from desktops to mobile devices.

Rose Etherington: What enabled Ive to make such a big impact as a designer?

Leander Kahney: Probably Steve Jobs. Ive was at Apple for five years before Jobs returned but he struggled to get his designs made by the company. But then when Steve Jobs came back, [Ive] was one of the most important voices at the table. He empowered him. Over the next ten years, Ive became more and more important and more central to what Apple does. Jobs said: you're going to do it his way or the highway.

Rose Etherington: Would Ive have had the same success at a different company?

Leander Kahney: He would have absolutely failed at another company. At the same time we shouldn't give too much credit to Jobs. Jobs got all the credit for the products, but Ive is a singular designer, an extremely talented designer and design leader. A team of ten people would have been there before Jobs came back and are still there now. Apple became a unique design-centric corporate culture.

Rose Etherington: You've titled the book The Genius behind Apple's Greatest Products. Is Ive really a genius?

Leander Kahney: He was a design prodigy. He showed exceptional skill and intelligence as a teenager. And of course his relationship with his dad is, I guess, quite similar to his relationship with Steve Jobs in that his dad nurtured his talent and set him down a path. He received a great education at Newcastle Polytechnic. The genius I think of both Jobs and Ive was a very humanistic approach to products. They were focused very much on solving real world problems. They always wanted to do something that was a little bit hard to define.

When they were doing the iPhone, the brief for the product was to make a phone that people can love. People were like how does that translate into anything? But they did the same thing to the iPod, make a music player that people could love. I think that setting goals like this immediately sets you apart from other designers. It's not like how can we make a cheap MP3 player or undercut the competition? They were setting goalposts in a completely different part of the playing field.

Rose Etherington: So his success is down to sheer talent and hard work?

Leander Kahney: I wish it was. That contributed but he made his own luck. I think the key was really Steve Jobs. Ive said himself, if he took this to another company, he would not be as successful. He's quoted as saying that.

Rose Etherington: Did you uncover anything that you think didn't fit with Ive's famously shy and modest personality?

Leander Kahney: I did. Obviously didn't put them in for libel reasons. I've not mentioned that. His story is basically, he's brilliant as a kid, he's brilliant as a student, in his early career and at Apple. He's very much the opposite of Jobs, there was no crazy screaming, no fruitarian diet, Buddhist retreats, no out-of-wedlock children. He's very much what he appears to be. Polite, conscientious, hardworking. It doesn't make for drama in a book really.

It's just interesting how important he is to Apple. Jobs was almost lionised after his death and became known as the world's greatest CEO ever, but I think the world thought the main narrative is that Apple is now doomed because Jobs is dead, without him they're going to be lost. The point for me is how central was Jony Ive to the product creation process, the creativity of the companies. Jobs enabled the culture, but Ive and his design team came up with the products.

Rose Etherington: How do the rest of the design team feel about Ive's celebrity?

Leander Kahney: No one really has acknowledged their work. I think there was some jealousy there because Jobs was so secretive. He kept such a tight grip on what information came out of the company, that he was given credit for everything.

Rose Etherington: Why has the design-led culture been so successful for Apple?

Leander Kahney: They created this R&D lab inside the company that has the freedom and resources to investigate all these new products almost at leisure. They are able to work on products behind the scenes until they're ready. Often they find that they go down a path and they find that the path leads to a dead end. They restart the product again in a different direction. They've done this with almost every product. The iPhone is a good example: it took two and a half years of huge investment in time and resources to develop that thing behind the scenes.

Other companies have much more pressure about markets and timetables, and all these external factors that get them to rush products to the market. Samsung is sort of the opposite of Apple. First of all it copied what Apple has done. Also, they tend to do a range of products. They take a range to the market and see what's successful.

Whereas Apple does the opposite, they work behind the scenes and do a range of phones that no one sees then they'll release the one that their designers deem the best one.

Rose Etherington: So Apple's designers are allowed to try things out as many times as they need to, until they get it right?

Leander Kahney: Exactly. This is what leads to major breakthroughs. When the iPod was successful, they were looking for some way to meld the iPod and a phone. They made a bunch of different devices including one that used the scroll wheel, which they actually made but it didn't work very well. So they tried something else. They ended up making about six different prototypes before they found one that they were happy enough with. And then when [the iPhone] came out, it was fundamentally different from everything that has come before.

Jobs did this his whole career, starting with the Apple 2 and the Mackintosh. Then with Pixar, where they completely reinvented computer animation. Then back at Apple with the iMac, the iPhone, the iPad. People think that Jobs was the genius that dreamt up these products but what he really did was create companies that had this process, that invested in this process, that leads to breakthroughs.

It's the design-driven process. The investment in the design leads to breakthroughs. If we go back to the original Mackintosh in 1984, it was very similar. He had a very small group of engineers and programmers who worked for three years to invent this radically different machine. Those days, products were made in 18 months; this was twice as long. They had hundreds and thousands of problems.

They other thing about the designers is that a lot of people think designers are the people who make the outsides of things look good, but what these guys are the sort of primary inventors. They take care of a product from its conception all the way through to its manufacture, working out how these things can be made. In other companies, in other cultures, it's the designers who make the product and the engineers who deal with manufacturing. These guys are in charge of the product from dawn to dusk.

Rose Etherington: And there are no other companies that are doing this at the moment?

Leander Kahney: There're a few, but they're not as big as Apple. No one has the size and influence of Apple. A lot of companies outsource their design but there are quite a few design-driven companies like, I would say, Tesla the car company and Sonos, which makes music components.

Rose Etherington: Is there anyone else working in the way that Ive does at Apple?

Leander Kahney: That's a good question and I haven't really researched it. There's not many examples to be honest. The problem with a lot of companies is they copy the object, the product; they copy what's already been produced. But they don't copy the culture. It's really hard to copy the culture because it requires such large-scale changes. It took Steve Jobs 12 years to create this culture with Apple.

Rose Etherington: It was more of a struggle than a single turning point?

Leander Kahney: Exactly, it was more of a struggle. The engineers were pushing back, and saying this doesn't make any sense, saying it's quicker to do it this way, the way we've been doing it. And it took 10-12 years of pushing back against that to come up with a much more design-centric way of making products.

These same compromises still exist. But Apple now has amazing resources. One of the biggest breakthroughs in design in the last few years is what they call the unibody process which is where they take a big hunk of metal and they remove material to make a structure and a case for a computer for an iPhone or an iPad. Before what they used to do is take lots of components and screws and glue them together. That was an additive process. By changing it to a subtractive process where they take material away, they are able to make really really thin and light cases.

To do this, they had to buy the world's supply of computer milling machines. They've been spending about two billion dollars a years since 2009 to make these incredibly sophisticated factories. By comparison, when a company like Intel makes a new factory to make chips, they spend about 3 billion dollars. They do that once every five or ten years. Apple's been spending about three times that amount every year for about 14 years now.

Rose Etherington: So resources come into it a lot then?

Leander Kahney: I don't think any designer has ever, in the history of industry, ever had such resources at his disposal. It's mind-boggling.

Rose Etherington: What is it like to work in the design department at Apple?

Leander Kahney: It's a very nice, very privileged life. They're very collaborative. Everything they do is as a group. They have two or three brainstorming sessions a week, 3 hour meetings, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The whole design group gets together around a kitchen table and they hash out whatever they're working on. Sometimes it's a model presentation or details of a speaker grill.

There's only one private office in the design studio and that's Jony Ive's. All the other designers work in a big open-plan space. They are very well compensated, they all have lots of shares in Apple. They tend to work sane hours. The engineers they work with work insane hours - nearly 120-hour weeks - and spend months on end in distant factories in China. [Being a designer is] the best job in Apple for sure.

Rose Etherington: What sets it apart from other design departments in other companies? What's really unique about it?

Leander Kahney: Well, the power they have. Other companies get pushed back by the executives or the factory. But at Apple, nobody can say no to the design department. You have to find a way to make it work. You can't say no. You say okay, we'll find a way of doing this. And I heard a lot of that from the engineers and operations people.

Rose Etherington: How did this culture come about?

Leander Kahney: I think it became obvious that that's what they needed to do. I don't think [Jobs] had this idea or manifesto. I think Jony Ive said they wanted to start machining products. But machining products is so expensive. Each machine can be up to three million dollars. If you're doing this on an industrial scale, that's a huge investment in machines. Most people use the standard techniques for mass production, moulding, casting, stamping.

Jony Ive wanted to start machining products and usually you only machine prototypes, unless you're someone like NASA. It's not used in mass-produced consumer goods. But he would push for this. They started very small with the G4 Cube but slowly, product by product, they used more and more of these techniques. And Jobs pushed for that so that culture developed.

Rose Etherington: Why haven't other companies been able to emulate this culture?

Leander Kahney: Well I don't think it's well understood. Apple regards this as an industrial trade secret and they do not talk about it. They don't want their competitors copying them. It's one of the secrets of their success. Also a lot of companies, it's such a hugh fundamental change. Apple in the late 90s were going to die [so they had to] do something really radical. The manifestation was the iMac but the real thing was what they did internally. It was an experience that allowed them to completely refashion their company. Not a lot of companies do that: change the entire way that they do things. You have to have a company like Apple who were about to go out of business.

Rose Etherington: So Samsung and Mircosoft just aren't in enough trouble?

Leander Kahney: You have to be really on the ropes to do something as radical as that.

Rose Etherington: Do you think Apple is too comfortable now to make those huge shifts that they have done in the past?

Leander Kahney: I have heard this a lot and of course they haven't come out with anything epoch-defining since Jobs died. They've been in this kind of maintenance mode where they've released new iPhones and iPads [which are] very much like what they were before. There's not much that has really surprised people.

This was true when Jobs was still alive as well. There was a long period where they had nothing that was completely revolutionary. They have a bunch of stuff in the lab but of course what they're working on is secret so no one really has the details but there's lots of clues that they're looking at three major areas. One is TV and entertainment and living rooms. They call it Apple TV. I think that's kind of misleading; I think its going to be a more ambitious product.

The other thing is wearables, they're looking at technology enhanced clothing. People are talking about watches but I don't think they're going to make a watch. I don't think it would make any sense. A lot of people don't wear watches. What do you need a watch for? There's some really interesting bio-sensors coming on the market that can track your heart rate and not just that, they can track your depth of breathing, the blood-glucose levels. You might need some real-time help, monitoring. That might have a more universal impact.

The other thing is getting into automobiles. They're working with all the world's major automotive companies to bring iOS to cars. That could be a huge deal. Thats where most people listen to music.

Rose Etherington: There's a sense that Apple is doing fine without Steve Jobs, but what would it be like with Ive?

Leander Kahney: Ive is now more important to Apple than Jobs was when he died, which I think it a hugely controversial statement. But in a way it is a testament to Jobs. What he did in the last 12 years was build a company that could survive without him.

It's not clear whether Ive has created a design department that could survive without him. I think that Ive is so central to what Apple does that it would be in trouble if he left. Jobs was the CEO but he wasn't really the CEO - Tim Cook was the CEO. Cook ran Apple day to day whilst Jobs hung out with Jony Ive and created new products. Jony Ive has now got the same job that Jobs had.

Rose Etherington: What's next for Apple? Can you go much further with a flat glass screen?

Leander Kahney: I think that's true. If you look at the iPhone, it's really like the original iPhone. It's faster, it's more capable but it's a slab of glass. Software is definitely where the opportunities lie. I think we're going to see different sizes of phones. I think Apple is going to come with bigger plans for next year but the basic functionality isn't going to change so much.

A lot of the internal improvements are easy to overlook but if you look closely, it makes a huge difference in the experience of the product. I think that's overlooked. It's much better than it used to be. You used to have to plug your phone in all the time. Sometimes it wouldn't even last a whole day and now it's two or three days. Sometimes longer if you don't use it that much. There's still rumours about adding different sensors to it. It would be nice adding some intelligence to the camera: robot vision. I think there's definitely a lot of room for change.

Voice control and Siri are also really important. It's full of opportunities really. We're just getting started with huge changes in computing. We add sensors to everything and everything is connected to the internet. It's just beginning really and I think Apple is going to be central player in that. There will be all kinds of devices with all kinds of interfaces. Some will be finger-based, some will be voice-based.

Rose Etherington: Ive's background is in product design but he's now also in charge of software design at Apple. How do you see that playing out?

Leander Kahey: He's also interested in software. He wasn't in control of that; now he is so his experience, going all the way back to his college days, was always about the interaction. There aren'y many companies that control both the hardware and the software, there aren't many companies that are as innovative as Apple. Most of their competitors use Android software from Google so they've outsourced software. So I think that they are always at an advantage.