Design education is "tragic", says Jonathan Ive
Jonathan Ive

Design education is "tragic" says Jonathan Ive

News: Apple's head designer Jonathan Ive says he struggles to hire young staff as schools are failing to teach them how to make products.

Speaking at London's Design Museum last night, Ive attacked design schools for failing to teach students how to make physical products and relying too heavily on "cheap" computers.

"So many of the designers that we interview don't know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper," said Ive.

"That's just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one."

Ive, who is Apple's senior vice president of design, said that students were being taught to use computer programs to make renderings that could "make a dreadful design look really palatable".

"It's great if the ultimate result was to be a graphic image, that's fine," he said. "But how on earth can you do that if what you're responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?"

Ive was speaking in conversation with Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic at an event attended by a number of the UK's leading designers, including Ive's friend Marc Newson – who has recently joined Apple's design team – as well as Terence Conran, Ron Arad and John Pawson.

Although he said that students were being taught to rely too heavily on computers, the British-born designer said that he didn't expect designers to abandon digital tools.

"We use the most sophisticated tools that we can to help us model and to help us prototype. I'm not saying you've got to prototype everything using a coping saw," said Ive.

"It comes back to motivation and a sense of why are you doing this. Why is your first reaction not to run and go and understand glass and what you can do with glass? Why is your first reaction to start doing Alias renderings of glass cups?"

Ive studied industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) in the 1980s, later moving to California to join Apple in 1992. His comments come in the wake of a series of design course closures in Britain that have been attributed to the costs associated with facilities needed for making physical objects.

In February, Bucks New University revealed it was closing the UK's leading furniture design course, while Falmouth University in south west England shut down its "costly" and "space-intensive" Contemporary Crafts degree earlier this month in favour of more computer-based courses.

Jonathan Ive
Jonathan Ive and Deyan Sudjic in conversation at London's Design Museum

Picking up on statements he originally made in 2012, Ive said that Apple – named the world's most valuable brand by Forbes in 2013 – had become one of the world's biggest companies by not chasing profit and instead focusing on "integrity".

"We've tried very hard to be very clear, and this is absolutely sincere, that our goal at Apple isn't to make money," he said.

"We're not naive. We trust that if we're successful and we make good products, that people will like them. And we trust that if people like them, they'll buy them. Operationally we are effective and we know what we're doing and so we will make money. It's a consequence."

"You can look at something we've done and it costs a lot more to make it the way that we want to make it. I can't justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it's the right thing to do. It's made it better. There's integrity there. You hope that people can tell the difference."

Ive also hit out again at companies that copy Apple's designs, which he said take up to eight years of design development work to produce.

"We may seem a little testy when things we have been working on for eight years are copied in six months – but it wasn't inevitable that it was going to work."

"It's not copying, it's theft. They stole our time, time we could have had with our families. I actually feel quite strongly about it. It's funny – I was talking to somebody and they said do you think when somebody copies what you do it's flattering? No."

Ive said that to create something new, designers had to "reject reason" and accept when a project wasn't working and stop working on it, even if significant money has already been invested.

Most designers are too quick to give in to pressures from marketing departments and corporations, but Apple's products have a more uniform aesthetic because there is no reason to change them, he added.

"To do something new and truly innovative, does require you reject reason. And the problem is when you do that, the behaviours, what that looks like, can make you look a bit odd."

"We won't do something different for different's sake. Designers cave in to marketing, to the corporate agenda, which is sort of 'oh it looks like the last one, can't we make it look different?' Well no, there's no reason to."

"We have a strong philosophy – you could call it formulaic or you could say it's a philosophy – and we will develop product to that philosophy. When some big things change, the objects will appear different, the objects will be made from other materials. But I think it's wrong to make something different for the sake of being different."

Ive's talk was the final event in the DM25 series launched to both celebrate the museum's 25th anniversary and help raise funds for its move to a bigger building in Kensington, west London, next year.

During the hour long event, Ive also discussed the design of the iPhone and the recently revealed Apple Watch.

And he slammed companies and designers who were producing "careless" products.

"If you expect me to buy something where all I can sense is carelessness, actually I think that is personally offensive," he said. "It's offensive culturally, because it shows a disregard for our fellow human."

"The sad thing is that so much of what we're surrounded by in the physical world that is a product of manufacture, so much of it testifies to carelessness. The one good thing about that is if you do care it is really conspicuous."

Jonathan Ive

Photography is by Andy Tyler.

Read on for edited highlights from Jonathan Ive's talk:


On discovering computers:

"When I was at art school in the 1980s, I had a truly horrendous time. There's this odd thing that happens: when we're working with technology, if we struggle, for some reason we assume the problem's us. If we're eating something and the food tastes horrible we think the food is disgusting... So these computers, which I couldn't use, I just assumed it was some kind of technological ineptitude on my part. And right at the end of my course I discovered the Mac. And I realised a couple of things: one, technically actually I was quite proficient and there was nothing wrong with me whatsoever, and the computers the college had were absolutely dreadful.

"But I discovered something much more important. Through the object that I was sat in front of, I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a sense of their values, their preoccupations, the things they cared about, the reasons they made it. It was this sort of vicarious communication. I had a really clear sense of this company that I didn't know anything about. And that had never happened to me before.

"This was the beginning of this realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are. And so this made me want to research and find out about this somewhat anarchic contrarian group that had got together in California. I was lucky enough to have won a couple of travel bursaries while I was at college. Other people were going to Milan, but I rather than going there, I went to California. I was 21, and I had never been on a plane before.

"I went and met people and when I went back I was working independently in London and Apple got in touch - they were looking for somebody to work with. So I started working as a consultant and after a while I was persuaded to move and work full time.

"One thing that really struck me when I was consulting was I was working very, very hard, and just these odd things struck me. 'Why am I doing this for a client? It's a client, but I don't actually like this client at all – not as in they are awkward to work with, but I just think their values stink.' And I somehow felt I was aligning with them and I was abdicating a responsibility - an honourable responsibility, whereas Apple I really loved. So that's how I ended up there in 1992."

On designing the Apple watch:

"This leap is a really significant one. The parallels between what happened with the technology associated with timekeeping and what we're facing is really quite uncanny. There is this sort of natural part of our condition, which is when you see something new there is a desire to do a few things. I think you typically want to make it smaller. The first thing you do is typically huge - you can put wheels on it and drive it around – so you make it smaller. You make it cheaper and therefore obviously more accessible. And then you make it better. You make it more reliable. And that's exactly what happened. It was a multi-century transition from the clock tower to something that ended up literally on your wrist. So what we're doing has a sort of robust historical precedent.

"The wrist is an amazing place to put technology. You're only going to use it a certain way – you're obviously not going to write a dissertation! But it's very good to see who just texted you, or if you're walking and use it just to see was that left or right. So the watch – just like for telling the time – is very good for these quick in and out things.

"One of the biggest challenges that we found was that we wouldn't all be sitting here wearing the same thing. I don't think we want to wear the same thing. Which is why we developed this system not a single product. It's a flexible system, so hopefully it will be appealing, but there's still a very singular idea. We're not just throwing a whole bunch of ideas against the wall to see which one sticks… like some people!"

On learning by making:

"The drive each time was to develop something in terms of its form. And of course we know you can't separate form from materials and certain plastics won't do well for certain shapes. Plastic doesn't actually do very well if you want to do thin, thin, thin, flat surfaces. You can't disconnect material from the form. And you can't disconnect the form from the component that goes inside.

"One of the things that drives me potty is this idea that you can have a random shape, and then you think let's make this bit in wood and that bit in plastic. And sometimes you see car interior sketches, where, obviously there's form and there's divisions of forms and some lovely colouring in – those boys can do a really good colouring in – and then there are these arbitrary bits of wood. And you think, wood's not that shape. Of course we can make anything any shape, but that's just being bloody minded. You can't make those decisions, you can't read about it, you gain that experience by making.

"We'd made plastic power books and we wanted to make metal ones for obvious reason, because we could make them thinner and lighter and stronger. The forms that you could develop – it wasn't just there's a certain form in this material you could get away with – depending on the metal, certain metals when you bend them they bend in a very, very particular way. I don't think you can be told, OK that does this, you need to do it yourself and really understand that. So hopefully the final product seems inevitable and just seems calm, because when you've done it right, there is a wonderful connection between the big idea, the form, the material and how you transformed the material into the final shape."

On the creative process:

"I've been lucky enough to have been doing this for a while now. But I still think it's the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it's bizarre, that it's Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there's nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there's an idea.

"You can distill that idea into a few sentences. It's a very fragile process, because sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object.

"By the time we get to the end of the year, a small decision that you made right at the beginning defines an entirely different product. Particularly at the beginning of ideas, we have to have incredible discipline to listen really hard. To realise we can end up somewhere very different if we make these decisions. This is part of what I like about being involved in product design – it always starts off as a conversation and a thought.

"I don't know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea was, everything changes. It's the most profound shift. Because it's not exclusive any more. It's not so open to interpretation. It's there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren't the most difficult bit. It's the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard."

On good design:

"We've tried very hard to be very clear, and this is absolutely sincere, that our goal at Apple isn't to make money. That isn't our goal. I think it's much harder for good design to come out of an organisation and to come from that as a driving force. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best products we can. We're not naive. We trust that if we're successful and we make good products, that people will like them. And we trust that if people like them, they'll buy them. Operationally we are effective and we know what we're doing and so we will make money. It's a consequence.

"Those are very easy words to say. The practice is what I think makes good design. That's what you really do and you really believe. There are many decisions that we make that might not appear to make fiscal sense, which is why the motivation that I've just described is so important. You can look at something we've done and it costs a lot more to make it the way that we want to make it. I can't justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it's the right thing to do. It's made it better. There's integrity there. You hope that people can tell the difference.

"I really, truly believe that people can sense care. In the same way that they can sense carelessness. I think this is about respect that we have for each other. If you expect me to buy something where all I can sense is carelessness, actually I think that is personally offensive. It's offensive culturally, because it shows a disregard for our fellow human. I'm not saying that we get it right all the time, but at least our intent is to really, really care. Good design for me starts with that determination and motivation and I don't think there's anything, ever, that's good that's come from carelessness. The sad thing is that so much of what we're surrounded by in the physical world that is a product of manufacture, so much of it testifies to carelessness. The one good thing about that is if you do care it is really conspicuous."

One the lack of longevity in modern products:

"They can not last so long because they are used multiple hours of every day. They can not last as long as you wish they did because the technology that is now available is so much more compelling. And I think that is why we all find that there is a certain delight in what tend to be singular function objects, because there's less of a requirement on the technology. It's really tough to compare those sorts of products. Those discussions can become hopelessly simplistic. They're different. If it wasn't for some of these more complicated objects we wouldn't be here.

"For those products that we are going to use for so many hours every day and are at that point of interface where there is incredible intimacy between us and other people that we care about the most, I think what it means is that we need to invest as much care as we can in how we develop them, as much care as possible in the materials we use, as much as in how we make them. So my interpretation is not that we run away and bury our heads in the sand, but we actually acknowledge that our responsibility as designers is important.

"I don't think that for something to win, something has to lose, from a value system point of view. There are a lot of people I'm sure that [will still] attach great value and importance to a single singular function product that is many years old."

On how design has changed since he was a student:

"I think the skills are essentially the same. I think it's harder now. So many of the designers that we interview don't know how to make stuff. Because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper. A computer rendering can make a really dreadful design look palatable.

"That's just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one. It's great if the ultimate result was to be a graphic image, that's fine. But how on earth can you do that if what you're responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?

"We use the most sophisticated tools that we can to help us model and to help us prototype. I'm not saying you've got to prototype everything using a coping saw. I think as much as anything it comes back to motivation and a sense of why are you doing this. Why is your first reaction not to run and go and understand glass and what you can do with glass? Why is your first reaction to start doing Alias renderings of glass cups? I think it comes back to really where your heart is, really what it is that you want to do."

On the product development process and copying:

"Of course with any invention there's the list of things that's good and there's the list of things that's challenging.

"If you look at the work of the studio, and you think, 80 per cent of this isn't going to work. One of the sad things is – and this is why perhaps we may seem a little testy when things we have been working on for eight years are copied in six months – but it wasn't inevitable that it was going to work.

"Imagine that you've got ten projects that you're working on and you actually really truly believe that each of those could have a profound impact on culture in a good way. And then you start to realise well, these four at least, they're not going to work. Each time there is some sort of barrier, we don't know whether we are going to fail at that point of whether we are going to be able to manage to solve the problem. For example the phone, there were so many times when it really didn't look like that was going to work and we nearly stopped. So once you've got the proof of concept and hey look it works and then somebody... It's not copying, it's theft. They stole our time, time we could have had with our families. I actually feel quite strongly about it. It's funny – I was talking to somebody and they said do you think when somebody copies what you do it's flattering? No.

"There's that George Bernard Shaw quote about innovation and being unreasonable. It's a really beautiful thing to say. Because to do something new and truly innovative, does require you reject reason. And the problem is when you do that, the behaviours, what that looks like, can make you look a bit odd. But it's true. I really believe that to do something new you're rejecting reason."

On designing the iPhone:

"We all really hated our phones. And that's a good motivation. To really believe we could make a better product. If you look at the first iPhone that came out it's quite surprising. There were a lot of things that weren't finished in terms of what it could do. The big architectural ideas were there.

"The inside of the phone we spent ever such a long time on and 99 per cent of you won't ever see that. And the reason that we did that was because we thought it was the right thing. It wasn't for us, it wasn't us exorcising our demons, it was because we thought it was the right thing. I think that's an important motivation for us.

"It's machined from solid aluminium. Which conceptually is ridiculous. It's a very difficult thing to do. We spent a huge amount of our time working on designing machines. I'm lucky enough to work with the most phenomenal manufacturing team."

On the size of his design team:

"The design team, we've grown. Nobody's ever left the team, which is a problem when you want to hire more people. In terms of the design team and the core creative team from an industrial design point of view, I think there's about 17 or 18 of us. I'd really like not to grow much more."

On Apple's design philosophy:

"We won't do something different for different's sake. I could start today and do something completely different, that's really easy. What's really hard is better. I feel really strongly about this. Designers cave in to marketing, to the corporate agenda, which is sort of 'oh it looks like the last one, can't we make it look different?' Well no, there's no reason to. The iMac was based on a spherical tube that took many people to lift, so of course the form should change and the materials should change. We don't make any more cathode ray tube-based products and every product we make has a flat panel display. And also how we make the products has changed dramatically because we've learned so much and they've become so much better.

"We have a strong philosophy – you could call it formulaic or you could say it's a philosophy – and we will develop product to that philosophy. When some big things change, the objects will appear different, the objects will be made from other materials. But I think it's wrong to make something different for the sake of being different."

On the biggest challenge for designers:

"I would say the priority is that we learn how to care and we learn how to fail and that we're prepared to screw up the work that we've done and throw it away even if we don't know what we're going to do instead. When I've explained to people before and said 'well we screwed this up, we parked this,' normally I can say 'and look what we went on to do'.

"If it's not very good we should just stop it, even if we've spent a lot of money trying to develop it. It's scary, and we've been there on many occasions where you've spent this much money and I'm talking too loud to try and convince myself that it's OK and it's not. It's one of the fantastic things that I feel so fortunate to work with a group of people who are very comfortable with that 'yeah it's not good enough we should stop doing this' and we don't talk about all the money we've just spent. Well, they might do behind my back."