Sometimes a book can be judged by its cover. Take Walter Isaacson’s biography of legendary Apple CEO Steve Jobs. With its minimal design, stark black-and-white photograph and clean font, the biography looks like it was designed by Apple. And the single stern, intense image of Jobs puts the man front-and-center, the composition as confrontational and “take it or leave it” as the mercurial, iconic man himself.
Leander Kahney’s biography of design chief Jony Ive also takes a page from the Apple playbook, with an elegantly stripped-down typeface, careful use of negative space and a stark single image. But Ive’s photograph is half-cropped, peeking out from the edge with an amused, affable smile, as if hiding out of the frame. The composition draws the eye to the title, encapsulating Ive’s own design strategy: take away what’s unnecessary to draw attention to what really matters.
The image also reflects his own highly private temperament. Compared to Jobs, Ive has stayed largely out of the spotlight. Though highly respected by the design community, Ive has remained somewhat of a mystery, rarely granting in-depth interviews.
In a post-Jobs era, though, the inner brass is increasingly under the microscope. And Kahney’s conviction — and Jobs’ own assessment — sees Ive as the real heart and soul of the company. It was Ive who was Jobs’ “spiritual partner,” according to Jobs himself, and Kahney sheds light on the real extent of his influence on Apple.
But the biography also makes the case for Ive as an inspiring icon of creative and artistic achievement. While the “Ive recipe” is hard to duplicate, anyone with a desire to unleash their creative potential can take something away to use in their own life.
Ive is primarily known for the iconic products whose design he shepherded into being: the iPod, iPhone and iPad, among them. But one of Kahney’s most valuable insights is a peek into his childhood and early education. One seminal figure looms large in this account: his father, Mike, a teacher and silversmith, who early on recognized his son’s visual sensitivity and talent.
The younger Ive — born February 27, 1967 in Chingford, England, near London — was long fascinated with how objects were put together. He would take apart radios and cassette players to see how the pieces fit, though he didn’t always succeed when he tried to put them together again.
His father encouraged his curiosity, engaging him in conversations about design, according to Kahney. On a walk, for example, Mike would talk about the different street lamps and ask him why some lamps were different than others: why the light fell as it did, how weather influenced the design and what could be better. Ive didn’t always understand the larger context his father was drawing attention to, but the dialogue gave him the idea that design was as much about thought as it was about skill.
As a silversmith, Mike also taught him the pleasures of fashioning impeccably designed and assembled objects — Mike gave Ive unfettered access to his college workshop every Christmas, and let him build whatever he wanted.
Mike was no mere artisan, though. He played a major role in shaping art and design education in the U.K., chosen by the Education Ministry as one of His Majesty’s Inspectors to monitor the quality of design and technology taught at schools in his district. Mike essentially infused former “shop” classes in woodwork, metal work and cooking, with a more academic slant, and students learned not just the skills to make things, but a rigorous design process that taught them to think about why they were making them — and how to design to serve these reasons better.
Through a close, nurturing relationship with his father, Ive learned early on to hone his skills and how to think like a designer. The fundamental question at the beginning of his creative process is, “What is the design story?” In other words, who is using the object, as well as why, how and where? What place will this product play in someone’s life? Ive follows essentially the same method today, the process that links his work as a student to his achievements at Apple now.
Beyond teaching, Mike also took Ive on tours around London design schools and studios, allowing him to see the possibilities of a career in design. Ive became intrigued by the idea of making objects at a mass, industrial scale. At age 13, while he knew he wanted to make design his career, he didn’t exactly know what he wanted to do. He was interested in everything from cars to furniture to jewelry and even boats.
Still, Ive continued to hone his skills and thinking. The early focus paid off: early on in high school, his work caught eyes and attention, not just for its formal, precise rigor, but how thoughtful it was about the entire process of making something. He was also unusually gifted at communicating his ideas, able to break down projects to make them understandable to non-designers. In the book, teachers also recalled his drawings of early mobile phones as a high schooler — it seems he was interested in personal technology long before he landed at Apple.
Ive received excellent grades, so good that he was eligible to apply to schools such as Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, he opted to attend Newcastle Polytechnic — now known as Northumbria University — in north England.
Newcastle was the top school in the country for industrial design, where students spent a lot of time learning to draw and sketch, as well as operating the machinery that renders and makes their designs. They’re also given a lot of time and freedom to develop a deep understanding of the materials they work with. Jony flourished at Newcastle, and early on garnered a reputation as one of the program’s most gifted students — he had to miss one of his first days of college, for example, because he was picking up a design award he’d won as a young student.
He learned to hone his work ethic, too. He learned tenacity, making prototype after prototype trying to get the tiny details right. It wasn’t perfection that drove him, but by the desire to explore ideas and investigate every possibility. Early on, Ive understood that designers didn’t know the answers right away; they needed time to feel out all the possible variables in search of a great final design.
Most importantly, he learned to “think different” well before landing on Apple. The crucial seeds for him went back to what his dad taught: ask how someone will connect and relate to a product on an emotional level.
As part of a college internship, he designed a pen that was not only easy to hold and use, but had an irresistible “fiddle factor.” He observed how people played with pens all the time, and included a little ball-and-clip at the top to give them something to click on when not writing. This special touch made the pen memorable, and his design went into production in Japan — an almost unheard-of feat for a college intern. He was making waves before he even graduated from college. But more importantly, he was developing the process and convictions that would fuel his work and creative structure at Apple.
Ive was a hot commodity after graduating from Newcastle, and he found himself at a series of London-based design firms and consultancies when he began his career, most notably at Tangerine, a fledgling design start-up. He garnered a reputation as a quiet, hard-working, serious worker with a good sense of humor, who could deliver consummate quality with incredible productivity.
He honed his style, becoming interested in work by furniture designers such as Eileen Gray, Michele De Lucchi and Jasper Morrison — artists with a philosophy that emphasized how someone engaged with a product, instead of imposing an existing aesthetic or style over something. But he also preferred minimalism, which he felt kept his work from becoming dated.
Ive flourished at Tangerine, but he also realized he didn’t enjoy the challenges of being a consultant. As a partner, he loved designing, and the collaboration and intimacy fostered by the studio environment, but hated the idea of having to sell his ideas to clients all the time. Constantly drumming up business was a strain that didn’t play to his natural talents.
He also hated compromises clients asked him to make to his designs to make products more “production-friendly.” He realized he was only interested in design, and not in — or was good at — building a business. So he began to wonder if he was better suited at a company where he could work at a scale that would actually see his designs out in the world.
That realization dovetailed with a fateful intersection with Apple, who worked with Tangerine on a couple of outside projects. Apple’s then head of industrial design, Robert Brunner, immediately tried to recruit Ive, but he was reluctant to leave his homeland behind, along with the space and freedom of his work at Tangerine. But Ive’s growing self-knowledge of his own talents and limitations — as well as the promise of the impact he could make in the world — pushed him to accept Apple’s offer, and he and his young wife Heather moved to the Bay Area.
Ive’s arrival at Apple was a quiet one, and certainly the company wasn’t the powerful, elegant brand we know now. Apple was doing well in the personal computing business, but it was also undisciplined. Different groups worked on different products — printers, portables, laptops and so on — without any coordination, so the lines lacked cohesion. In addition, design work was outsourced to a company whose relationship with Apple was quickly souring. Apple was just another computer maker, driven by engineers — and the executives knew it would be in trouble if it couldn’t distinguish itself.
Part of the answer was an in-house design team, and in 1990, Apple recruited Brunner as head of industrial design. Brunner didn’t want to create a sprawling massive design department that existed at companies like Sony or Samsung, however — he wanted to import the artisanal, intimate approach of a design atelier within Apple. As part of that initiative, Ive was recruited as part of a smaller, tightly focused team.
Brunner actually laid much of the groundwork of the structure that still exists today within Apple, according to Kahney. Design at Apple runs like a small studio, with a group of designers working closely together, not just on current products, but in-house design challenges. Brunner helped carve out a degree of creative freedom from the engineers that dominated Apple at the time. He also boosted the visibility of the design team, running ads in industry magazines that highlighted his designers’ work — including that of his now second-in-command, Ive. The approach and structure laid down by Brunner continues today under Ive’s reign, and many believe this approach is part of the reason Apple is so innovative and distinctive.
In this scrappy, in-flux environment, Ive fit in quietly but quickly made a splash. He was a quiet but natural leader in Brunner’s studio environment — his skills and talents inspired others, and his kindness and generosity drew them towards him. He was able to recruit other designers to Apple and played a heavy hand in developing a new design language at the company, nicknamed “Espresso,” characterized by organic, friendly shapes and highlighted with playful color and textures.
Espresso would flavor seminal Ive designs, such as the iMac and iBook. But it wasn’t about looking cool or hip — it was about engaging to connect and relate to technology products on an emotional level, making them “friendly.” It was the “fiddle factor” all over again — and Ive’s approach to design would find his work reaching larger audiences than ever, though not without some bumps on the journey.
Brunner’s attempt to rework Apple’s internal culture to highlight design was fraught with battles and tension, creating wars between engineers and executives who wanted cheaper, easier-to-manufacture products. Eventually, Brunner left due to exhaustion, frustration and boredom — passing the baton to Ive.
Ive inherited a difficult set of challenges, and took the design helm as the company hit some choppy waters, losing revenue and market share in the computer market. Internally, his team would design products, but he faced uphill battles in getting management to follow through. Ive had to be proactive, doing price analysis and talking to manufacturers before presenting ideas to executives. But the bureaucracy often doomed many solid ideas, which died because they didn’t have support. Then-CEO Gil Amelio wasn’t known for his appreciation of good design. Ive was frustrated and about to quit when history intervened — in 1997, founder Steve Jobs returned as advisor and then CEO.
Everyone who follows technology, of course, knows the story of “When Steve Met Jony” — one of the most celebrated partnerships in technology history — but Kahney fills in the early details. Under Jobs, Apple streamlined its product lines and began to make design the cornerstone of its comeback, believing elegant functional design would be the differentiating factor from rivals on the market.
Jobs’ strategy, of course, needed a visionary to make it happen, and Apple had one right under its nose with Ive. The two men were temperamentally different, Jobs’ hot-headed, outspoken yang contrasting with Ive’s quieter, affable yin. But both shared the same philosophy of focus and simplicity, and getting back to the needs of the user. Both wanted people to genuinely connect with Apple, and this conviction led the process of designing all the iconic Apple products, from the iMac and iBook to the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
The book zips through the stories of these products in a breezy, fast-paced fashion, but ultimately the deeper insight lies in just how Jobs and Ive reconfigured Apple’s internal DNA to emphasize design. Each success showed how Jobs’ gamble on quality and elegant design paid off, and the company slowly reoriented itself around Ives’ little in-house design studio.
Soon, the design studio set the agenda, focusing the resources and setting the tempo for the company — and if anyone didn’t like it, Jobs was there to protect Ive. Jobs, with his forceful personality, slowly set up Apple to give Ive a free rein, and structured the company to support design, not the other way around.
The company’s orientation to design wasn’t without its wars, and the book details several incidents where Ive simply went right to the top to Jobs, who would intervene forcefully to protect Ive and his design team. That makes it easy to interpret Ive as a soft-spoken, sensitive artist’s soul who had Jobs fight his battles, but the book also makes it clear that Ive himself became a practiced corporate player unafraid of playing hardball.
Though he cultivated a reputation for quiet serious modesty and dedication — and by all accounts is known as a protective, generous advocate of his team as well as an all-around gentleman — Ive rumbled with several key players at Apple, such as head of hardware Jon Rubinstein, and head of iOS Scott Forstall, who was even banned from the design studio at Apple. Kahney ties the firing or leaving of executives, such as Forstall, Rubinstein and Tony Fadell, to interpersonal conflicts with Ive — which Ive clearly won.
Being a nice guy — and inspiring loyalty with a quiet, nurturing style of leadership — doesn’t prevent anyone from cultivating strategic alliances and standing up to those who don’t “get it.”
Kahney’s biography is engaging and cleanly written, and is enlightening about Ive’s early education and career. But it doesn’t delve deep, perhaps reflecting the lack of information available about Ive, as well as Ive’s own polite refusal to take part in its making. To Kahney’s credit, he doesn’t indulge in a lot of the psychoanalysis many biographers take liberties with, but he also doesn’t flesh out the historical, societal and cultural factors that influenced Ive’s work and evolution.
One of the pleasures of a great biography or memoir is the opportunity to learn more not just about a person, but about the field they’ve influenced and the historical period they live in — and here the book misses a great opportunity to teach us more about design itself, and more deeply appreciate Ive’s own contribution to art and design history.
Ive is reportedly working on a monograph of his work at Apple, though, so watchers will likely have to wait for a more in-depth exploration of the designer’s aesthetic evolution and choices.
But Kahney does see upcoming challenges for Apple and Ives in the future. The company isn’t a young wunderkind or a rebellious upstart anymore — it’s now the mainstream, and people have a preconceived idea of Apple products. The time is ripe for Apple to once again reinvent its design vocabulary. With the ousting of Forstall, Ive is now head not just of industrial design, but “human interface,” so he has a solid hand in designing the software on Apple products.
Changes to aesthetic, though, won’t likely be the seismic about-faces that once stole headlines — they’ll likely happen in small increments at subtle levels. The Apple faithful will rabidly dissect every small change, but will it capture the public? Can Apple stay “fresh and innovative,” as Kahney says?
Apple and Ive, though, seem to have plenty of ammunition locked away in the vault. “I know for a fact they’ve got TVs, wearables, all kinds of automotive technology,” Kahney told The Guardian. “There’s all this kind of stuff sitting there in the lab that they’ve developed, and they’re waiting for the right go-to-market strategy for all of these products.”
No matter what direction Apple heads in, Ive is a key ingredient in its success. The book offers a startling argument that Ive — despite his modesty and self-effacement — may be truly irreplaceable for Apple. The company’s real secret to success is the legitimate creative genius behind the curtain, and how it has managed to structure itself to protect this core. Its biggest challenge may not be carrying on after Jobs, but finding another creative genius with the unique mix of visual flair, visionary talent, team-building and quiet conviction to replace Ive when he inevitably goes as well.
Ive, though, isn’t just a creative artist. He married his skills and talents to deeper convictions and philosophies about how art and products should affect the world — and aligned himself with a company that can make these convictions a palpable reality in the lives of millions. Beyond artistry and craft, Ive’s work is iconic, even if his face is not. ♦