Steve Jobs’s departure as chief executive officer this week leaves Apple Inc. (AAPL) without the full- time attention of its technology visionary, putting pressure on head product designer Jonathan Ive to fill that gap.
While new CEO Tim Cook comes from an operations background, Ive has been Jobs’s foremost creative partner within Apple, said Eric Chan, who runs Ecco Design Inc., an industrial design firm. Ive, who goes by Jony, oversaw the exacting development that led to devices such as the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.
“You need the combination of the chemistry that Jonathan and Steve have,” Chan said. “They have trust and they have the kind of quality vision that you need. They push each other.”
The company aims to prove it can still churn out successful products without as much oversight from Jobs, who is now serving as chairman. Ive drew inspiration from the former CEO’s legendary attention to detail and aesthetic sense -- something that Cook hasn’t had to demonstrate in his previous roles.
“The greatness of Apple has a lot to do with Steve’s commitment to design -- the willingness to spend amounts of money on design that would be crazy to most other companies,” said Robert Brunner, a former Apple design chief who hired Ive. “There’s no better place to be to do great design. If Steve drops out of the picture, will Tim have the same religion?”
Jobs and Ive honed a close working relationship since the British native began running Apple’s design in the late 1990s.
In a typical scenario, Jobs or one of Apple’s engineers would come up with a concept. Jobs would then commission Ive, 44, to produce a variety of prototypes to turn the idea into a physical model. Since his return to Apple in 1997, Jobs frequently disappeared into the design studio Ive shares with his team of designers.
Once Jobs made his choice, Ive oversaw the painstaking development that led to Apple’s computers and devices. While each process was different -- the team visited a confectioner to perfect the candy-colored enclosure on the iMac -- Ive consistently created products that were functional, reliable and melded with Apple’s software.
If Jobs steps aside altogether, it raises the possibility that Ive may leave Apple as well, said Brunner, who now runs a design company called Ammunition LLC. That would make it harder for Cook to preserve the company’s product vision.
Nothing to Prove
“Jony doesn’t have anything else to prove at Apple, and he’s made a lot of money,” Brunner said.
Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Cupertino, California-based Apple, declined to comment on Ive’s plans. The company has no additional personnel changes to announce, he said.
A design prodigy who won a British student award twice while attending Northumbria University in the 1980s, Ive is quiet and avoids cameras but shares Jobs’s intensity for creating stylish products. His goal, he said in a 2006 speech, “is not self-expression. It’s to make something that looks like it wasn’t really designed at all -- because it’s inevitable.”
That’s been the case since his college days, said Clive Grinyer, who went to school with him. Grinyer recalls visiting Ive’s apartment, and being shocked to see hundreds of foam models of a single product. Each one was good enough to have been the final product, he said.
“They all looked bloody good to me,” said Grinyer, who later formed a design firm with Ive called Tangerine. “He doesn’t rest on his laurels. He does everything to the nth degree.”
In 1992, Ive moved from projects like designing toilets at Tangerine to Apple. He no longer wanted to sell his services to clients who then refused to let him turn his ideas into reality. By the time he was put in charge of Apple’s design effort in 1996, the company was struggling and he once again was spending much of his time lobbying executives for resources, said former Apple designer Thomas Meyerhoffer.
That changed when Jobs returned to the helm in 1997. He needed the yet-to-be-released iMac to be a hit. To make sure it stood out, Jobs approved Ive’s plan to use a candy-colored translucent plastic enclosure -- a major expense given rapidly falling prices for computers at the time.
In the years since, Ive and his team have achieved rarified status at Apple. They do their work in a lab deep within Apple’s Infinite Loop campus. Filled with expensive prototyping equipment -- often with music playing -- the room is locked off from all but the highest-ranking executives. While industrial design is seen as cost to be minimized at many companies, Ive has latitude to specify features that require his team and Apple’s hardware engineers to create new production techniques.
Often they work well, as with the unibody design that helps make Apple’s laptops thinner. On some occasions, Jobs has demanded things that Ive’s team can’t execute perfectly, as occurred when Apple designed the antenna of the iPhone 4 into the bezel of the device. Some consumers complained of dropped calls when they held the bezel in certain ways, setting off an imbroglio known as “Antennagate.”
Apple’s approach to design goes beyond cosmetics. Ive is known to travel to Asia for weeks, studying intricacies of metal-bending equipment, Meyerhoffer said. The result is that Apple’s products have unique shapes, textures and thinness. The solid feel of products such as the iPhone is due in part to Ive’s insistence on miniscule tolerances -- the tiny gaps around each part and screw in a product.
Choosing Your Victories
Like Jobs, he is private, living a low-key existence with his wife, a historian he’s known since childhood. While he matches Jobs’s passion for products, he’s not widely regarded as a CEO candidate. Ive lacks operations, marketing and sales skills, something he doesn’t regret, he said in the 2006 speech.
“Victories from your ability to sell are very short-lived,” Ive said. “Victories from things you’ve really worked hard at can have a lasting impact.”
Cook -- who has spent 13 years at Apple, six of them as chief operating officer -- reassured employees in a memo yesterday that “Apple is not going to change.”
“I cherish and celebrate Apple’s unique principles and values,” he said in the memo. “Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that -- it is in our DNA.”
Still, Cook is a spreadsheet junkie and operations wonk, who may be more likely to pinch pennies on a new iPad enclosure or iPhone, Meyerhoffer said.
“Even a subtle shift might unsettle the balance,” he said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at firstname.lastname@example.org