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Last spring, an eclectic mix of designers thrilled an auditorium full of their peers at a conference called Radical Craft, put on by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi told inspiring stories of his rise to fame. Artificial intelligence pioneer Danny Hillis showed off a topographical computer display that could render anything, even the Himalayas, in three dimensions. Dutch inventor Theo Jansen brought one of his VW-size "beach creatures" made of plastic PVC tubes that "walked" across the stage like some George Lucas-inspired interstellar crab.
But the headliner of the show made a decidedly less showy impression. Shambling onto the stage with a nearly shaved head and dark T-shirt, Apple Computer (AAPL ) Senior Vice-President for Industrial Design Jonathan Ive looked like grad student who had gotten lost on the way to Starbucks (SBUX ). The 39-year-old Brit slouched unfabulously in his seat and quietly answered questions from conference host and award-winning editor, Chee Pearlman. Despite countless invitations, he refused to trumpet his own design prowess or to dish on what it's like to work with his perfectionist boss, Steve Jobs.
The man who, after Jobs, is most responsible for Apple's amazing ability to dazzle and delight with its famous products, chose instead to talk about process -- what he called "the craft of design." He spoke passionately about his small team and how they work together. He talked about focusing on only what is important and limiting the number of projects. He spoke about having a deep understanding of how a product is made: its materials, its tooling, its purpose. Mostly, he focused on the need to care deeply about the work.
None of this was very glamorous, especially for a famous designer. There was nothing newsy, few concrete details of anything. No doubt, that's in part because Ive is a reluctant celebrity, and also because of the secrecy that Jobs imposes on all things Apple. In fact, Ive wouldn't talk for this story. Neither would others, fearing Apple's ire, including the Royal Society of the Arts in England, which helped give Ive his start 20 years ago. Apple talks to the outside world on its own terms -- typically at new product launches, such as the well-hyped press event on Sept. 12.
Yet Ive's interview onstage revealed what many people close to the company say is indisputable -- that he is Apple's Man Behind the Curtain. While Jobs sets the direction and provides the inspiration, Ive melds Apple's unique creativity with the nuts-and-bolts required to make beautiful things. Apple's innovation success is due greatly to this alchemy between chief designer and powerful boss. "I think Steve Jobs has found somebody in Jony who knows how to complete or even exceed his vision, and do it time and time again," says Pearlman.
Since it began nine years ago, the "Steve & Jony Show" has cranked out a stream of iconic products, from the candy-colored iMac that changed the world's conception of a home PC in the late 1990s to the diminutive iPod Nano. In that time, Apple has created and maintained a choke hold on the digital music market, and analysts say it is poised for its biggest share gains in the PC market in years. The lessons from the 1,273% rise in Apple shares over the past 10 years transcend any particular tech market. Apple has put the design of great customer experiences on the map, not just as a means to win creative kudos but as a way to earn billions of dollars and revolutionize industries. "Apple's big contribution is showing that you can become a billionaire by selling emotions, that design can be a valid business model," says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign, a product design boutique in San Francisco.
There is no doubt that Jobs himself is Apple's most unique weapon when it comes to innovation. While he comes off like a rock star, laying down power chords for Apple's adoring fans at those dramatic product intros, he's as committed to perfection as any Swiss watchmaker. This is a guy who once insisted that a shipment of fine Italian marble for Apple's first Manhattan retail store be sent to Cupertino, Calif., so he could inspect the veining in the stone. And while designers elsewhere must fight off the cost-cutters, at Apple everyone knows their employment depends on living up to Jobs's high standards. According to one story, possibly apocryphal, Jobs once demanded that a designer of a new Mac not allow a single visible screw. When the designer built a prototype that had one screw, tucked out of sight under a handle, Jobs fired him. "Apple is the most design-savvy company in the world, and it's because of Steve Jobs," says Ray Riley, a former Apple designer who now runs Nike's (NKE ) Advanced Innovation Div.
Ive says he and his boss speak at least once a day. In fact, their lives are very much part of the same fabric. Despite great fame and fortune, both manage to guard their privacy. Ive lives with his wife, a historian he knew growing up, and their young twins in a house "with not a hint of ostentation," says Clive Grinyer, Ive's first business partner. Jobs, for all his self-promoting skills, lives a relatively quiet life as well. He owns no vacation houses and rarely shows up to Silicon Valley social and business events. The sneakers, the T-shirts, and Issey Miyake turtlenecks that he sports are not only for dramatic effect -- he likes the informal style, as do Ive and his team of designers.
But if Jobs is the public keeper of Apple's design zeitgeist, then Ive is the private leader of its talented design team. "Apple is a cult, and Apple's design team is an even more intense version of a cult," notes Riley. Actually, it's not a big cult -- just a dozen people or so. But they operate at an extremely high level, both individually and as a group. Ive has said that many Apple products were dreamed up while eating pizza in the small kitchen at the team's design studio.
It's a team that has worked in idyllic comfort for many years. Some designers were at the company long before Ive arrived in 1992. They rarely attend industry events or awards ceremonies. It's as though they don't require outside recognition because there isn't any higher authority on design excellence than each other, and because sharing too much information only risks helping others close the gap. And they personally reflect the design sensibilities of Apple's products -- casually chic, elitist and with a definite Euro bent. The team, made up of thirty- and fortysomethings, has a definite international flair. Members include not only the British Ive but also New Zealander Danny Coster, Italian Daniele De Iuliis, and German Rico Zörkendörfer. "Its good old-fashioned camaraderie -- everyone with the same aim, no egos involved," says British fashion designer Paul Smith, a friend since the late 1990s when Ive sent him a new iMac. "They have lots of dinners together, take lots of field trips. And they've turned these gray frumpy objects called computers into desirable pieces of sculpture you'd want even if you didn't use them."
Most of Ive's team live in San Francisco, and rumor has it that the starting salary for the group is around $200,000, some 50% above the industry average. They work together in a large open studio with little personal space but great privacy. Many Apple employees aren't allowed in, for fear they'd catch a glimpse of some upcoming product. A massive sound system pumps up the music. Ive invests his design dollars in state-of-the-art prototyping equipment, not large numbers of people. And his design process revolves around intense iteration -- making and remaking models to visualize new concepts. "One of the hallmarks of the team I think is this sense of looking to be wrong," said Ive at Radical Craft. "It's the inquisitiveness, the sense of exploration. It's about being excited to be wrong because then you've discovered something new."
Ive's team at Apple isn't the usual design ghetto of creativity that exists inside most corporations. They work closely and intensely with engineers, marketers, and even outside manufacturing contractors in Asia who actually build the products. Rather than being simple stylists, they're leading innovators in the use of new materials and production processes. The design group was able to figure out how to put a layer of clear plastic over the white or black core of an iPod, giving it a tremendous depth of texture, and still be able to build each unit in just seconds. "Apple innovates in big ways and small ways, and if they don't get it right, they innovate again," says frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger, who designed many of the original Apple computers for Jobs. "It is the only tech company that does this."
What does this mean for the long list of companies now trying to lift their own design games, such as Dell (DELL ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and Microsoft (MSFT )? They have some reason to hope. As long as Apple focuses on so few products and relies so heavily on so few individuals, it can address only so many markets. "Apple doesn't have a model that scales," insists HP design chief Sam Lucente. And, barring any new breakthroughs on Sept. 12, Apple's current visual vibe -- white boxes -- is now five years old and getting predictable.
Yet most big corporations have neither the focus, the skills, nor the appetite for risk to build mass-produced products that feel as if they were made by high-priced boutiques in New York or London. While computer companies have focused on pinching pennies these past few decades, Apple has been perfecting its design game. The fact that rivals are now talking about design is not proof they're catching up -- but of how far they have to go.
Ive had his own ideas from the start. Born in a middle-class London neighborhood, he was consumed with the mystery of how things are made by his early teens. Upon enrolling in the design program at Newcastle Polytechnic in 1985, his talent and drive quickly became obvious. During an internship with design consultancy Roberts Weaver Group, he created a pen that had a ball and clip mechanism on top, for no purpose other than to give the owner something to fiddle with. "It immediately became the owner's prize possession, something you always wanted to play with," recalls Grinyer, a Roberts Weaver staffer at the time. "We began to call it 'having Jony-ness,' an extra something that would tap into the product's underlying emotion."
By the time he graduated, Ive was already something of a legend in British design circles. Grinyer visited him once in his flat in the very tough Gateshead section of Newcastle and was shocked to find it filled to the rafters with hundreds of foam models of Ive's final project, a microphone and hearing aid combo that teachers could use to communicate better with kids with hearing problems (not surprisingly, in white plastic). "I'd never seen anything like it: The sheer focus to get it perfect," recalls Grinyer.
Ive ended up winning the student's award for design from the Royal Society of Arts, not once but twice. The first was for an automated teller machine, commissioned by the sponsor of the contest, Pitney Bowes (PBI ). That got him airfare to a brief internship at the Stamford-(Conn.) company, but Ive soon hopped a flight to California to make the rounds with up-and-coming design firms in Silicon Valley. Robert Brunner, then with Lunar Design, was floored when Ive showed him an elegant question mark-shaped phone -- not just a foam block but an actual model with all the internal components machined separately. "It wasn't just that the product had heart, but it was engineered; he was thinking about how to make it in volume," recalls Brunner.
After graduating, Ive joined Grinyer in 1989 in a London startup, Tangerine Design. But he couldn't get British companies to appreciate his work. When a company mothballed a bathroom sink he'd spent months working on, "he was dejected and depressed," says Grinyer. "He had poured himself into working for people who really didn't care." Ive admits he wasn't cut out to be a design consultant, where salesmanship is the most essential skill. "I was terrible at running a design business, and I really wanted to just focus on the craft of design," he told Pearlman.
So in 1992, he headed west to find a new life with Apple. By then, Brunner had become chief of Apple's design team. He had previously given Ive work at Tangerine to help visualize the future of its new PowerBook laptop PC line. Now he offered Ive a permanent job in Cupertino. Those were the lean years before Jobs returned. Not only was Apple hemorrhaging money and market share, but it was the whipping boy of Wall Street and the business press. "Through some sort of reckless sense of faith," said Ive at Radical Craft, he accepted Brunner's invitation.
From the start, Ive won his share of accolades. He designed the first PDA to run Apple's short-lived Newton software. But by the time he replaced Brunner to become Apple's design chief in 1996, Apple was in deep trouble. Ive, then only 29 years old, struggled to fight off the cost-cutters as best he could. They carted off the beloved Cray supercomputer Apple's designers had used to simulate the performance of dreamed up products. And Apple's products began to look as boring as everyone else's. Ive was still able to bring in a few talented young designers and maintain morale. Former Apple designer Thomas Meyerhoffer, one of the new hires, says: "Jonathan never stood on a chair or made any speeches. But if he hadn't believed we could do it, we wouldn't have believed it."
On July 9, 1997, Jobs returned from exile and took Apple's reins from ousted CEO Gilbert F. Amelio. Ive nearly didn't survive the initial turmoil as Jobs quickly set out to remake the company, say two of his colleagues. As Jobs axed all but four of Apple's sixty-odd products, he scoured the globe to hire a true design superstar. He called on Richard Sapper, who did the IBM (IBM ) Thinkpad laptop, car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, and architect/designer Ettore Sotsass.
But just as Ive was dusting off his resume, Jobs, with a tremendous eye for talent, recognized that he already had what he needed. And as Jobs imposed his own design standards, Ive became the beneficiary. "Steve Jobs is a tyrant, but that's precisely what Apple needed," said usability expert and author Donald A. Norman, even though he was one of the thousands who were pushed out in those early days. "Jobs said: 'This is the direction we're going,' and he unleashed Jonathan to make it happen."
The synergy between the two set off an explosion of great Apple products. It started with the first iMac. Determined to recast the PC as something fun rather than forbidding, Apple created a friendly, all-in-one model encased in a deep blue, translucent shell. Insiders say that Danny Coster, an affable New Zealander, did most of the design with Ive's close collaboration.
To understand how to make a plastic shell look exciting rather than cheap, Ive and others visited a candy factory to study the finer points of jelly bean making. They spent months with Asian partners, devising the sophisticated process capable of cranking out millions of iMacs a year. The team even pushed for the internal electronics to be redesigned, to make sure they looked good through the thick shell. It was a big risk for Jobs, Ive, and Apple. Says one rival: "I would have had to prove that transparency would increase our sales, and there's no way to prove that." He figures Apple spends as much as $65 per PC casing, vs. an industry average of maybe $20.
In 2001, Apple unveiled the first computer made out of titanium. The backstory: Ive let Danny De Iuliis and two other team members sneak thousands of dollars worth of computers to set up shop in a San Francisco warehouse, far away from Apple's main campus. They worked there for six weeks on the basic design and then headed off to Asia to negotiate widescreen flat panels and to work with toolmakers. The result: a clean, post-industrial look that marked the end of the more whimsical design language of the original iMac. In October of that year, Apple unveiled the iPod, which immediately set the standard for cool in digital music players -- not just because of the iPod itself but because of the way it worked seamlessly with Apple's iTunes jukebox software and online store.
That integration is a major part of Apple's design magic. Thinking about "design" as simply style or fashion misses the point. The original iMacs were clearly retrospective nods to the Jetsons school of design. And the white, clean "look" of the iPod is "very derivative of central European design from the late 1960s and early '70s," says NewDealDesign's Amit. Compare many Apple products to the work of Dieter Rams, chief designer at Braun, and "you'll see that it's almost verbatim," he says.
What really sets Apple's products apart is the "fit and finish," the ultimate impression that results from thousands of tiny decisions that go into a product's development. Take Apple's pioneering work in injection molding. It's part science, part art, and plenty of trial and error. The process involves figuring out how to inject molten plastic or metal through tiny "feed lines" into an irregularly shaped cavity, and then having just the right amount of holes so that it cools to a blemish-free perfection in seconds.
Ive's team understands and respects this process of production so much that toolmakers and suppliers in Asia prefer working with them -- despite the fact that Apple is a ferocious negotiator on cost. Suppliers get a jump on the future by working with Apple, since it is setting the design pace.
Of course, Apple makes mistakes. Among the problems of the Apple G4 Cube, discontinued in 2001 after less than a year, was the appearance of cracks in its thick, clear enclosure. The company also faces lawsuits about scratching of the iPod nano. And while its iBook and PowerBooks were creative triumphs, Apple recently had to recall 1.8 million units that had potentially faulty batteries.
These misses are dwarfed by Apple's remarkable consistency as a high-tech hitmaker. And Ive, who recently received the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), is a major reason why. No doubt, such musty-sounding honors cause some rival designers to joke that Ive is past his prime. Not likely. So long as Ive has that close-knit team and that hard-driving boss, the Steve and Jony Show should continue to roll along just fine.
By Peter Burrows