The man behind the Apple revolution

The iPad and the iPhone may be bestsellers but few know of their architect, Sir Jonathan Ive, who has been just as influential as Steve Jobs in making Apple a household name.

The value of an iPhone or an iPad is not the object itself, despite the price tag. The value is the information held within it: the photos, the friend updates, the news articles, all accessible with the swipe of a finger. The object itself is designed with that in mind: sleek, smooth, and above all simple, so that what’s inside defines the experience.

The device’s architect is much like that himself: introverted and, to the vast majority of people who carry one of his creations, all but invisible. But inside Apple’s tightly guarded design studios, Jonathan Ive is complex and powerful, much like the inner workings of an iPhone.

Apple’s senior vice-president of industrial design is in charge of shaping its smooth metal laptops, candy-coloured iPods and slick white iPads, the latest version of which was unveiled last week in San Francisco, where he sat quietly on the sidelines.

Talking about the iPhone in the documentary Objectified, he said: “A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that is actually getting design out of the way. And I think when forms develop with that sort of reason and they’re not just arbitrary shapes, it feels almost inevitable, it feels almost undesigned.”

Public plaudits accrued slowly for the London-born designer, but he now has a string of awards and honours to his name, culminating last year in a knighthood. He spent most of his career in the shadow of his brash, outspoken boss, Steve Jobs but when Jobs gave credit for a design he gave it to Sir Jonathan. Investors and consumers have paid their respects with purchases of Apple products and stock, sending the company’s equity valuation past $500bn for the first time last month.

Sir Jonathan, 45, is probably most revered by the next generation of designers, the 20- and 30-something Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are starting their own technology companies with his standards of simplicity and beauty in mind.

At the offices of Path, a mobile social networking application built for the iPhone, the conference room is named after Sir Jonathan, whose portrait hangs over the doorway.

“We have insane amounts of respect for him,” says Dave Morin, chief executive of Path and a former Apple employee, who recalls attending a meeting at Apple that Sir Jonathan conducted. An upset employee complained about an aspect of the MacBook laptop that made it difficult for disabled people to use. Sir Jonathan explained that the team had gone to great lengths to design every feature so that a person could operate the machine with one finger, including testing and adjusting the weight of the screen for three months so that it could be opened, with one finger, without tipping the laptop over.

Ultimately, Mr Morin added, “great products come from great partnerships between a designer and an entrepreneur”. Sir Jonathan is known for his meticulous approach and minimalist aesthetic, a hallmark of his main creative influence, Dieter Rams, who designed radios, coffee makers, and other household appliances for the German consumer products maker Braun. But by most accounts his success at Apple stems from his close relationship with Jobs.

“There are two schools of thought on this,” says Mark Rolston, chief creative officer at Frog Design. “One is that he is a transformational designer, someone who’s transcended typical notions of quality and brought something really special to the market. A more complicated read is that he was the right man at the right time.”

Apple hired him in 1992. But his work did not take off until Jobs returned to the company in 1997. The two became close collaborators. Jobs gave Sir Jonathan creative freedom and time to explore designs and invest in resources. He travelled to China and Japan and oversaw the design of the factories that made metals and glass for Apple products. “If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “He is a wickedly intelligent person in all ways. He understands business concepts, marketing concepts. He picks stuff up just like that, click.”

But to others, Sir Jonathan’s main talent was his ability to manage his relationship with Jobs and even exploit it for his own advancement. “Jony’s a very, very political person,” said an ex-Apple employee. “You do not want to cross him or you lose pretty much everything.”

What remains to be seen is how Sir Jonathan fares without Jobs, under new chief executive Tim Cook, a businessman who until recently, was Sir Jonathan’s peer in Apple’s hierarchy.

Apple has not released a new breakthrough product since the original iPad in April 2010, and the modest updates of the latest iPad drew a mixed response from analysts. Yet Mr Cook hinted that there was more in the pipeline, saying “we are just getting started”.

The reality of the design process is that it takes a full team to produce stellar products, Mr Rolston says. Yet Britain at least is eager to claim Sir Jonathan’s individual talents: Priya Guha, British consul-general in San Francisco, says he “epitomises the strengths of British design and innovation”. But Britain has had to admire him from afar for most of his career. Born in London, he was always taking things apart as a child. His curiosity about objects developed into an interest in making them. After graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic, he worked briefly for a London consultancy, designing everything from combs to televisions. Apple was among its clients. Soon it lured Sir Jonathan to California. This year marks his 20th anniversary at the company.

In an interview with Stephen Fry in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and twin sons, he credited American culture for its conduciveness to innovation. “I think there’s a conspicuous lack of cynicism and scepticism,” he said. “Ideas are so fragile aren’t they? It’s so easy to miss an idea because it can be so quiet, or to snuff an idea out. The inquisitiveness and the willingness to try is so important for design, for developing those tentative fragile ideas into a real product.”

April Dembosky is FT’s San Francisco correspondent. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.


Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free