Review: At Apple’s core, a fitting man of mystery

November 15, 2013

By Richard Beales
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Jonathan Ive is the British perfectionist who leads Apple’s design team. A new book about him by journalist Leander Kahney shows his huge influence uniting form and function at the U.S. tech giant. But Ive the man remains largely hidden behind a screen that’s as obsessively crafted as any of the company’s gadgets.

Widely known and highly decorated in the design world, Ive isn’t always given his due as an architect of the company’s resurgence alongside Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Kahney puts that right with a narrative making the case for the “genius” asserted in his subtitle.

Although Ive’s role in the development of groundbreaking gadgets like the iPhone and iPad may have been understated, the story of those events has been told, for example in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. For that reason, these parts of Kahney’s tale are less engaging. The book is better when it focuses on Ive’s – and Apple’s – approach to industrial design.

Visionary products were perhaps Jobs’ forte, but the company has also made its computers and mobile devices special, and this is more Ive’s bailiwick. One allure is their deceptive simplicity. Ive is a fan of Dieter Rams, the famed German designer. Rams probably deserves more than the one paragraph he gets in the book: his 10 principles of good design, including innovation and utility, could have been written specifically for Ive’s Apple.

Ive, known as Jony (pronounced Johnny), also likes to make products inviting. Kahney recounts how, as a teenage intern at Roberts Weaver Group (RWG) in London, Ive designed a pen with a clip intended specifically to be fiddled with. Handles built into devices over the years reflect a similar desire for emotional appeal. Even the curved back of the iPad was, according to Kahney, an attempt to encourage people to pick it up.

Sheer quality is a third element. Ive generally shuns Apple’s choreographed stage appearances. In 2008, though, he made an exception to introduce the new aluminum “unibody” laptops, pronouncing the metal with an extra “i” in the British way. The aluminum is milled, a process traditionally reserved for handmade or specialized and expensive equipment. The technique allows for great precision, reducing the number of parts and thus helping make devices smaller. Using it is, however, a huge engineering challenge for a company with production runs in the millions.

Ive and his colleagues are heavily involved in designing the manufacturing process for Apple products, even when a contractor such as Foxconn will make them. Along with fanatical attention to matters such as surface finishes, this is an underappreciated ingredient in Apple’s secret sauce. Just as Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor as chief executive, helped construct a masterful global supply chain, Ive’s people and their engineering brethren actually know how to make products for the mass market, not just design and specify them.

That surely owes something to Ive’s hands-on design education at Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, in Britain. The respected program invites students to work with all kinds of materials, not just create designs in the abstract. Like his contemporaries, Ive also spent the middle part of his course interning with design firms. It was during one of these periods that he came up with the playful pen.

What Ive is like personally is harder to discern. Like the lights that seem, through another miracle of industrial design, to wink from within the metal casing of an Apple laptop, Kahney’s book provides only glimmers.

Ive and his family are as private as Apple. He’s a perfectionist, and prepared to fight for his design ideas. When he receives awards, Kahney says he generously recognizes his team. Still, he showed a hard edge by asking for a raise mere weeks after joining RWG – too soon, his boss had to explain. As a 23-year-old, Ive joined Tangerine Design as a partner with two much older colleagues. Kahney also cites reports in 2011 suggesting that Ive threatened to quit Apple and was offered a $55 million package to stay.

The company’s senior vice president of design hasn’t shied away from corporate politics either. Ive won a battle that led to the 2005 ouster of his onetime boss Jon Rubinstein. Last year, Ive took over responsibilities for software as well as hardware design when Scott Forstall left the company. Yet Kahney says he has “carefully guarded his image as a soft-spoken English gentleman.”

If the book is on target, Ive must be one of Cook’s most powerful and valuable lieutenants. But he’s elusive in Apple’s financial reports, too. He wasn’t one of the four SVPs named with the CEO as the five top executives in annual meeting documents earlier this year. That means his pay wasn’t disclosed. Nor did Ive turn up in a list of senior executives citing four additional SVPs. As of now, he’s the only member of the leadership team on Apple’s website who wasn’t named in those documents.

Of course, just as there was more to Apple than Jobs, there’s more to the company now than Cook and Ive. Even so, Kahney’s chronicle suggests Ive, as long as he doesn’t lose his touch, is almost irreplaceable. Yet without really discovering what makes the English knight of the realm tick, it’s hard to ascertain what – if anything – might persuade him to leave.

 

“Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products” by Leander Kahney was published by Portfolio/Penguin on Nov. 14.

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