The Figurehead

Ive got a few thoughts.

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, former Jobs protegé, and Dieter Rams enthusiast is stepping down. It’s been a long and captialistically successful tenure for both Ive and the company, and the sway Apple has held over the global design language is already being attributed to his work.

How much of Apple’s success can be ascribed to Ive’s efforts is an open question. The company’s opaque corporate structure and masterful control of information access make it easy to fixate on Ive as the sole creative genius responsible for Apple’s vast array of products.

Jony Ive’s hand is apparent in the translucent tangerine iBook, the glossy obelisk iPhone, tiny tic-tic AirPods, and the new, trypophobia inducing Mac Pro.

Ive appears to have become Apple’s design guru at just the right time — the company’s growth on the back of the NeXt reverse takeover, new iMac, and then iPod have helped his design achieve monumental reach. The most valuable company in world has benefited tremendously from the globalisation of its manufacturing base, and the Apple design team have been able to produce objects of aching precision through mastery of this supply chain.

Take a look at the difference between the designs of the 2006 and 2019 Mac Pro (nee Power Mac). The removal of visible joins, the zero tolerance interlocking components, that grill. This is high-end design achieved not through revision of what it means to interact with and use technology (as the iPad and iPhone are), but through mastery of aluminium and steel machining via complete control of its manufacture.

Apple’s desire to master their own destiny through ownership of the entire technology stack has enabled them to surf the wave of globalised supply, and further allowed them to consolidate their successes with ever greater control and ownership.

This is the trajectory of Apple’s designs under Jony Ive — more tightly controlled from every possible angle, to the extent that their devices can no longer be fully understood, let alone meaningfully repaired.

If the legacy of Steve Jobs time as Apple’s design figurehead was to get the world to understand the value of design, then maybe Ive’s is the understanding that great design means complete control of the entire experience

It’s also hard to overstate the impact of Apple’s design during this time. The shift in household appliance design following the Bondi iMac. The way our laptops look. The entire phone industry. Round rects and super-ellipses. Our lives are surrounded by expressions and re-expressions of the Ramsian minimalism proselytised through the Californian behemoth.

Few designers can dream of such a reach. We’re lucky if our design makes it in front of people with half of what we originally envisioned, let alone having that design shape a global cultural concept of what it means to do good design. (The company’s control of the devices on which so much of our cultural capital is crafted has probably helped here, in a Churchillian fashion.)

This doesn’t mean that Apple has been immune to trends within the broader technology design aesthetic — iOS 7’s dramatic shift away from depth and texture (usability be damned) is probably the most recognised aspect. Of course, this was brought about through years of flat web and interface design thinking done at other companies and agencies.

As much as taste can be led by astonishingly creative individuals, it’s worth remembering that design is rarely an individual effort — instead, great design is a team sport.

Far too often, famous designers and artists are really totemic apparitions masking a team dozens to hundreds strong. At this level of (relative) fame, the designer becomes a brand mark for the labours of their design team. A final seal of approval on collective creativity.

Antoni Gaudí’s defining work isn’t even finished, and is carried on one hundred years later by a talented group of engineers, architects, and builders. Andy Warhol’s factory of artists created the body of Warhol’s ouevre. Zaha Hadid’s eponymous architectural practice has outlived her. Dieter Rams, the clear and direct inspiration for so much of the work produced by Apple, worked alongside other designers at Braun and Vitsoe.

The few Apple designers who have had public profiles during this time — probably most notably Marc Newson — show that for all its cliched "think different" and "a thousand no's for every yes" campaigning, Apple and Ive are beneficiaries of the same structure.

With the departure of Jony Ive, now is the time to acknowledge that his and Apple’s tremendous design legacy is achieved only through the collective labour of the Apple design team, it’s engineers, and the anonymous workers who actually build these seemingly impossible objects.

Death to figurehead designers. Long live the design team.