Design Guru Changed Game

Jony IveAfter the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, a tome about the biggest second-tier name behind Apple’s incredible success was virtually a given.

A large part of the appeal in reading Jony Ive is in seeing how hagiographic it will be. Isaacson did a pretty good job of telling the warts-and-all story of Apple’s godlike founder even though it was all done with Jobs’ blessing. Ive is not only still with us, he’s still at the helm of Apple’s design efforts. As such Apple probably wouldn’t want anything so brutally honest.

Unlike Jobs, neither Ive nor Apple had any part on this book, so any information author Leander Kaheny has found is either a matter of public record or inside information from current or former employees – a Herculean task given the company’s notorious secrecy.

But Ive seems a much more stable character than Jobs ever was. There’s no legendary temper, no children from old relationships he ignored for years and no crazy, weeks-long, citrus-only detox diets. As Kaheny tells it, Ive is a British-born family man who luck delivered to a company that would make him and is work famous, nothing more.

What stops the book being an ad for Ive (or Apple) is the simple facts – his career contains as many misfires as anybody else’s. There’s no doubt he’s a great designer, but Ive is no King Midas any more than Jobs was. We tend to think the latter dreamed up the iPhone, Apple Mac and iPad in his sleep and Ive waved a magic wand to make them so reality.

Instead, the product classes that made the company often came from other executives or developers. Some of the tools Jobs and Ive bought to the market (the G4 Cube, Apple Newton, 20th Anniversary Mac) were duds, and Jony Ive doesn’t gloss over them.

The roughly chronological account talks about Ive’s upbringing and education at one of the UK’s most prestigious design colleges at a time when the national focus was shifting to design as a manufacturing principle.

Ive would become the most visible of a new breed of product designers that would change the world. He and Apple partly led the charge of making computers and electronics more user friendly and attractive, and the aesthetic the company created set the tone for the rest of the industry.

The book talks about how Ive and his contemporaries led us out of the ‘beige box’ era by straddling a unique gulf in the still-developing personal computer field, where designers occupied one side of the fence and engineers the other.

For much of the early PC era, the managements of IBM, Dell and other manufacturers put more stock in engineers and told designers to work around them. If we had to choose only one action by Jobs that created the world we live in today, it was in reversing the equation. He put Ive and his team front and centre at Apple where they remain to this day, prototyping the iconic designs we all know and telling the engineers to work with them instead of the other way around.

Kaheny has collected a huge body of research from articles and interviews, and even though comment from the man himself on his successes and failures would have added a lot, it feels pretty comprehensive. In talking about Ive’s career, Jony Ive also contains an interesting history of design in the electronics and computer eras. If that’s also your cup of tea, you’ll get even more out of it.