Apple's Jony Ive talks design, slams competition

By Jonny Evans

Apple's [AAPL] chief designer Sir Jony Ive, has broken his customary silence to deliver some interesting insight into the thought processes that bought us the iPad, iPod, Mac and iPhone -- slamming competitors for looking at things completely the wrong way.


Think different -- with sincerity

"Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new," he explains. This isn't the correct approach. Instead, people who want to out-innovate Cupertino need to try to invent something that's "genuinely" better. Built with care, sincerity and "real discipline".

"That's what drives us," he explains, "[a] genuine appetite to do something that is better."

That problem confounding others in the industry is easily articulated in an old engineering maxim: "Better is not necessarily better than best." I've (and this is the author's notion) always understood this to mean that adding extra features or improving specs is of no use at all if it doesn't add to the customer experience.

Developing the best solutions takes the discipline not to simply throw everything you've got at something, but to trim it back to its elements. Ive's comments to the London Evening Standard seem to reflect this.


Reality translation

At Apple, design isn't just inspired by opportunity, sometimes it's about solving problems, Ive explains: "Sometimes things can irritate you so you become aware of a problem, which is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging."

A case in point, when speaking at London's Design Museum several years ago I heard Ive slam condemnation down on the user interface of his mobile phone. An interface we all thought Apple was working to reinvent, and which it did do a few years later with the iPhone. Can anyone remember how annoying mobile phones were to use before the iPhone, and the imitators who followed it?

In a sense, it isn't too surprising competing firms are challenged finding a unique alternative to Apple's user interfaces. "Our goal is to create simple objects, objects that you can't imagine any other way," Ive explains.

The outcome of the smartphone and the tablet wars seems likely to be decided, not in the courts, but in the market place. It isn't enough to deploy a "me too" approach to design and usability. Product design requires simplicity and care.

[ABOVE: Ive's moving tribute to friend and collaborator, Steve Jobs.]

The inner temple

We already know some things about the workings of Ive's design team. In a 2007 interview, he explains:

"We have assembled a heavenly design team. By keeping the core team small and investing significantly in tools and process we can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare. Our physical environment reflects and enables that collaborative approach. The large open studio and massive sound system support a number of communal design areas. We have little exclusively personal space. In fact, the memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work."

His approach combines aestheticism with passion; new technology with care: "I understand that if you are prepared to keep going, if you really, really care, I think that's fundamental," he said during a talk at London's Design Museum in 2004.

With Apple this weekend confirming new iPad demand is "off the charts", delaying shipping dates in some territories in response, it seems pretty clear that Ive, Apple and its teams have an approach that works.

"Consumers are incredibly discerning, they sense where there has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed. We've found that really encouraging," Ive told the Evening Standard.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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