Designer, find thyself: Farewell to Jony Ive

The departure of Apple's award winning designer marks the end of an era – and the start of a fresh new age.

Jony Ive

Apple surprised everybody Thursday with news of the imminent departure of its Chief Design Officer, Sir Jony Ive. And while it is certainly the end of an era, the company will prevail.

Why is Ive leaving?

There are hundreds of hot takes around, but it seems likely the simplest answer is the most accurate: He needed a chance to find his art again.

I think one of the best ways to understand his move is to read between the lines of an extremely intimate 2015 profile of Ive in the New Yorker. It described someone for  whom the trappings of power and responsibility had grown heavy. The award-winning designer described himself as “deeply, deeply tired” and “always anxious.”

The report also confirmed that there had been times when Ive considered leaving the company – just four years before the New Yorker piece, rumors emerged that he wanted educate his kids in the UK

You only need watch one of Ive’s many ‘in a white room’ product announcement videos to get the seriousness with which he regards his role at Apple. (That Ive spent the last few years sending words via video rather than taking time on stage also speaks volumes.)

Great artists feel

He once admitted to feeling challenged that his decisions affected the fate of 100,000+ Apple employees. The New Yorker cites Laurence Powell Jobs on this:

“Jony’s an artist with an artist’s temperament, and he’d be the first to tell you artists aren’t supposed to be responsible for this kind of thing,” said Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Ive’s desire to focus on creativity instead of the mundanities of management was clearly recognized by Apple, which seems to have tried to help its award-winning designer find his mojo once again.

Design team meetings took place at Ive’s studio (presumably at his Pacific Heights mansion) in order to reduce his commute.

Apple also permitted Ive to hand day-to-day responsibility to Richard Howarth and Alan Dye while he was ostensibly designing Apple Park and redesigning Apple Retail (and squeezing in time to design diamond rings with chum Marc Newsom).

A recent Bloomberg report claims he would visit Apple HQ maybe twice a week and had been scaling back his work at Apple since 2015 and the first Apple Watch.

Designer, find thyself

“After nearly 30 years and countless projects, I am most proud of the lasting work we have done to create a design team, process and culture at Apple that is without peer,” Ive said in a statement announcing his departure.

The new team leaders will be Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, both of whom will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.

“I have the utmost confidence in my designer colleagues at Apple, who remain my closest friends, and I look forward to working with them for many years to come,” said Ive.

Apple’s decisions invoving Ive’s replacements have come under scrutiny, with the usual suspects focused on Apple CEO Tim Cook. (I see Cook's decision to delegate by talent as a constructive approach.)

Hanley is described as a “great team leader," which may well be the role the design team missed after the loss of Jobs and the slow withdrawal of his spiritual successor.

Ive has special praise for Williams, who he describes as, “a very close friend and an extraordinarily talented guy.”

“He has a tremendous intuition and judgement around products,” Ive told the Financial Times. “That is combined with an extremely deep sense of the engineering pragmatics associated with developing complex products.”

Ive on design

Ive has offered numerous interviews across the years. One that resonates most for me was given at a special session at London’s Design Museum in 2004, which I happened to attend.

"As a designer you are naturally inquisitive, and would love to do this, that or another thing; we have focus,” he said.

He also discussed the hard work and commitment it takes to create products that work intuitively and simply, and shared a story concerning his team’s work on the first titanium PowerBooks.

Computerworld > The Evolution of the MacBook > PowerBook Titanium G4 IDG / Apple

"One thing probably none of you have got a clue about: We worked really, really hard to develop a mechanism that basically spring-loads the clutch so that at a point when you are opening it you counter-balance the display,” he explained.

“And it's one of the points we spent so much time working out, so that the product was so much nicer than anything else."

Eight years later, in 2012, he reprised his mantra: “Our goal is to create simple objects, objects you can’t imagine any other way,” he said in an interview. "Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new."

Ive remains adamant on these points. He remains convinced that being different is too easy:

“To do something different is very easy. I have no interest in that.... I'm interested in trying to develop and craft products and experiences that are characterized by their care and not of carelessness.”

Return to the source

It is understandable that a creative designer would feel the need to expand his or her  horizons.

Ive has won numerous awards, honors and recognition worldwide. He has fame, fortune and success, and his product designs are defining the modern world.

How can such achievements become mundane?

More importantly, what is an artist to do once they do become so?

Reality is relative.

Ive’s curious nature may have led him to here, but they are traits that endure.

“As a kid, I remember taking apart whatever I could get my hands on. Later, this developed into more of an interest in how they were made, how they worked, their form and material,” he once explained.

“A preoccupation with differentiation is the concern of many corporations rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better.”

A commitment to artistry has been – and remains – fundamental to Apple.

It’s a message that echoes Jobs, who famously once said:

"I think part of what made the Macintosh great is that the people working on it were musicians, poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happen to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

While he may be seeking fresh inspiration, Ive isn’t wandering alone into the wilderness. Not only will he launch his new design agency, LoveFrom, with old friend Newsom, but he will continue to work with Apple, “I hope for many, many years to come,” he said.

My take?

Any artist hoping to do their best work must think about another famed Jobs quote who told students in 2005: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Achieving this, for any creative person, sometimes demands they let things go. The best art takes the biggest sacrifice – and every creative needs time to dream.

Speaking to Dazed, Ive explained that product design, “begins and ends with the product and if your absolute and complete focus is sincerely to try and make the very best product, then all of the other issues tend to resolve themselves.”

Ive now appears ready to work on another product: himself. 

I expect other issues to resolve themselves.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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