Jonathan Ive interview: simplicity isn’t simple

  “Design is a word that’s come to mean so much that it’s also a word that has come to mean nothing. We don’t really talk about design, we talk about developing ideas and making products,” says Jonathan Ive, the…


“Design is a word that’s come to mean so much that it’s also a word that

has come to mean nothing. We don’t really talk about design, we talk about
developing ideas and making products,” says Jonathan Ive, the
London-born head of design for Apple.

The iMac, which he designed in 1998, revolutionised Apple, which was close to
bankruptcy at the time. The iPod, in 2001, went even further and transformed
the record industry. The iPhone had a similar effect on the mobile phone
business when it was launched in 2007. And the iPad, which debuted in 2010,
is leading the way in a whole new category of computing.

It’s hard to over-estimate the influence of Jonathan Ive.

“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly
challenging,” says Ive. “Our goal is to try to bring a calm and
simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware
really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that
was eventually solved.”

Simplicity is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Ive but he
is keen to emphasise that it has a specific meaning:

“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of
simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and
place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a
clutter-free product. That’s not simple.

“The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It
really is fundamental.”

That simplicity in the hardware has not always been matched in the software,
which since the rise of iOS – the operating system for iPad, iPhone and iPod
touch – has been marked by something known as skeuomorphism, a tendency for
new designs to retain ornamental features of the old design. Thus the
calendar in Apple’s Macs and on iOS has fake leather texture and even fake

When I mention the fake stitching, Ive offers a wince but it’s a gesture of
sympathy rather than a suggestion that he dislikes such things. At least,
that’s how I read it. He refuses to be drawn on the matter, offering a
diplomatic reply: “My focus is very much working with the other teams
on the product ideas and then developing the hardware and so that’s our
focus and that’s our responsibility. In terms of those elements you’re
talking about, I’m not really connected to that.”

After creating so many successful products, Ive could be forgiven for taking
for granted the stream of ideas that he and his colleagues have produced
over the years. However, he remains in awe of the process. “If you step
back and you think about it in a very objective way, it is a remarkable
thing that as we sit here right now, there’s not an idea. It just does not

“And you can have this barely formed thought and then suddenly something
does actually exist. Then that thought that is so tentative and so fragile
normally becomes a tentative discussion and you’re trying to bring body to
the thought with words. Generally what happens is that’s a conversation
between a couple of people and is exclusive.

“And then you start to draw to try to describe and develop this fragile
idea. Then a remarkable thing happens at the time you make the first object,
the time that you actually give form and dimension to the idea. In the whole
process, that’s the one point where the transition is the most dramatic and
suddenly you can involve multiple people. It brings focus and it can
galvanise a group of people, which is enormously powerful.”

In trying to understand Ive, it’s important to realise the level of sincerity
and passion with which he holds these beliefs. These are not empty words;
this is what he has devoted his life to. He says he tends to measure the
last 20 years of his life by the problems he and his team were trying to
solve at the time.

In developing ideas, Ive and his team will frequently go to great lengths,
studying new materials, creating entirely new processes and consulting with
experts from other industries in the search for solutions to whatever
problem they are tackling at the time. In developing the original iMac, for
example, Ive and his team talked to people in the confectionary industry
about how to maintain a consistent level of translucency when producing the
candy-coloured shell of the computer.

One thing that Ive didn’t do in pursuit of design excellence is travel to
Japan to watch a samurai sword being made. A story online claims that
watching a samurai sword get made was part of the inspiration for the iPad 2
but Ive says that didn’t happen.

The story is believable because Ive and Apple are known for fanatical
attention to detail. “Sometimes we’re very close to a problem and we’re
investing incredible resources and time trying to resolve the smallest
detail that is way beyond any sense of functional imperative… and we do it
because we think it’s right.

“It’s the ‘finishing the back of the drawer’ – you can argue that people
will never see it and it’s very hard to, in any rational sense, describe why
it’s important but it just seems important. It’s a way that you demonstrate
that you care for the people that you are making these products for. I think
we see ourselves as having a civic responsibility to do that. It’s
important. It’s right. It’s very hard to explain why.”

This attention to detail and the sense of values with which Apple imbues its
products, combined with the remarkable run of success that his seen the
company rise to be one of the largest in the world, could create the
impression that the company never fails.

There have been unsuccessful products, such as the Power Mac G4 Cube, released
in 2000, which was a striking piece of design but which failed to sell
significantly, or even the Apple TV, which has remained a ‘hobby’ since its
original release in 2007. But Ive says that most of the company’s failures
are kept far behind the scenes.

“For a large percentage of a program, it often is not clear whether we
are actually going to be able to solve the problems. For a significant
percentage of the time we don’t know whether we are going to have to give up
on an idea or not. And that’s been the case whether it’s the iPod, the
iPhone or the iPad.”

He goes on: “And there have been times when we’ve been working on a
program and when we are at a very mature stage and we do have solutions and
you have that sinking feeling because you’re trying to articulate the values
to yourself and to others just a little bit too loudly. And you have that
sinking feeling that the fact that you are having to articulate the value
and persuade other people is probably indicative of the fact that actually
it’s not good enough. On a number of occasions we’ve actually all been
honest with ourselves and said ‘you know, this isn’t good enough, we need to
stop’. And that’s very difficult.”

There might be some significance in Ive’s switch from first person plural to
third person in the previous paragraph or it might just be his turn of
phrase. One thing that is certain is that Ive will almost always say ‘we’
when talking about his work, rather than ‘I’.

Ive says that knowing when to call a halt to a project is “an important
part of my job”.

There is within Apple a strong belief in people focusing on their area of
expertise, says Ive, but when a product is being developed the process can
be quite fluid. He says: “As we’re sitting together to develop a
product you would struggle to identify who the electrical engineer was,
who’s the mechanical engineer, who’s the industrial designer.”

Teamwork is an important part of the process. “One of the things that is
particularly precious about working at Apple is that many of us on the
design team have worked together for 15-plus years and there’s a wonderful
thing about learning as a group. A fundamental part of that is making
mistakes together. There’s no learning without trying lots of ideas and
failing lots of times.”

The last year has been one of significant change for Apple. A new chief
executive, Tim Cook, took over just months before the death of Steve Jobs,
the former chief executive and co-founder of the company. The absence of
Jobs has led some analysts to predict an inevitable decline for the company.

As you would expect, Ive disagrees: “We’re developing products in exactly
the same way that we were two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. It’s
not that there are a few of us working in the same way: there is a large
group of us working in the same way.”

That team is the reason that Ive believes Apple will continue to succeed. “We
have become rather addicted to learning as a group of people and trying to
solve very difficult problems as a team. And we get enormous satisfaction
from doing that. Particularly when you’re sat on a plane and it appears that
the majority of people are using something that you’ve collectively agonised
over. It’s a wonderful reward.”