News Column

A Biography of Jonathan Ive, Apple's Creative Chief

December 8, 2013

By Stuart Dredge and Alex Hern

A Biography of Jonathan Ive, Apple's Creative Chief

It is cluttered with bikes, skateboards and designers' models, but the ideas factory that sits at the symbolic heart of Apple's vast Californian campus is also the workspace of perhaps the world's most successful designer. It is here that Sir Jonathan ("Jony") Ive gathers his select team for twice-weekly brainstorming sessions around wooden project tables - the same kind found in Apple stores around the world - always beginning with barista-quality coffee.

It is arguably at these three-hour meetings that the 46-year-old from Chingford, Essex, has powered the American tech giant to become the world's most valuable listed company, currently worth pounds 305bn.

Because Ive likes to work to the accompaniment of loud techno music there is an elaborate speaker setup, but the inner sanctum of his personal office has just a desk, lamp and classic 1976 Supporto chair.

Rare glimpses into working practices at Apple have come from an unofficial biography of Ive, published last week. But getting behind the iron curtain of secrecy created by Apple's former boss Steve Jobs was not an easy task: that secretiveness has proved commercially valuable. The book's author, Leander Kahney, received an "apologetic" rejection from Ive when asking for co-operation, but a last-minute breakthrough with former colleagues has produced some previously unknown insights.

The picture that emerges is that Apple's painstakingly detailed processes and famous perfectionism stems more from Ive than even the late Jobs - though the pair had an intense and close working relationship. At Jobs's funeral in 2011, Ive described him as his "best and most loyal friend", as someone who confided "dopey ideas" in him. "Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent."

While stories abound of Jobs's ruthlessness, Kahney's assessment of Ive is quite different. "Very polite, even-tempered, no screaming and shouting, super easy to get along with, very attentive, very kind. He would always take a bullet for his team. If anything went wrong, he would take the blame personally."

The son of silversmith and educationist Mike Ive - who was a key figure in expanding design and technology in British schools - Jonathan's sense of design has brought him a $17m home, a personal fortune of $130m, and a string of fast cars. In one, an Aston Martin DB9, he had a near-fatal crash, which prompted a big pay rise from Apple. "They realised how important he was to the company," says Kahney.

Mike, says Kahney, was far from being a pushy father. "He was just nurturing his son's talent. Design was sort of the family business, and they were both obsessed with design - they loved to talk about it all the time."

Kahney doesn't underplay Ive's talent, but believes things might have been different if he had ended up elsewhere. "There are a lot of potential Jony Ives out there, but they don't work in organisations that have the mindboggling resources of a company like Apple, or that commitment to enabling a design studio as the central R&D lab of this gigantic company.

He compares Apple's design team of 16 to that of Samsung, which employs 1,000. "They're all siloed and on a product cycle, a product schedule that keeps cranking this stuff out, and they tend to chuck a lot of stuff at the wall."

Ive's two decades at Apple have not been a litany of unqualified successes, but the turning point came when Jobs returned to the company in 1996 and brutally cut 4,200 posts. "Ive had been there for five years, and he was about to quit because he couldn't take the battles with the engineers any longer," says Kahney. "When Jobs came back, he became Jony's enabler, his muscle. They flipped it around with the iMac, and that was the product that completely changed the engineering culture."

Ive's team had been working on MP3 player prototypes for years before Jobs's return, but kept them behind closed doors until a tiny hard drive was available. It was not until 2001 that the iPod was first launched. "The designers spend most of their time in the factories working out how to manufacture these things. And a lot of their big design breakthroughs have actually been manufacturing breakthroughs," says Kahney, who thinks the company will realise another of Jobs's ambitions - to have robot-driven factories in the US.

That development is a fascinating hint at what Apple could roll out when the technology catches up with its design team, Kahney believes. "I know for a fact they've got TVs, wearables, all kinds of automotive technology. There's all this kind of stuff sitting there in the lab that they've developed, and they're waiting for the right go-to-market strategy for all of these products."

(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

Original headline: Apple designer's secret: techno and lots of coffee: A biography of Jonathan Ive, the computer firm's creative chief, sheds light on his formula for success.

Source: Observer (UK)

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