I’ve arrived

How does a 29-year-old Englishman land what must surely be one of the best design jobs in the world – head of Apple’s design studio? Emma O’Kelly finds out from Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive is riled. “I’ve just been in Berlin and I can’t stand having to design to European standards,” he says. He’s irritated because his latest design, the turquoise eMate computer, will have to feature different-coloured legends on its keyboard for the German market. But being director of design at Apple Computer in Cupertino, California, perhaps such minor requirements are easy to overlook.

Ive joined Apple four years ago and was promoted to his new role in January. At the same time Gil Amelio joined as CEO and chairman, the inevitable hirings and firings occurred, and now Ive heads a studio team of 22 mainly European designers, of which, aged 29, he is the youngest.

Apple had every reason to lure Ive across the Atlantic. His career history in the UK was, after all, stunning. In his four years as a student of industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic, he won Royal Society of Arts awards for two years running and graduated in 1987 with a first. He then joined Robert Weaver, the design group which had sponsored him through college. Shortly afterwards, he set up Tangerine with Martin Darbyshire and Clive Grinyer – who has also gone on to greater things and is European design manager at Samsung Electronics. It was while Ive was working with Apple on concepts for the PowerBook laptop computer range that he was wooed by the Macintosh giant. Since graduating, he has designed everything from pens and haircombs to bathroom products and Apple’s Newton MessagePad 130, and much of his work has been exhibited in museums.

Ive had every reason to take up Apple’s offer. The company has, after all, one of the most influential design studios in the world, in a country that ostensibly recognises the value of design. And Ive was the right man for the job. As Darbyshire explains: “The culture at Apple is very particular, and it was a tempting option for Jonathan with his broad management and superb design skills.”

No one seems to be more surprised that he works for Apple than Ive himself: “It’s strange I’m here as I’m not really a corporate man. I go into meetings wearing big boots and loud tweed suits and say to all the vice-presidents ‘trust me’. And they do.” It’s easy to understand why, because beneath the wacky Englishman abroad image lies a focused, persuasive mind which has a clear vision of where it wants the design team to go.

He started in his new post by cutting all ties with outside consultancies to focus on his internal team. He runs his studio like a consultancy, choosing the best talents from an international pool. “I don’t want sausage factory designers. I like an uncomfortable voice in the studio. I spend enormous energy on finding the right individuals and I fervently believe in giving my team freedom with a brief. I don’t start policing,” he says.

Ive has a distinctive approach to design: “When you replace objects that have great history, like the pen and notebook, the new products have to instigate the same ritual. Take fiddling; we all fiddle with pens and there needs to be something to fiddle with on a computer. I operate on the basis that everyone is technophobic, and at Apple we measure our success by not calling our products computers. We are trying to break out of the traditional configuration, and this is a big challenge as PowerBooks are such a strong brand. I’m so relieved the eMate is out. It’s an indication of where we’re going – the death of the generic is very important to us now.”

Aimed at schoolchildren, the eMate is beautifully designed – light, small, smooth curves, as well as being foolproof and sturdy. And there is another slimline desktop number – codenamed Spartacus – under wraps to celebrate 20 years of the Mac. Ive is also big on “accessories” and “features” to “give identity to what is an anonymous piece of hardware”. These include coils (which look like apple peel) to store cables around, flip-up stands and unpluggable speakers with stereo sound. All in bright colours and different finishes and forms.

These new products certainly live up to Apple’s history of great design and innovation. But they also a reflect the group’s increasing marginalisation. As Windows becomes universal, being run on cheaper, more powerful PCs, it seems unlikely that Apple will be able to claw its way back to the top – even if exciting ventures such as the purchase of BeOS come off. After record losses of 700m in the first quarter of 1996, there’s a lot of pressure on the eMate and Mac accessories to succeed. A fact of which Ive and his team are only too aware.

Back in the halcyon days when founders Steve Job and Steve Wozniak were at the helm, about 10 per cent of products conceived in the Apple studio went into production. The blue sky ideas have been replaced with grim reality, and now 100 per cent of the studio’s work is on real programmes. Ive must surely feel the pressure of having to juggle the demand for short-term solutions with the long-term vision for which he is so renowned. “Of course, the expectations are extremely high. But in the past there was a huge disparity between what we produced in the studio and what was shipped. This was incredibly frustrating and was down to some fairly conservative decision-making. The eMate only took 11 months from conception to production, so at least now we don’t have to wait so long to see things on-shelf,” he says. His view of the company’s future is cavalier: “Apple is a company with a lot of panache – it has lost billions, but it has also made billions. It’s bollocks that it will go away,” he adds.

So is Ive living the Californian dream? To work at Apple means fully embracing its ethic. He works an 80-hour week, has the US average holidays of three weeks a year and drives a round trip of 150kms daily from San Francisco to Cupertino. He admits that “sometimes you have a sense of losing the ability to determine your own day”, but his passion for what he does and for his team – and the fact that he is very well remunerated – makes up for it.

Colleagues in the UK have described him as quintessentially British. “Everyone here calls me Johnny – no one calls me that except my mother. I think they think I’m rather strange. You just have to go to a concert like The Chemical Brothers or Tricky to see the culture gap. But you have to roll with it. If I thought it was forever, I’d get shaky.”

And he does get shaky, when I ask him what’s next. “I get very anxious when I think about the future because what do you do after you’ve done what I have and you’re only 29? But I’m very conscious of how much more there is to learn. I will definitely come back to the UK, and quite fancy living in Bristol. There’s a lot going on there. Or maybe I’ll go to the Royal College of Art and do an MA.”.

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