Back in 2007, as his turtlenecked boss was gearing up to introduce the iPhone, Jony Ive was determining which devices Steve Jobs would show off at Apple Inc.’s product launch. Ive’s industrial design team had worked for years to craft the product’s hardware, and in the run up to the announcement, as Andy Grignon, a former senior manager of the iPhone division, once told me, they would wear white gloves and microscopically study each prototype for its stage readiness. The team went through this exercise of grading the gadgets like a Sotheby’s appraiser evaluating an unearthed Picasso because, to Ive, the iPhone wasn’t just a gizmo; it was a vehicle to bring museum-quality artwork to the masses.
I thought about this anecdote in light of Ive’s looming exit from Apple, announced last week—a departure that was a long time coming. The 52-year-old British knight and Apple chief designer officer is regularly parodied as the disembodied voice of design pretension, the reclusive artist behind “al-looh-mihn-ee-uhm” form factors, the five-figure Apple Watch and the recently unveiled $999 monitor stand. But too frequently forgotten is how much Ive, during his nearly 30-year tenure at Apple, elevated the importance of design in business more than anyone else in the world. If IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr. taught us that “good design is good business,” then Ive is the one who proved it.
Dieter Rams’ principles of good design value usefulness and universality over pretention. Ive’s work helped spread this Ramsian thinking far beyond the confines of metal, glass and computer circuitry. The candy-colored iMac, click-wheel iPod and spaceship-modeled office park will forever define his legacy, but his influence in how businesses are run and the way popular culture talks about design may be just as important.
When my colleague Max Chafkin and I co-reported an oral history of Apple design six years ago for Fast Company, we expected Jobsian lore to overwhelm the story. But we discovered that Ive’s form-follows-function ethos predated Jobs’s 1997 return and permeated the company. Ive was impressing his mark on Apple as early as 1992, when he was first hired by Robert Brunner, who later founded Ammunition Design Group. In the early days, Ive was “this quiet, polite, English kid with these models. They weren’t just well-designed objects; he’d actually engineered them,” Brunner recalled. “I thought, Wow, this is someone I’d like to have on my team.”
That design was more highly valued than engineering under Jobs wasn’t inevitable. Ive made it so. In the early 2000s, he went to the mattresses with Jon Rubinstein, the former head of hardware engineering, to ensure supposed technical limitations didn’t interfere with Ive’s design ambitions. Rubinstein played the foil to Ive in the public narrative too often, sometimes unjustifiably, but the more significant result of this feud is not just that Ive won but that Jobs eventually elevated Ive to a role reporting directly to the CEO, an unprecedented position of power for a designer in Silicon Valley at the time. Now Apple watchers are struggling to imagine a company without a design chief.
The role Ive played in raising the fluency of design in business also dates back to a management squabble. This time it was with former software head Scott Forstall in a disagreement stemming partly from, of all things, skeuomorphism. This design style relies on real-life metaphors to translate digital elements. Ive believed the casino felt and page-flipping animations built into Apple’s default services quickly became dated and gaudy. His fight was not just with Forstall but also Jobs. The chief executive officer based the maligned leather stitching in the calendar app on a seat texture from his Gulfstream jet. Although Ive triumphed, his tenure overseeing software design had its own problems. But the drama of that era brought concepts like skeuomorphic interfaces and their “flat” antithesis—subjects normally reserved for niche design blogs—into the pages of the New York Timesand Wall Street Journal.
This kind of influence gave Ive an almost cult-like following. In 15 years, according to Ive, only two designers had left his team—one due to health issues. This track record, as recounted in a 2015 New Yorker article, has since come undone as more team members have started to leave in recent years. Even still, Apple’s ability to retain design talent is atypical. By contrast, Frog Design has watched people like Yves Béhar, Dan Harden and Brett Lovelady walk and become big names in the design community. Attempts by Google and Microsoft Corp. to replicate the hardware design consistency of Apple have been largely unsuccessful.
Ive will move on to form a new studio called LoveFrom. It’s a strange time to start a design consultancy, with so much consolidation in the industry recently. Even if he accomplishes nothing else, Ive can take some credit for the many design-centric startups—Airbnb, Pinterest—that count him as an influence, as well as the massive Apple rivals—Xiaomi, Samsung—that have long attempted to mimic his products. Though Ive’s voice is quiet (when not booming through the speakers, disembodied, in Apple product presentations), it’s remarkable how much it has resonated throughout the business world.