Decoding Design

Apple's Jonathan Ive: great design is about focus, simplicity, emotion

Apple's Jonathan Ive: great design is about focus, simplicity, emotion

Posting in Design

To Apple's design guru, Sir Jonathan Ive, innovation is a focused pursuit of creating simpler products that may not be so simple to design--and which spark emotional connections with users.

It's every designer's dream--and that of every innovation reporter, CEO, and Mac fan alike: a lengthy conversation with Apple's senior vice president of industrial design Jonathan Ive, who rarely grants interviews. The dream came true for the London Evening Standard's Science and Technology editor Mark Prigg, who published a long, exclusive Q&A with the knighted Apple exec, "The iMan Cometh," on March 12.

One of the most striking elements of the interview, in my opinion, is how it humanizes Sir Ive. He's on such a pedestal as a design guru, it's easy to forget that he is a regular person, and of course a user of technology and admirer of great design, too. This is important, given that he makes it clear that Apple's success relies on creating products with the user in mind, and which spark very emotional connections between people and their iPhones, Macs, and iPads.

The interview opens with personal details of his life: he has twin sons with his wife, whom he met while in secondary school in the U.K., framing him as a romantic, regular guy. (But then there's an aura of greatness in his bio, too: he also shares an an alma mater with another British superstar, David Beckham.)

When discussing Apple's design strategy, Ive comes off as the opposite of aloof and arrogant. "We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at  Apple," Ive said humbly to Prigg. "But it is very much about designing and prototyping and making."

As for design and innovation tips to be taken from the interview, here a few key ones:

  • Simple is best. Yes, Apple's products are beautiful and therefore desirable. But beyond everything else, they are so easy to use that they feel natural even to newbies. "Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way," Ive said. "Simplicity is not the absence of clutter," he adds, admitting that true simplicity doesn't have, well, a simplistic definition.
  • To succeed, designers should have a combination of curious, skeptical, and positive attitudes. At Apple, Ive said, there is a "sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often."
  • An unrelenting sense of focus--from long-term corporate goals to nitty-gritty technical details--is what drives Apple. In fact, "focus" is one of the most-repeated words in the interview. "That fanatical attention to detail and coming across a problem and being determined to solve it is critically important," Ive said.
  • Forget trying to seem "different" with gimmicks; innovation is really about improving products for real people. "It’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different--they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product."
  • Teamwork across departments is crucial for design success. At Apple, designers aren't isolated from marketing executives or technologists. "The complexity of these products really makes it critical to work collaboratively, with different areas of expertise," Ive said. "We’re located together, we share the same goal, have exactly the same preoccupation with making great products."

Perhaps most notably, Ive ends his peek behind the wizard's curtain with a very sweet and charming point. "I think that people’s emotional connection to our products is that they sense our care, and the amount of work that has gone into creating it," he said. It reads as a sincere statement--and a very wise strategy to keep Apple's customers and consumers coming back for more.

[via London Evening Standard, CNET, Core77, and others]

Image: Apple

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure