Apple’s Sir Jony Ive interview: Bad design is ‘offensive’

Author

Matt Warman Head of Technology

November 17, 2014

Apple’s Sir Jony Ive offers a rare glimpse at the ideas behind Apple Watch and the importance of aesthetically-pleasing design, reports Matt Warman

Hundreds of millions of people have used the Apple products Sir Jony Ive has designed – from the original, translucent plastic iMac to the new iPhone 6, his work has generated a passion that is rare in any industry. Yet speaking at London’s Design Museum this week, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design provided a rare insight into the company’s next big thing without making any assumptions of its notoriety: “We’ve been working on this product called Apple Watch,” he said of the smartwatch that made front page headlines around the world.

Although Sir Jony didn’t offer details of precise new features, the explanation of how Apple arrived at the Watch has never been detailed in public before, and he explained it as a significant but logical leap in the history of computers.

“It’s been one of the most intriguing programmes,” he said. “This sort of transition of [computer] technology that became a little bit more personal, made its way in to the home and made its way in to your pocket – this leap to the worn is a really significant one.”

This much is in line with Apple’s idea that the Watch will be its most personal product ever, but Sir Jony puts it also in the context of hundreds of years of human progress: “Brilliant people have spent the last few centuries dealing with these issues. The parallels with the technologies associated with timekeeping and what we’re facing are really quite uncanny, and this I think is part of our human condition. If you saw one of those clock towers and it has a personal relevancy and it’s very tall and very clever and you go round the corner and it’s completely redundant to you, I do think there is this natural part of our condition that when you see potent phenomenal technology there is somehow this desire to make it smaller – the first thing you do you can put wheels on it and drive around in it – and then you make it cheaper, more accessible and you make it better. That was the transition and it was a multi-century transition from the clock tower to something that ended up eventually on your wrist. So I think what we’re doing maps to this really robust historical precedent.”

He concedes, however, that the tiny screen people might wear on their wrists is not the best place for everything: “The wrist is an amazing place to put technology but you’re only going to use it in a certain way – you’re not going to write a dissertation but it is very good to see who just texted you or if you’re walking you don’t want to get your phone out to see is that left or right. The Watch, just like when you are telling the time, is very good for these, you could almost call them inexpensive, these quick in and out things. It’s so easy you don’t have to pay much attention.”

That balance between information and ease of use is what Sir Jony hopes will define a new age for the wristwatch, which he notes was invented by jewellers Cartier “driven by utility” and only popularised by the convenience it offered in the trenches during the First World War. But he also knows his greatest difficulty is persuading people to wear it after it finally goes on sale next year .

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The Apple Watch will ship in three different versions, (L-R) Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch and Apple Watch Edition

“Even though it was driven by the transition to be practical of course if it’s worn there are then issues of fashion and style and then personal preference,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges that we’ve found is that we wouldn’t all be sitting here wearing the same thing. It’s ok if we can put it in a bag, it’s ok if we can put it into a jacket, but this idea that I think we want to wear the same thing is why we’ve designed a system not a single approach. It’s a flexible system so hopefully it will be appealing but it’s still a very singular idea. We’re not just throwing a whole bunch of ideas against a wall, and see which ones stick, like some people do.”

Indeed, Sir Jony is aware that customers will reject an idea that doesn’t work now in a way perhaps they previously would have simply endured: “I was at art school and I had a truly horrendous time because it was legislated we had to use a computer to do CAD drawings, and an odd thing happens when we’re dealing with technology. If we struggle we assume the problem’s us, and if we’re eating something and it tastes horrible we assume the food’s nasty. And I of course assumed these computers that I couldn’t use, it was some sort of technical ineptitude on my part. And right at the very end of my course I discovered the Mac and I realised a couple of things – technically I was quite proficient and there was nothing wrong with me whatsoever but the computers at the college were absolutely dreadful.” Today, Sir Jony observes, the choices are more diverse.

“But there was something else and it was a little bit naïve, and I feel a little bit guilty that something that was so, so dreadfully obvious took me so long to realise, which is through the object that I was sat in front I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a clear sense of their values, their preoccupations, the reasons they made it – in this odd way I had this very clear sense, via the object, of this company, Apple, I didn’t know anything about and so this was the beginning of this realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are.”

From that moment, Sir Jony claims with hindsight, it was obvious his values and Apple’s already aligned. “This made me want to research about this somewhat anarchic contrarian group of guys who had got together in California and I was lucky enough that I won a couple of RSA bursaries, when I was at college and most people were going down to Milan and I did a quite unusual thing and I went to California, and I was 21 and I’d never been on a plane before and it was good because contractually I already had a job that I had to go back to and you know how liberating it is to talk to people when you don’t want anything. When I got back and I was working independently in London Apple got in touch and they were looking for somebody to work with and asked me to work with them.” The rest, of course, is history.

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Ive with his iMac G3s, a product Steve Jobs described as looking “so good you kinda’ wanna lick it.”

Unlike rival manufacturers, Apple has followed several clear periods of very homogenous design: the plastics of the original iMac that curved round old-fashioned CRT displays were replaced by the glass and metal of the newer iPhones. “Plastic actually doesn’t do very well if you want to do thin flat surfaces – you can’t disconnect the form from the component that goes inside,” says Sir Jony, who condemns change for change’s sake: “I feel really strongly about designers who cave in to a marketing, corporate agenda. I think it’s wrong to make something different for the sake of being different. When you have a thought and a big idea actually to translate it into something is the most difficult part. Giving an idea a body is very hard.”

Apple has repeatedly claimed that its huge popularity and profitability is simply a consequence of pouring all its energies into its products. “We’ve tried very hard to be very clear and this is absolutely sincere – our goal at Apple isn’t to make money. I think it’s much harder for good design to come from an organisation with that as its goal. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best products we can. We trust that if people like them they will buy them and we will make money as a consequence. Those are very easy words to say but the practice is what makes good design. There are many decisions we make that might not appear to make fiscal sense. You can look at something we’ve done that costs a lot more to make it the way we want to make it and I can’t justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it’s the right thing to do.”

When it comes, however, to the right thing to do, Sir Jony is at his most strident on the issue of the simple value of good design in any context. “I really truly believe that people can sense care in the same way they can sense carelessness. I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something and you expect me to buy something and all I can sense is carelessness, that’s personally offensive. I think it’s offensive culturally because it shows just the disregard for our fellow human and so I think it’s very important that at least our intent is that we have really really, really cared. I don’t know anything ever that’s good that’s come from carelessness. In the physical world so much of it’s that manufactured testifies to carelessness – the one good thing about it is that if you do care about it it’s conspicuous.”

These struggles are what Sir Jony says have defined Apple’s success: “To do something new does requires that you reject reason,” he says. “With the phone – there were so many times that it looked like it wasn’t going to work. It’s not inevitable that this stuff will succeed, but when you do succeed all of a sudden the form looks really inevitable. It wasn’t that long ago that texting – I’ll press this button three times and third button will be ‘C’. We hated our phones ever such a lot. We really believed we could make a better product.”

And what then, of those companies that have taken inspiration from Apple, to the point where they’ve ended up in court over issues of copyright? “‘It’s theft and they stole our time – time that we could have had with our families,” says Sir Jony. “I actually feel quite strongly. When someone say it’s flattery? No.”

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Ive poses with the iMac G4

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