updated 11:15 pm EDT, Mon March 12, 2012
Designer talks emotional connections, priorities
In an interview with the London Evening Standard, Apple's Senior VP of Industrial Design Sir Jonathan Ive talked about the design process at Apple and also addressed the question of why most other companies don't seem able to create the kind of products people get so passionate about and enjoy on the level they do Apple products. For Ive, making a product genuinely better was a key factor, along with the collaborative process of chasing ideas.
Though he credits his knighthood for services to design to being "the product of growing up in England ... the tradition of designing and making, of England industrializing first," he was asked why he chose to live in California and praised Silicon Valley's "remarkable optimism" and "an attitude to try out and explore ideas ... and decide to form a company to do it. There's not a sense of looking to generate money, it's about having an idea and doing it," he said. Ive added that he still visits England three to four times a year.
When asked "what makes design different at Apple?", Ive struggles with a clear definition, but said the entire process, including problem-solving and prototyping, was important. He talked of going beyond just solving a minor problem or "irritation" with an existing product and taking on "challenges you don't have references for," citing the iPad as an example of going beyond just fixing the tablet and instead inventing a whole new product category.
He said the goals at Apple "are very simple -- to design and make better products. If we can't make something better, we won't do it." Ive reflected back on how much of an impact Apple's attempt to make computers more usable had had a big impact on him long before he joined the company: "I'd gone through college in the 80s using a computer and had a horrid experience. Then I discovered the Mac, it was such a dramatic moment and I remember it so clearly -- there was a real sense of the people who had made it."
To take on the challenge of genuinely making great products and making existing products truly better (rather than just adding or subtracting features), he said, takes "a remarkable focus" and "real discipline." Ive added that Apple "doesn't do focus groups -- that is the job of the designer. It's unfair to ask people who don't have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design [a new product]."
He spoke at length about the nature of having ideas and creativity in general and how inspiring it can be. Ive himself was greatly influenced by Braun designer Dieter Rams, and again referenced the idea that a new idea is a very fragile thing that must be handled carefully in its early stages. "When you see the most dramatic shift," he said, "is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation. But when you [get to the point that you] make a 3D model, however crude ... the entire process shifts. It galvanizes and brings focus from a broad group of people."
Asked why Apple's competitors have struggled in the areas of unifying, emotionally-connecting product design, Ive said that most of Apple's competitors "are interested in doing something different, or want to [at least] appear new. I think those are completely the wrong goals." He later added "committees just don't work, and it's not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different -- [those] are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product."
Instead, he suggested, Apple's obvious in genuinely making products people will love and making each new version much better than the previous one strikes an emotional chord with buyers. The biggest challenge, Ive said, was to know "exactly when you're there. It can be the smallest shift, and suddenly transforms the object without any contrivance."
Though he didn't specifically mention it, the reference echoes a story told about the late Steve Jobs showing engineers that the original, plastic screen that was to be used for the iPhone scratched too easily, forcing a nearly-last-minute change to a special kind of glass that has now become a distinct hallmark of the entire iOS mobile line.
Ive also credited the long experience he's had in working with a small team of designers and executives at Apple -- many of whom have been there for more than a decade -- saying there is a shared "preoccupation with making great products" and a "collective confidence" that allows Apple to keep pushing on projects until they find the right combination, such as with the Apple TV.
He also dispensed a bit of advice on designing, saying that simply designing to "solve problems" is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging. When you are "intrigued by an opportunity," Ive said, "it really exercises the skills of a designer." You have to ask questions, be optimistic in the face of great challenges, "be interested in being wrong." He said that attitude -- "what if we did this, combine it with that, would that be useful?" -- creates opportunities for great opportunities rather than simply responding to an individual problem, which he called "the real challenge, and that's what's exciting."
Responding to the supposition that consumers may not really care about great design, Ive said that while people often struggle to articulate why they like something, his view was that "as consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where there has been great care in the design and where there is cynicism and greed," perhaps a back-handed reference to copycat product makers that focus on making their products "like Apple" in an attempt to catch consumer interest.
When asked "how do you know when you've succeeded" in making a great product, Ive mentioned the "invisibility" of good design, the idea that on a conscious level users may not be able to see an obvious difference, but that it can be sensed. "Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object." He brought up the new iPhoto app for the iPad: "it completely consumers you and you forget you are using an iPad."
He warned that becoming completely focused on problems that seem a number of steps removed from the main product can be an area where a designer can get sidetracked, but years of experience will keep one focused on the bigger picture even as "you can spend months and months on a tiny detail -- but unless you solve that tiny problem, you can't solve the fundamental product. You often feel there is no sense [that] these [issues] can be solved, but you have faith. This is why these innovations are so hard -- there are no points of reference."
"Some of the problem-solving in the iPad is really quite remarkable," Ive said. "I think that it is a fantastic irony, how oblivious people are to the acrobatics we've performed to solve a problem ... but that's our job, and I think people know there is tremendous care behind the finished product." [via London Evening Standard]