Jonathan Ive isn’t prone to making wild proclamations about design, his boss, Steve Jobs, or Apple, the company at which he’s led the design team since 1996. Indeed, he’s not really one for speaking in public much at all. So it was with a sense of keen anticipation that a group of 700 or so Londoners descended on the Royal Geographical Society in posh South Kensington to hear Ive in conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art.
During the hour-long chat, Ive touched on many themes and topics. The main takeaway for executives looking to try and copy Apple’s success? Don’t. Instead, Ive said forcefully and repeatedly, companies need to define their own clear, high-minded raison d’être. That should drive the actions and decisions of every employee, from the C-suite down.
For Apple, he outlined, the end game isn't commercial success. "Apple's goal isn't to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products," he explained. "We trust as a consequence of that, people will like them, and as another consequence we'll make some money. But we're really clear about what our goals are." This focus, he continued, has driven Apple to produce only a small number of high quality products. "We try not to bring out another product that's just different," he said. "'Different' and 'new' is relatively easy. Doing something that's genuinely better is very hard."
And while Ive was clearly careful not to point fingers or name names, he was critical of companies that continue to lay emphasis on "new" rather than "better," churning out products simply in order to survive, with no thought of the impact of such rampant production. "It never ceases to amaze me what it takes to develop and bring to mass production a product," he said. "If you don't care, it's just wrong to drag so many resources and so much of people's time through that process."
Ive also had bad news for anyone looking to foster a design or innovation-driven culture within an enterprise that doesn't at heart "get" it. Unless the disciplines are acknowledged and embraced as core values by every employee, they won't gain traction. "We don't have identity manuals reminding us of points of philosophy for why our company exists," he said of Apple's internal culture. "I'm sure those things are very well meaning, but if you have to institutionalize stuff, you end up chasing your tail." In other words, unless the commitment to innovation or design is authentic and heartfelt, rather than this month's short-term strategy to cater to a hot trend, it will be nigh on impossible to build a true, innovation-led culture (and emulate Apple's success.)
So what does Ive look for when interviewing would-be Apple designers? Belief, passion and a commitment to strive for perfection. "When I'm interviewing people to join the team, the discussions go like this: 'this was my idea, this is how it turned out in manufacturing, and it's rubbish, isn't it? But it isn't my fault'," he recounted wryly, before becoming serious. "There's a list of excuses and reasons why it was somebody else's fault other than the designer's. Now I understand that, I've been there, I've been frustrated beyond words with other companies when I was working independently. But when you've gone through a whole portfolio like that, at some point you have to say: 'if you really do care about the quality of what ends up getting made, wouldn't you find an answer, some sort of alternative, and somehow figure out a way to take your idea and do something with it?'" It was a great reminder that design is about much more than the studio and the drawing board. Designers need to be fully engaged in a company's overarching mission, and should be resolved to oversee every stage of a product's life cycle, from concept to shop shelf and beyond.
Ive's own commitment to the design process is precisely why, he said, if you don't like Apple products, then you and he have a problem. Well, he didn't put it exactly like that. In delicate Ive speak, this was, "We maybe would have a difference of opinion, but I can say it's that way because that's the way we wanted it to be. There's not an excuse." Now, I know Apple is too often touted as the poster child for successful design-led innovation, but really, how many other corporate design chiefs can make the same claim?
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