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Jonathan Ive on The Key to Apple's Success

Posted by: Helen Walters on July 08, 2009

ive.jpgJonathan 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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Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

July 8, 2009 04:49 PM

Great stuff, and what a rare treat? Jony is far too quiet about this stuff usually.

I especially appreciate that he's aware the Apple way isn't the right answer for everyone. Apple is great because it is more like itself than it is like any other company in the world. Far too many companies, by turn, manage to make themselves mediocre so they can be more like Apple.

Really level head on his shoulders -- the bench is deep over there these days, far beyond just Steve.

Fred Collopy

July 8, 2009 06:00 PM

This is exhilarating and sobering all at once. I was asked a question in class just today along the line "what if those I'm working for don't get it?" I'll pass on Ive's sentiment. Thanks for relating it.

Douglas B. Moore

July 9, 2009 07:54 AM

Terrific article--that was much better than what I'd expect from a blog post.

I disagree, however, with Mr. Ive's statement that companies should not try to copy Apple’s success. Apple's strategy of only releasing products that are genuinely better is a successful Strategy Analog (SM) that can be replicated in any field. Novartis, for example, recently broke with the pharmaceutical industry to reject the development of "me-too" drugs aimed at large target populations. Instead it is developing products for therapeutic areas where the science is well-understood, without regard to its immediate commercial potential.

His compelling point is that platitude-rich strategies fail because they do not tell employees what not to do. Apple has become a top brand largely because the corporate strategy is the innovation.

Douglas B. Moore, Moore Innovation


July 9, 2009 12:34 PM

Recently, some pundits spewed that Steve Jobs was no longer necessary, and that Tim Cook could run the company without him. With all do respect to the brilliant performance of Mr. Cook, as well as the design genius of Jonathan Ive, I have this to say in response:


What sets Apple apart begins at the top. Without the standards and tone set by Steve Jobs, Apple would not be Apple. Steve Jobs is irascible, infuriating, insulting and often insufferable. And he's right most of the time. He's unlike any other senior executive in business today. He gets it. Without Steve Jobs, it's likely that neither Tim Cook nor Jonathan Ive, nor a host of very hard working and brilliant minds would be at Apple. Steve Jobs is less of a standard MBA corporate executive than an impresario. He's a right brained mind in a left-brained corporate world.

Try to think hard of another corporate leader like Steve Jobs. It's likely you can't. And that's just the point. Apple is a unique collection of people, each who bring different talents to the fore. Because of the vision and tone set forth by Steve Jobs, a brilliant creative like Jonathan Ive can realize his potential. Apple gets it. And like Ive said so well, the company is focused on making great products that satisfy their own vision. They march to their own drummer, not Wall $treet.

That's something 99.999% of other corporations will never understand.


July 9, 2009 03:15 PM

Excellent content. The heart and soul of Apple revealed in so few words. More companies should aspire to such radical simplicity in their reason for being, and elegance in the design of their products. This sharp focus on what customers truly value is the foundation of deep brand loyalty. Design-led innovation resonates universally with those who "get" it, thus defining the tribe, while building sustained value.


July 9, 2009 08:03 PM

I would just like to add - the decision making people at Apple obviously love their work and want to do a good job. What percentage of workers will list those items at the top of their work place priority list?


July 11, 2009 10:46 AM

Tell that to GM.

Scott Crawford

July 11, 2009 11:58 AM

Thanks so much for sharing. The happy consequences of keeping things in their proper order. As it should be.


July 11, 2009 12:01 PM

The bench is deep, but Steve Jobs is running the team.

Kip Marlowe

July 11, 2009 03:19 PM

If you want to see him speak in more specific terms go to and click on the "Watch the unibody video" halfway down the page. Remarkable insight into what drives him to work every morning.

Does anyone know what company invented unibody design for computers? (I think the technology first appeared in aircraft or automobiles.)


July 11, 2009 03:34 PM

Agree with Brian. This is a Jobs job. Want to duplicate the strategy - fire your CEO and hire a genetic clone of Steve.

max yoshimoto

July 11, 2009 06:23 PM

Heres a post from 2006. Jon presented at Art Centers design conference. The good thing about this business week article is that Jon hasn't changed his line, at least in the last 3 years.


July 12, 2009 01:35 AM

Without sounding disrespectful, Apple fans have known for a long time that Apple is more than Jobs and his mammoth presence, it's the mass media that has yet to grasp the concept.
There's a phlegmatic confidence that Apple people seem to exude, a confidence that others wish they had.

Have you seen the 17" MBP ?? It's obvious that they agonized over every crease.
Try this, get a Dell laptop and a MBP and turn them both over.
The difference is literally palpable. The bottom of the MBP looks nicer than the top of the Dell.


July 12, 2009 04:46 PM

Why do you media people want to get Apple talent exposed so competitors can try to hire them away? Example-Palm. They now have an ex Apple team. Also why again do you media people want Apple employees to teach competitors how to compete with Apple.


July 13, 2009 03:12 AM

I don't think that Apple needs Steve Jobs. What it needs is for everyone at the organisation to remember what Steve stood for. I think the organsiation would run well without him with all the strong leaders it has, but having an ethos that is guided by what Jobs has instilled in the organisation over the past few years is something that will ensure success irrespective of who is running the business.


July 14, 2009 11:14 AM

i think companies (who claim to be so called innovative company) shouldn’t be shy in imitating or copying apple. Apple is one company which has again and again proved the technology world of its superior products that fits the human society like an object which is not alien to the context of society, rather, which creates a wave of culture that packages the human needs(not just aesthetic or beauty).Any comments is welcome

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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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