Book Review: Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products

Published Mar 2, 2018

Book cover: Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest ProductsGrowing up in a sleepy hamlet in the North of England, the only son of a passionate design professor and progressive activist in design education, you might expect Jonathan Ive to go on to make his own mark in the same field. But the mark that Jony Ive would make as chief designer at Apple, to strike a Jobsian tone, would be more like a small dent in the universe.

Perhaps no other work is as useful for understanding what makes Apple Apple as Leander Kahney’s Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products (Portfolio, 2013). Personally, I’ve devoured pretty much the entire catalog of memoirs, biographies and exposes on the phenomenon of Apple and the cult of personality of ousted co-founder/eventual savior, Steve Jobs. This is the very best of the bunch, particularly if you’re more interested in product and design than the sort of gossipy corporate intrigue that’s so common to this particular genre. For example, the average pulp from this catalog is unlikely to pause to consider topics like:

Parallel design investigations:

“The idea was to develop new form factors, new levels of expression and strategies for handling new technology without the pressure of a deadline.”

Or prototyping:

“… when you make an 3D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes–the entire process shifts. It galvanizes and brings focus to a broad group of people.”

Or Apple’s NPD process:

“It’s a very well-defined process, but it’s not onerous or bureaucratic. It allowed everyone to be more creative where it mattered, not less.”

Or the blending of design and manufacturing:

“Apple designers spend ten percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming. They spend 90 percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.”

And the blurring of hardware and software:

Jony and his design team will continue to improve the hardware, but the changes are likely to be incremental, not fundamental … These days, the design frontier is software, not hardware.”

Born that way

Ive was something of a design prodigy in his early years, the sort of kid who took things apart just to understand how they worked. Driven in no small part by his father’s example and earnest encouragement, you could see the obsessive qualities in his earliest efforts, where he distinguished himself as a precocious and determined young designer who would spin on his ideas until they were crafted to perfection–and would obsess, not about decoration and adornment, but the way parts fit together and how they functioned to serve a user need.

From an early age, he was driven by a desire to simplify, to strip away extraneous functions or any design for its own sake. Jony would later say that his ultimate goal is for his designs to disappear. “It’s a very strange thing for a designer to say,” he said. “But one of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.”

Kahney points out that this philosophy of simplification is “design 101,” a principle taught in virtually every design program. But few designers apply it with such singular determination. Kahney says: “ … if there’s such a thing as a single secret to what Jony Ive does, it is to follow slavishly the simplification philosophy.”

This almost pathological desire to simplify would show up in his now legendary work at Apple, where he led the design team responsible for breakthrough products like iMac, PowerBook, iPhone, iPad and the Apple Watch–pretty much all of the new products following Jobs’ fortuitous return in 1996. This sensibility would also form the basis of one of the most productive design partnerships in history.

Jony and Jobs

Simon had Garfunkel. Lennon had McCartney. Ben had Jerry. Like the personalities in these famous creative partnerships, Jony and Jobs were hardly cut from the same cloth. In fact, Steve Jobs was Ive’s perfect counterpoint. Ive was an introvert, Jobs an extrovert. Ive was mild mannered, Jobs famously mercurial. But, like these other legendary collaborations, Jony and Jobs shared a certain aesthetic, sensibility and vision that made them perfect collaborators.

In addition to their shared compulsion to strip away adornment–a mantra described throughout as “simplify, remove and reduce”–Jony and Jobs were also driven by a shared desire to surprise and delight users. This shows up in the seemingly smallest design decisions that Kahney chronicles in his book. For example, the decision to have the iBook magically awaken as the lid was lifted, a convention that seems almost ordinary today, but was anything but at the time.

Or the latch on the PowerBook that automatically descended just as the lid was closed, prompting users to try to catch it in the act, much like the child investigating the mystery of the refrigerator light.

Or the variable-rate clutch that Jony devised to deliver less resistance in the near-closed position, which allowed the lid to be opened with one hand without lifting the laptop off the desk.

Or the choice to make the iPhone completely unbranded, allowing the product experience to stand for itself as the luminescent display appears from behind an infinity pool of glass.

Or the precision laser drilling of holes to paper-thin tolerances to allow light to shine through, as if by magic, from beneath the aluminum casing. Here, drilling straight through and dropping in an LED would have been the easier, more obvious and, in the end, the less delightful choice.

These are the sort of decisions, Kahney rightly suggests, that make good products great.

Jony and Jobs were also unafraid to defy convention, even in the face of user resistance. In discussing the iPod, Kahney says: “To the consternation of a lot of users and reviewers, at least at first, an on-off button was omitted. The idea of pressing any button to turn the device on–and then to have it turn off after a period of inactivity–was a stroke of minimalist genius.”

It takes a conviction to a higher design purpose to sacrifice shorter term pain for the promise of longer-term gain. That’s why Jony and Jobs famously ignored explicit customer feedback–focus groups, for example. Unverified urban legend has it that Henry Ford once said that if he had asked customers what they wanted they would have told him faster horses. True or not, the point is clear: customers are rarely visionary. They’re more likely to see the world through the lens of convention. This made them bad design partners for innovators like Jony and Jobs.

Shaping a culture

These bold decisions and brilliant design choices culminated in a change greater than the sum of its parts. In refocusing product design not on feeds and speeds, but on the human elements of the product experience, Jony and Jobs didn’t just transform Apple; they transformed culture.

Ive once said that “… there is a widespread conception that stuff is too complicated and divorced from human concerns. All the attributes that are emotive have been ignored. It’s about time that changed.”

The standards they set in their brilliant product designs, once breakthrough, are now the prevailing expectation of all products, across virtually every category. This means, as product designers and innovators, we need to take a page from their book, looking beyond good-enough. It also means that innovators like Apple need to seek their next disruption. That’s Jony’s latest challenge–and one that he faces alone following the untimely death of his close friend, mentor, and collaborator.

If you’re looking for a juicy account of scandal, intrigue and corporate contretemps, this probably isn’t the book for you. Kahney leaves the gossip for the potboilers (with the conspicuous exception of the reported fact that Jobs often took credit for Jony’s ideas). His portrayal of Ive is hardly controversial. In Ive we get to know a designers’ designer, an earnest, soft-spoken genius happy enough to leave the business bits–and often the credit–to others. This singular devotion to the craft is what makes good products great–and great designers like Jony Ive legendary.