How Apple's under-the-radar design genius, Jonathan Ive, has found the way to our hearts.
I first catch sight of Jony Ive across the Apple campus, in a plain Dodger-blue T-shirt and white painter's pants, in conversation, nodding. The head Apple designer, who brought you the iMac and the iPad and now, the Apple Watch, has a nearly shaved head and a tightly trimmed beard. He's not tall, not small, and looks as if he might be a formidable rugby opponent—though even from a distance he comes across as open and amenable, less likely to tackle you than to do what he is doing with a colleague at this very moment, which is listening.
Ive has a calming presence, like the Apple campus itself, whose very address, Infinite Loop, lulls you into a sense of Zen-ness. In the courtyard, trays of beautiful food—grass-fed steaks and fresh-made curries and California-born hot sauces—lead Apple employees out toward the open-air seating, away from the white cafeteria that might be described as a luxurious spa for the terminally nerdy. White is the color of choice at Apple HQ as in the Apple product line. It is through this white, with its clarity, its dust-hiding lack of distraction, that you have already met Jonathan Ive.
To the south of the cafeteria is a tiny amphitheater, an emotional site in Apple's history: At the company's 2011 memorial for Steve Jobs, Coldplay took the stage, as did Jony Ive. Ive is notoriously reluctant to give interviews, not to mention speak in public. But on that day he spoke for the man whom he called his dearest friend. For his part, Jobs, when he was alive, referred to Ive as his "spiritual partner."
"I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful," Ive told the assembled mourners, "they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts."
Another thing Jobs understood way back in 1997, the year he returned to the company that had kicked him out a decade earlier, was that Ive—then still in his 20s—was a designer with the background and the psychological tools not just to create the latest, hottest devices but also to orchestrate a team. Like cutting-edge steel, Ive is strong and persistent but flexible, and most crucial (most Jobs-ian, in fact), he is passionate about things, as in things, literally. "So much of my background is about making, physically doing it myself," he says.
In other words, the secret weapon of the most sought-after personal-electronics company in the world is a very nice guy from Northeast London who has a soft spot for woodworking and the sense that designers ought to keep their design talents backstage where they can do the most good. "There's an odd irony here," he observes. "I think our goal is that you would have a sense that it wasn't design."
When you sit down with Ive, he is eager to chat—too eager, maybe, for the Apple time-minders who are always looking around for him—and will take a while to respond to a question, smiling as he says, "This is going to be a kind of oblique answer. . . ." We are talking in a white room, distracted only by a black non-Apple television—itself a signpost to the question, When will Apple make TVs or whatever will replace them? Noticeably, his phone neither rings nor vibrates; he has designed the moment for concentration. He nurses a white mug of tea, and the only thing in the room besides an iPhone is the pair of reading glasses designed by his friend Marc Newson and tucked into the front of his T-shirt: simple, delicate, but clear and strong. "I wish I could articulate this more effectively," he continues, addressing his ambitions as a designer. "But it is to have that sense that you know there couldn't possibly be a sane or rational alternative."
Ive is obsessed over in design blogs, the sites that cover Apple as if it were the Vatican, following leaks and rumors and passing along hijacked photos of components or screens—pitching best guesses as to what Apple is working on next. One blog imagines what it would be like if Jony Ive designed—well, everything: "Jony Ive redesigns . . . freeway signage . . . Coke . . . the solar system." You might spot the occasional photo of him out in the world—at the White House for a design award; in London being knighted, as he was two years ago, by Princess Anne; at a pizza dinner in San Francisco, sitting with Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and various Silicon Valley execs. But one of the very natural settings for the real Jony Ive is a workshop at Apple HQ.
It may be easier to sneak into a North Korean cabinet meeting than into the Apple design studio, the place where a small group of people have all the tools and materials and machinery necessary to develop things that are not yet things. Reportedly Ive's wife, Heather Pegg, has never been—he doesn't even tell her what he's working on—and his twin sons, like all but a few Apple employees, are not allowed in either. Work is conducted behind tinted windows, serenaded by the team's beloved techno music, a must for the boss. "I find that when I write I need things to be quiet, but when I design, I can't bear it if it's quiet," he says. Indeed, the design team is said to have followed an unwritten rule to move away from their work whenever the famously brusque Jobs entered the studio and turn up the volume so as to make his criticisms less audible, less likely to throw them off course.
In 1985, the year Jobs was forced out of Apple, Jony Ive was in design school in England, struggling with computers, blaming himself. "Isn't that curious?" he says now. "Because if you tasted some food that you didn't think tasted right, you would assume that the food was wrong. But for some reason, it's part of the human condition that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us."
Despite that initial obstacle, Ive seems to have been born to understand industrial design. He grew up in Chingford, on the outskirts of London near Epping Forest, a good place for a city kid who liked to play in the trees. His father, Michael Ive, is a silversmith, and his grandfather was an engineer. When Ive was a boy, his father worked with the British government to develop and set the standards for design education. When he made things with his son—a toboggan, say—he would demand that Jony sketch his design before commencing construction. As for the tree house Ive designed back then, guess what? Today he is critical. "I'd do it differently." His eyes light up as he says it, and you fully believe, in that moment, that he would happily drop everything to walk outside and work on it now.
In high school, Ive studied sculpture and chemistry, and in 1985 he enrolled in the design program at Newcastle Polytechnic, where he became known as passionately detail-oriented, creating dozens of models of a hearing aid to be used by deaf children and their teachers. By the time he was out of school and working for a small design consultancy (called, coincidentally, Tangerine), a project he took on for Apple impressed the Cupertino company. They recruited him in 1992.
Five years later, a disenchanted Ive was about to leave when Jobs returned to reboot the then-floundering Apple, which happened, by most analyses, when Jobs enabled Ive. By Ive's account, the two hit it off immediately. "It was literally the meeting showing him what we'd worked on," Ive says, "and we just clicked." Ive talks about feeling a little apart, like Jobs. "When you feel that the way you interpret the world is fairly idiosyncratic, you can feel somewhat ostracized and lonely"—big laugh here—"and I think that we both perceived the world in the same way."
Design critics now look back at the birth of the Jobs-Ive partnership as the dawn of a golden age in product design, when manufacturers began to understand that consumers would pay more for craftsmanship. Together Jobs and Ive centered their work on the notion that computers did not have to look as if they belonged in a room at NASA. The candy-colored iMac—their first smash hit—felt to consumers like a charming friend, revolutionary but approachable, and appealed to both men and women. "I think what we sincerely try to do is create objects and products and ideas that are new and innovative," says Ive, "but at the same time there is a slightly peculiar familiarity to them."
The iMac was followed by laptops in cool brushed titanium, then white laptops. Apple was treating computers and media devices as tools, as more than just wires and RAM shoved in a box; they were not so much minimal devices as devices that coordinate functions. And then came the iPod and the iPhone, an invention like a divining rod, tapping into invisible streams of information.
Throughout, Ive has refined Apple's design process, which, he argues, is almost abstract in its devotion to pure idea: Good design creates the market; ideas are king. And here's the next irony that defines Ive's career: In the clutter of contemporary culture, where hits and likes threaten to overtake content in value, the purity of an idea takes on increasing currency. "I think now more than ever it's important to be clear, to be singular," he says, "and to have a perspective, one you didn't generate as the result of doing a lot of focus groups." Developing concepts and creating prototypes leads to "fascinating conversations" with his team, says Ive. "It's a process I've been practicing for decades, but I still have the same wonder."
For someone whose influence on our lives is so huge, responsible not just for shifting whole economies but for changing the way we interact, Ive is extraordinarily low-profile. "He's a virtually unknown British character who became a central person in the explosion of the Internet," says his friend the Hong Kong–born businessman David Tang. "It's amazing that he's not more widely talked about." On the Silicon Valley social circuit, he's an anomaly. "The technology industry tends to feature people with big personalities who like to talk about their achievements," says Trevor Traina, a fifth-generation San Franciscan entrepreneur who is a friend and neighbor of the Ives. "Jony is humble and private, and he doesn't wear his achievements on his sleeve."
Ive lives in the Pacific Heights neighborhood with his wife and sons. "Heather is a writer," he says. "She's a creative too. We met at high school. I got married when I was 21, and I'm 47. Married a long time. Isn't it cool?" Their house, bought two years ago for $17 million, is by the storied architectural firm Polk & Co.—Willis Polk oversaw the design of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, which opened in 1915.
Like his own father, Ive seems adamant about intention at home. "My boys are ten, and I like spending time with them doing stuff that I did, which is drawing and making things—real things, not virtual things," he says. Easygoing Ive morphs into Serious Ive on this point: He sees design schools failing their students by moving away from a foundation in traditional skills. "I think it's important that we learn how to draw and to make something and to do it directly," he says, "to understand the properties you're working with by manipulating them and transforming them yourself."
Perhaps it is this drive to understand design with his own hands that keeps Ive grounded. "He's not distracted by any veneer of glamour," says Tang, who remarks on his friend's thoughtfulness. On a recent birthday, Tang received two finely crafted wooden boxes containing large, engraved, Ive-designed ashtrays—Tang loves cigars—constructed from the next-generation iPhone material. "It was like getting the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey," Tang says. Ive likes nothing better than to come up with mischievously inventive ways to use the technology at his fingertips. When a presenter from Blue Peter—Britain's longest-running children's TV show, known for encouraging kids to craft utilitarian designs from household objects—came to present him with its highest honor, a gold Blue Peter badge depicting a ship in full sail, Ive was delighted. In repayment, he fired up a Mikron HSM 600U, a computer-controlled machine that can cut up a chunk of aluminum like an origami flower, and in a mere ten hours created a Blue Peter badge that looked a lot like a not-so-distant cousin of the MacBook Air.
His attention to detail is famous among his friends. Traina likes to joke with him that he couldn't imagine being Ive's contractor, since nothing would escape his notice. "One time I showed him a 1920s Cartier crystal, platinum, and diamond pocket watch that had been my father's," Traina recalls. "He took a quick look and later referred to the way the crystal was beveled, something I didn't even remember."
Ive's personal design tastes include the Castiglionis' Snoopy lamp and "another Castiglioni that's a parabolic glass that sits quite low." He likes his suits custom-made by British tailor Thomas Mahon, and might show up in one on the charity circuit—at the Mid-Winter Gala, for instance, at a table with Marissa Mayer and Alexis and Trevor Traina; the Ives also cochaired the benefit for Tipping Point Community, an anti-poverty group in San Francisco. Ive commutes what used to be 45 minutes and can now be an hour and a half, no matter whether he is driving an Aston Martin or a Bentley or a Land Rover, a fleet of cars that the British press watches like Apple's stock price. He takes a vacation once in a while, often in London, setting up in a suite at Claridge's while his family visits with the family of Marc Newson, the Australian designer who has remade everything from cars to furniture to restaurants to first-class lounges for Qantas.
When he and Newson relax, they do so by attempting to switch work off—tough to do when you design the world—though designers out for a drink will inevitably allow the poorly designed world to seep in. "Shit we hate," says Newson, includes American cars. "It's as if a giant stuck his straw in the exhaust pipe and inflated them," he adds, "when you look at the beautiful proportions in other cars that have been lost." The two also relax working, as they did recently on behalf of their mutual friend Bono, whose recent auction of Ive- and Newson-curated goods raised $13 million for (Red), Bono's charity to stop AIDS. The list included Ettore Sottsass's Olivetti typewriter; a Dieter Rams hi-fi (Rams himself showed up at New York's Sotheby's that Saturday night last fall); an Airstream trailer; and a Leica that Newson and Ive lovingly tweaked together. "We didn't even have to vocalize our pet hates, we were so in tune," Newson says. "We only have to look at the object and look at each other and our eyes roll." It's a collaboration that is now a lock, apparently, since Apple recently announced that Newson would join Ive's design team to work on special projects.
"They're a bit like non-identical twins separated at birth," jokes Bono. They finish each other's sentences. "They finish each other's food," adds Bono. "The kind of emotional and physical attraction people develop with Apple products shouldn't really be possible, but take a look around you." Friends marvel as Ive shifts from the guy cracking jokes to the solemn Sir Jonathan Ive. "Jony is deadly serious," says Bono, who first met Ive when Jobs dispatched him to an Irish pub to salvage a U2–Apple iPod promotion. "He is also serious fun to be around. When you go out for a pint with Jony, it's kind of like going for a pint with the future, which is cool except you know he's not telling you what they've really got planned."
Feels nice, doesn't it?" On my second visit to Cupertino, Ive has finally handed it over: the new Apple Watch. It is more watch than the computer geeks would ever have imagined, has more embedded software than in a Rolex wearer's wildest dreams. When Ive shows it to me—weeks before the product's exhaustive launch, hosted by new CEO Tim Cook—in a situation room that has us surrounded by guards, it feels like a matter of national security. Yet despite all the pressure, he really just wants you to touch it, to feel it, to experience it as a thing. And if you comment on, say, the weight of it, he nods. "Because it's real materials," he says proudly. Then he wants you to feel the connections, the magnets in the strap, the buckle, to witness the soft but solid snap, which he just loves as an interaction with design, a pure, tactile idea. "Isn't that fantastic?"
At the beginning of our sitdown, he is slightly flustered at the attempt to condense all that went into the device into a single conversation. "It's strange when you've been working on something for three years . . ." he says, shaking his head. He describes the trajectory of clocks to watches: from a public clock in a Bavarian square to timepieces owned by royalty, to military chronometers, to the watch's arrival, only at the beginning of the twentieth century, on the wrist. "It's fascinating how people struggled with wearing this incredibly powerful technology personally." The cell phone, of course, killed the watch to some extent. Now he wants to reset the balance.
The Apple Watch is designed in three collections, with myriad variations, from elegantly luxurious to a brightly colored sporty version. On the back, LEDs emit light through sapphire-crystal windows, and photodiodes convert that light into a signal that algorithms use to calculate your heart rate. Got that? All of this syncs with your iPhone, making the watch the wrist-bound control tower of your life in tech. Monitor your heart rate or your movement in general. Tap to have Siri take a message, or send a voice reply. Pay for drinks with your wrist (Apple Pay will be, yes, Apple Watch–compatible). With this product, Apple is moving from your desk and your pocket onto your person, your pulse point.
The watch underscores the fact that Ive is first and foremost a masterly product designer; technology almost comes second. It's a beautiful object, a device you might like even if you don't like devices. "Everything we've been trying to do," he says, "it's that pursuit of the very pure and very simple."
Aside from all the ways the watch connects to your phone, Ive is very interested in how the watch can connect to another human. "You know how very often technology tends to inhibit rather than enable more nuanced, subtle communication?" he asks. This is the question that haunts the son of a craftsman: Is he making tools that improve the world or shut people down? "We spent a lot of time working on this special mechanism inside, combined with the built-in speaker" —he demonstrates on his wrist. You can select a chosen person, also wearing the watch, and transmit your pulse to them. "You feel this very gentle tap," he says, "and you can feel my heartbeat. This is a very big deal, I think. It's being able to communicate in a very gentle way."
Whether it is ultimately judged to be a big deal or another distraction remains to be seen. Either way, Ive eventually leaves the guarded room with his secrets intact for a few more weeks, passing through the bright white corridors decorated with long views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and a poster-like portrait of Steve Jobs holding up a Mac during one of his famous hard sells—the trademark bold product introduction, the late CEO's big loud pitch.
As you watch Ive walk off, politely thanking people, you recall that he closed up his private presentation by asking you to listen closely to a watchband as it is pulled off and then reconnected. "You just press this button and it slides off, and that is just gorgeous," he was saying. He encouraged you to pause. "But listen as it closes," he said. "It makes this fantastic k-chit." He was nearly whispering. And when he said the word fantastic, he said it softly and slowly—"fan-tas-tic!"—as if he never wanted it to end. This is perhaps Ive's greatest achievement: not that we can get our email more readily, but that we can stop to notice a small, quiet connection.