The Most Creative People

December 16, 2009


Ten years ago, before the iPod and the iPhone became objects of the world’s electro-lust, Jonathan Ive sat down with Fast Company to talk about his first Apple blockbuster, the iMac. The machine could not have been a more radical departure from the ubiquitous beige-box PC: a desktop computer in bright candy colors with a see-through shell showing its inner machinery. Bursting onto the scene with all the subtlety of a streaker, the iMac became the top-selling computer in the United States.

“With technology, the function is much more abstract to users,” Ive, then 32, told us. “So the product’s meaning is almost entirely defined by the designer.” Even then, it was clear that Apple’s head of design knew what he was doing. Ive defined his overarching design principles as “simplicity, accessibility, honesty, and enjoyment.”

Today, Apple represents the most successful and faithful marriage of business and design, as $32 billion in sales last year attest. And Ive — with an assist, of course, from CEO Steve Jobs — has been the company’s lodestar in its journey to global trendsetter. Apple is notoriously secretive about its design process (even most Apple employees are barred from the company’s design lab); given the uncertainty around Jobs’s health, it’s not surprising that Ive was not made available for an interview. But no one is in a better position to explain Ive’s impact on Apple and the business community than Robert Brunner, who, as Apple’s previous design chief, hired Ive at the company and recommended him as his successor.

“He likes to make perfect stuff,” says Brunner, offering the first of three keys to Ive’s success. That design perfection — the first touch-screen smartphone, the dominant MP3 player, the first titanium laptop — has become the benchmark by which companies in all industries judge themselves. “I’ve even had a plumbing company say, ‘We want our showerhead to be our version of the iPod,’ ” says Brunner, now a partner at the design firm Ammunition. “Ive has this design ability combined with a craftsmanlike mentality.”

The second key is Ive’s understanding of the interplay between design and manufacturing. Even when Ive was just out of school, before he joined Apple, Brunner recalls, “he showed us his work, and I was amazed. He had taken a phone and come up with a radical design, but it was so refined it could have been manufactured right then.” At Apple, Ive has taken those insights one step further. Consider the new MacBook, which is carved from a single piece of aluminum and demands aeronautics-caliber precision. “[Apple] had to reinvent its factories to make it,” Brunner explains. “It’s mind-boggling.” While most companies create designs that can be manufactured with existing equipment and processes, Ive and his team meet the problem halfway, often overhauling manufacturing to get “perfect” products built on a mass scale.

Finally, Ive has had support from the top — something designers at many firms struggle for. “You need a CEO who gets it,” Brunner says. “Something like the iPod is a melding of design and user experience and marketing and pop culture, and you don’t achieve that without coordination throughout the company.”

After studying design at Newcastle Polytechnic in his native U.K., Ive cofounded an indie firm called Tangerine Design, where he applied himself to hair combs, power tools, and toilets. He eventually signed on as a design lead in Apple’s creative studio. When the young Brit succeeded Brunner in 1996, he was just 29.

It was a heady job at a time of crisis. Apple was on the verge of collapse. When Jobs returned the following year to rescue the company he had cofounded, he vowed on his second day that industrial design would be essential to survival. As Jobs soon discovered, Ive shared that vision — and had the skills to execute it. The iMac was a sign of things to come.

“We feel that we’re just getting going,” Ive told us a decade ago. He couldn’t have been more right. — by Chuck Salter


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