Jony Ive’s departure came out of left field earlier this week. It definitely caught me off guard, as I was buried in work and unable to take time to write anything about it beyond a few Tweets. While I didn’t find the news itself particularly surprising, the timing of it was. There weren’t any rumors or leaks leading up to the it, which is interesting considering how many tech reporters have sources inside the company. They did a great job of keeping this under wraps and controlling the narrative.
I guess that element of surprise is a big reason why there have been so many extreme reactions to the news. Some tech writers are lamenting that Apple is doomed because Ive is gone and could even shop his services to competitors through his new LoveFrom design firm. Others have taken the opposite approach of bashing Ive as overrated because of more recent issues with some Apple products, completely forgetting about the unprecedented string of successes he and his team had from the late 90s to the late 2000s.
After a few days, here is what I think about Jony Ive leaving Apple:
The extreme reactions to Ive’s departure are kind of ridiculous. This news may have been a surprise to us, but I can guarantee you that it wasn’t to Tim Cook and the executive team at Apple. They had a plan and already had the executive reorganization worked out, with the design team now under the leadership of Jeff Williams in Operations. More on this in a bit.
The thing is, this move may cause problems for Apple. It may also present an opportunity for positive change and some new and fresh design ideas to come to the fore. The fact is, there is absolutely no way to know how these changes will work out right now. As such, there really isn’t any point to all of the hand-wringing and extreme viewpoints. Some time will have to pass before we really get an idea of how things may be changing, if they do at all. For now, let’s just appreciate the success that Jony Ive had at Apple, recognize that he and his team weren’t perfect, and just let the man move on and enjoy the next phase of his professional life.
Don’t be shortsighted
I’ve seen a lot of negative comments made about Jony Ive in recent days based on more recent products at Apple. I will be the first to say the man isn’t perfect. Even though we don’t know how involved he has been in some more questionable design decisions like the Butterfly Keyboard and the previous Mac Pro, he was still the person in charge of everyone in industrial design at Apple. I get that.
However, to dismiss a man who has quite literally designed a string of the most influential products in the history of consumer electronics because of a few recent hiccups is beyond ridiculous. The shortsightedness of the tech press and the tech industry is really something. I’m not even going to bother listing off all of Ive’s grand successes of the past, but just look as recently as the Apple Watch and the newer iPhone X for examples that he can still deliver the goods. That doesn’t mean he gets a free pass for some more recent missteps, but it also means that it’s ridiculous to say that Apple is better off without him or that he’s lost it.
If you didn’t see this coming, you weren’t paying attention
As I said at the outset, the only thing about Ive’s departure from Apple that surprised me was the lack of rumors leading up to it. I have expected this for a while now because of the recent trail of breadcrumbs. First off, look at what we know about things Ive has been working on the last few years.
Other than the release of the first Apple Watch in 2015, it’s been a string of things not related to actual Apple products. He started taking a hand in software design with iOS 7 in 2013, which was a huge departure from preceding versions. He also designed a Leica camera for a charity auction the same year. Then it was Apple Park until it recently opened. He was working on the redesign of Apple Retail stores. There was a Christmas Tree for the Claridge hotel in the UK.
More recently, there was a huge stage that he designed for the grand opening of Apple Park.
After a couple of decades of designing all of Apple’s hit products, it seems that Jony Ive was doing anything he could to do something else within the confines of the company. I think the freedom that he was afforded in other areas is a testament to how highly he is regarded by Tim Cook and others at Apple. They likely held onto him as long as they did by giving him that latitude. However, there is only so much he can do outside the bound of the tech industry without leaving the company. After his long tenure at Apple and his obvious interests in design outside of the tech world, this seem like the natural next step for him.
The real news comes later
The real news related to Jony Ive’s departure isn’t the departure itself, but what comes after. As I said before, it is impossible to predict how that will work out right now because there are so many unknown variables involved. First off, we really don’t know how involved Ive has been in the day-to-day design of products and software for Apple for the last four years. As big a project as Apple Park was, it may have consumed most of his time. It is entirely possible that others under Ive have been carrying the load of product development for a few years, with him acting in a purely executive role. If that is the case, then this transition may have already taken place in the background.
The other major variable is how design is looked at within Apple now and going forward. One of Steve Jobs’ biggest contributions to the company was the elevation of product design to the executive level. He made sure that design was equal to engineering in product development and that both were placed in a role above marketing and operations when it came to how they were delivered and built. Operations and marketing served the product, rather than making the product compromise to fit their needs. The product, its capabilities and how the customer would feel about it came first, and that was such a huge shift in the tech industry. This principle fed all of the success that Apple has had over the last 25 years.
The elevated position of product design did not change after Steve Jobs left the company and then passed away soon after. When he first fell ill and returned to Apple after a liver transplant, he set things up so they wouldn’t change. He groomed an executive team to follow him and most of them have stayed in place since. He made sure that Jony Ive’s position and importance were cemented and that the others around him wouldn’t mess with that winning formulae.
Some would argue that the elevation of design at Apple has actually been pushed too far under Tim Cook, to the detriment of some products. There are a few obvious examples that come to mind, like the Butterfly Keyboard and the “trashcan” Mac Pro. I have personally been critical of Apple’s relentless pursuit of thinness above all else in mobile devices. It now comes before battery life, keyboard design and even device stability. Several issues, from poorly performing keyboards to bending devices, can be traced back to this mindset. Maybe some new blood and a little pushback against that will do Apple products some good.
Steve Jobs had that gift of saying no when it mattered, which was a needed counterbalance to the potential for design excess. Tim Cook is not the same type of leader and there isn’t anyone obviously filling that role at Apple right now. It could be argued that pulling back on the reigns and restoring more of a balance between design and engineering in product development could be a good thing. Right now, it feels like engineering is forced to follow product design, rather than each informing the other.
The biggest unknown is how much the relationship between design and product development may change with Ive’s departure. While it is true that Apple’s lead designers, vice president of human interface design Alan Dye and vice president of industrial design Evans Hankey, will now be placed under the COO, that doesn’t necessarily mean that sweeping changes are coming. Jeff Williams has been with Apple for over 20 years and has played a role in the development of several of its key products, such as the iPod and iPhone. It is highly likely that he understands the importance of design to the success of Apple products. We can’t just assume that he is about to push design to the back of the line, as some fear.
What do we know right now? That we don’t know.
All that said, we really don’t know how this will all shake out. We know that Jony Ive’s new LoveFrom venture is supposed to be working with Apple on projects going forward. Ok, but how will that work? Is he heading up new projects? That is possible, but I have a feeling that he will just be helping to finish up and close out coming products he was already involved in. This would include Apple’s coming AR Glasses and whatever they might be doing in the automotive space, among other things. I think assuming anything past that would be a reach, but again, we just don’t know and may not for a while.
We also don’t know how the role of design may change within Apple. While it may still be considered of the utmost importance, it can be difficult to replace the influence of a singular figure. We saw this with Steve Jobs. Apple has a great executive team in place and they have pushed the company to new heights, but a team can’t replace someone like Steve Jobs. Likewise, a team of designers likely can’t replace a singular talent like Jony Ive.
That said, don’t worry about Apple not having or being able to attract the design talent to succeed going forward. This isn’t cloud services or AI and machine learning that we are talking about. Apple has had an uphill battle there as they try to change the perception that they can’t cut it in those areas. Apple doesn’t have that problem when it comes to design. They can recruit with the best of the best because they still have a stellar reputation when it comes to industrial design.
What remains to be seen is if the executive team can make the right changes moving to move forward without any drop off in product design. I don’t always agree with Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn of The Verge, but they made a really good point on the latest episode of The Vergecast Podcast. While Apple is still a leading design company, Ive’s direction did become very “austere” in recent years, according to Bohn. And it does feel like function became subservient to form in some cases. They lost the playfulness and sense of fun that came with Ive’s earlier products like the iMac and iBook. I can’t say that I disagree with any of that.
I think that austerity can be beautiful, but it has been pushed to more of an extreme in recent years. That approach has probably reach its logical conclusion and this feels like the right time for an inflection point. I agree with Patel and Bohn that it would be good to see a little bit of fun and flash re-injected into Apple products. I also think a little fresh air delivered the right way would be well-received by the public. However, anytime a formulae is tinkered with, unintended consequences can arise. Because of that, I’m sure Apple’s executives will be cautious about making changes going forward.
So, I think it’s a waste of time worrying or prophesying about what will happen with design and its role within Apple. Things will change. I think that’s inevitable with the departure of someone like Jony Ive. This isn’t the next reason that “APPLE IS DOOMED!!!” Apple has too solid of a foundation in design for that. It also isn’t addition by subtraction, and anyone who says that and dismisses all of Ive’s success because of a few more recent problems is a fool. We really don’t know how his departure will affect the company going forward, for good or bad. I just know this- as long as Apple continues to make great design one of its top priorities when it comes to product development, they should make it though this transition just fine. They certainly have the right foundation for success, much of which was laid by Jon Ive.