The new products just revealed by Apple at a special event in Brooklyn this week have several things in common. But most notable is the input of Apple’s Chief of Design, Sir Jonathan Ive, universally referred to as Jony.
He is involved in new products across Apple, including radical upgrades of favourites such as the MacBook Air and the iPad Pro.
Ive has been at Apple since 1992 and his keen eye has been part of the iMac, the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. He has just been awarded the 2018 Professor Hawking Fellowship because of what the committee felt included a “remarkable role in championing elegant and innovative design”. He’ll deliver the Professor Hawking Lecture in Cambridge later this month.
I caught up with him soon after the excitement of the product launch event.
Throughout our interview, Ive shows a humility that puts him as part of a team at Apple. Like his boss, Apple CEO Tim Cook, he thinks deeply about each reply. The rhythm of each answer begins slow, a careful start that builds to a solid, imaginative thesis of firm beliefs. It is powerful to listen to.
He has just revealed the brand new iPad: a radical re-design that does away with some of the product’s most familiar features, such as the home button. So I begin by asking him whether he feels a special responsibility when a well-loved and commercially successful product is being changed drastically.
“I think your responsibility actually goes further back than that,” he says. “It starts with the determination not to fall into the trap of just making things different. Because when a product has been highly regarded there is often a desire from people to see it redesigned. I think one of the most important things is that you change something not to make it different but to make it better.
“If you are making changes that are in the service of making something better, then you don’t need to convince people to fall in love with it again. Our sense of habit and familiarity with something is so developed, there is always that initial reaction that is more of a comment on something being different rather than necessarily better or worse. In my experience, if we try very hard to make material improvements, people quickly recognise those and make the sort of connection they had before with the product.”
When it was first launched in 2010, the iPad was described as a magical product. How hard is it to create elements which people consider to be magical – do they come through painstaking work, or eureka moments?
“Oh dear, I loathe the thought of being predictable, but it’s a combination. Some of these capabilities and features are enabled by extraordinary technology that takes so many years to develop, so those are decisions that we’ve made often many years in advance. Face ID, for instance, is such a remarkably complex and sophisticated set of technologies, it’s not just one that was developed to a singular goal.”
Ive pauses to consider what makes something appear magical. “I think what puts a product in the place where it’s described as magical is often about those attributes which are less easy to describe. You can’t quite put your finger on what it is.
“So, in the new iPad Pro, one of the things we’ve been wanting to get to for a long time is a sense that the product is not oriented in a primary and then, therefore, in a secondary way.
“The first iPad had a very clear orientation which was portrait. It had the ability to be used in landscape, I think very well, but it was pretty clear how the product was designed. And I think with the first iPad you had the sense that it was a product made up of distinct and somewhat separate components.
“What I think marks the new iPad Pro as particularly special is it doesn’t have an orientation. It has speakers all the way around the perimeter. By getting rid of the Home Button and developing Face ID, the tablet is able to work in all of these different orientations.”
One of the other changes on the newly announced iPad Pro comes in a detail at the very corners of the screen. It is the kind of change you might not spot – but which can fundamentally change your experience of the product.
“Traditional displays are absolutely rectilinear so when you get to the corners they are essentially square,” he says. “Now, what I’ve always found disappointing is the way that the display is a distinct and discrete component with square corners, assembled into a design that seldom has a square corner.
“If you look at the iPad Pro, though, you can see how the radius, the curve in the corner of the display, is concentric with and sympathetic to the actual enclosure. You feel it’s authentic, and you have the sense that it’s not an assembly of a whole bag of different components: it’s a single, clear product.
“Many of us wouldn’t consciously say ‘this is the reason I’m fond of this’ but I do think as a species we are capable of sensing much more than we are capable of articulating. I think the new iPad Pro is something so singular and integrated that it appears different from 99 per cent of other complex technology products.”
Apple products are known for a purity of design, a simplicity and avoidance of clutter. The new iPad Pro tricks you into thinking that it’s just a screen, in which you can become immersed, but making something appear that simple is anything but, Ive says.
“That is the most difficult thing to do. These are such complex products. They’re complex just in terms of their conception and then when you get into the implementation, I think what we’re most proud of is all those things which by rights should be there but they’re not. It’s an odd thing when you’re most proud of those things which aren’t there.”
On the iPad Pro, Ive says he’s thinking about the tablet’s edge, which is now flat where on previous iPads it’s been curved. “We managed to change the form so that the section at the edge has a simple vertical face instead of a curved edge. The reason we could do that was the product had reached the point where the fabulous engineering teams have been able to make it so very thin that it meant we could have a very simple straightforward edge detail. We couldn’t have done that before when the products weren’t as thin as this.”
This has an effect on the way the iPad Pro’s accessories are integrated. These include a sumptuously usable keyboard cover and a stylus, called the Apple Pencil.
“The Pencil functions in a number of ways. The writing and drawing are extraordinary but the way it is carried with the product and the way it charges are also important.”
The new Pencil feels very natural in the hand and has one flat side which provides a neat way of carrying it with the tablet: when you hold it near the side of the tablet, it practically jumps out of your hand to sit precisely in place thanks to hidden magnets. As it connects, it pairs with the iPad and a message appears on screen to show that it’s charging (wirelessly, no less).
Ive picks up on the neatness of this: “I think the way it just snaps onto the side, well, that’s a nice example of a sort of that magical feeling. It’s unexpected, we don’t quite understand how it’s working and even more incomprehensible is the fact that it’s also charging. You can see how that’s aligned with this idea that you can just pick the product up and use it without thought.
“Actually, you’re using it with tremendous thought, but it’s based on what you want to be doing rather than wondering if you’re holding the tablet the right way up.”
The new Pencil is a clear improvement and is a surprise. When you see it, you realise it’s the Pencil you wanted all along. Is this sense of a product we didn’t even know we wanted until Apple shows it to us it part of Ive’s task?
“I think that is a huge part, a fundamental part, of my job. When you’re talking about the future, and as a designer that’s where my head is, then it’s extremely rare that I feel that I’m working in response to an articulated problem.
“I could count the occasions that I’ve done that in the last 25 years on the fingers of one hand. It’s extremely rare that what we do is a response to somebody articulating a problem. By definition, you didn’t know it was a problem until you were aware of a better way of doing it. The tremendous challenge here is that when you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, so many things convince you that, of course, that’s the best way of doing it, not least habit.
“When you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, the very idea that there could be a better way of doing it, can seem almost sacrilegious. It can seem extremely unlikely, so what you have to do is work by taking a leap of faith. That faith is based on the thought, ‘I’ve been here many times before and many times before we have found a better way of doing this’. And you just have to believe that’s the case and you keep on.
“Sometimes, the vast majority of times, we are able to find a better way of solving a problem.”
The Apple keynote event on Tuesday included one moment which drew an audience reaction bigger than anything else. It wasn’t a new product as such, it was the announcement that the new MacBook Air was being made entirely from recycled aluminium. When I mention this, Ive also becomes animated.
“This fits with what we’re just talking about, new ways to solve problems.
“We have a team of material scientists that we work very closely with. The materials we use are extremely important to us for many different reasons. We are constantly trying to find better alloys and material types to design with. Aluminium has remained a primary material we’ve used because it is so utterly, utterly compelling.
“We have found it hard to find a better material. I measure that in lots of different ways, but we’ve refined the particular alloy that we use and changed the ways we can process and machine the material. This was a wonderful example of how we can solve problems, not to be different in an artificial way but to be genuinely better.
“We have stayed focused on aluminium because it’s such an amazing material, and a team-wide effort has figured out a way to develop a material so that we can use 100 per cent recycled aluminium. We all think this is as big as the reaction at the keynote suggested. I was surprised by the reaction, but very happily so.”
We’ve gone way over our allotted interview time. Perhaps Ive is too polite to have stopped me (well, he is British, after all). But he’s also sharply engaged with his subject, from the minutiae to the big picture. “I could talk about this one topic all day,” he says, returning to the new aluminium alloy. It’s this passion, edged with reason, which has made him the product designer of our age.