Jonathan Ive – Principles of Apple’s Innovation Guru

Jonathan Ive joined Apple in 1992. He has gone on to be the inspiration, catalyst and driver behind products that have revolutionized technology, industry sectors and consumers’ lives across the world. He was the innovator and obsessive problem-solver to the visionary perfectionist that was Steve Jobs. This symbiosis re-built and re-defined Apple to become the world’s second largest company within 40 years, establishing a phenomenon in business, design and creativity worshiped by millions.

A hallmark of Ive’s success is his aversion to publicity and self-promotion; he let’s Apple’s products speak for themselves. He rarely gives interviews, and when he does he tends to extoll the principles of the design process, rather than providing insights into himself, Apple or Jobs. What you are able to glean, however, are a clear set of behaviours and guiding principles which, as applied by Ive, his Design Team, and Apple as a business, sets them apart:

1. Have a Thirst for Knowledge and Understanding

Ive endlessly seeks knowledge and understanding of his craft, often going to extreme lengths to gain insights and learnings that will aid in the solving of a specific problem or to facilitate a new innovation. He and his team are renowned experts not only in the nuances of design, but also significantly in the use of materials and overall production processes. “He was a consummate designer on all levels, especially around form, detail, materials and refinement and how that extends into manufacturing,” recalls Robert Brunner, Apple’s former Chief of Industrial Design [i]. Rather than being merely stylists, Apple’s designers, are leading innovators in the use of new materials and production processes; so much so that Asian suppliers prefer to work with them, despite the fact that Apple is a hard negotiator on cost. Ive has a Zen-like obsession with materials, with pushing design and manufacturing to get to what he calls the ‘local maximum’. He once made a trip to Japan to meet a leading craftsman of samurai swords in order to garner understanding of the principles behind how they use metal and the extremities of what this material can do; this knowledge consequently enabled him to design the world’s thinnest and most durable computers moulded from aluminium and titanium, rather than the traditional plastic.

2. Keep the Focus

The Apple Design Team are disciplined in focusing on only what’s important and limiting the number of projects that they work on. This allows them the time, space and attention to re-visit products again and again, iterating and refining design elements to reach higher planes of creativity and innovation. This clarity of focus enables the team to go to extreme lengths to solve the most intricate of problems, appreciating that the smallest component is part of a wider system leading to the holistic product experience.

3. Obsess About the Details

Ive could be defined by his devotion to detail. As he acknowledges, “…that fanatical attention to detail and coming across a problem and being determined to solve it is critically important – that defines your minute by minute, day by day experience.”[ii] He will obsess on solving a tiny issue, being unwilling to compromise in his quest to create a more fundamental product. This process can take months, but what sets Apple’s products apart is the ultimate impression that results from thousands of tiny decisions that go into the design and development. “The decisive factor is fanatical care beyond the obvious stuff; the obsessive attention to details that are often overlooked.”[iii] For instance, when Steve Jobs dictated that he didn’t want any visible screwheads, Ive’s knowledge of materials and engineering enabled him to come up with a solution: using magnets to hold components together. With an Ive product it is impossible to say where the engineering ends and the ‘design’ begins.

4. Look to be Wrong

Ive makes a big deal out of having inquisitiveness and an “interest in being wrong,” as he puts it. “One of the hallmarks of the team I think is this sense of looking to be wrong. It’s the inquisitiveness, the sense of exploration. It’s about being excited to be wrong, because then you’ve discovered something new.”[iv] He works by a process of evolution, and sees ‘failures’ as merely learnings along an overall path. An Apple senior executive commented, “The creations they were working on were all over the map, crazy stuff. It was always very experimental, material that the world is not quite ready for.”[i] It’s an attitude to try out and explore new ideas without the fear of failure, a powerful combination of curiousness and optimism. Together these lead to invention.

5. Iterate and Reduce

Apple’s defining qualities are about use: ease and simplicity. “Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object.”[ii] Simplicity to Ive isn’t merely a design style but an intense focus on usability and application for the end consumer. Functionality is as, if not more important than form. Ive achieves this through a tried-and-tested process of intense iteration, reducing a design element or problem down to its most simplistic and essential basis. (Of the G5) “We wanted to get rid of anything other that what was absolutely essential, but you don’t see that effort. We kept going back to the beginning again and again. Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of four other parts?” The exercise becomes one of reduce and reduce, making the end product easier to manufacture, and easier for people to use. This is the essence of Ive’s problem solving methodology. His team creates repeated models and prototypes of the same product or component to see if they can improve each element again and again, re-working tiny details and solving tiny problems until they achieve the overall end solution. “We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was.” Ive spent months working on the stand for the iMac striving for an ‘organic perfection’ that he’d observed in sunflower stalks; the end solution applied complicated metal-work to create an elegant stem that was barely noticeable in the finished product. Every aspect of the product however has a purpose – Ive is known to use ‘ arbitrary’ as a term of abuse.

6. Be Better, Not Different

The prevailing wisdom is that you have to differentiate your product or service in order to create and sustain competitive advantage. In the modern age of omnipresent innovation, constantly fluid markets, and ultra-consumerism, being different is no longer enough…it’s about being better. Ive highlighted this phenomenon as a central belief and philosophy at Apple: “…most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely wrong goals. A product has to genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.”[ii] Better doesn’t come from a pre-conceived marketing goal to be different, as this de-focuses from how people will actually use the product. Better by nature dictates that the end user or consumer is central to the development processes. For something to ultimately be better, the consumer has to see, feel and believe that it is in fact better. This doesn’t infer endless focus group testing, something which Ive eschews; it is a relentless questioning, re-imagining and iterating of every aspect of the product through design, development and marketing, to distil it into a form which directly meets the customer need in as easily received and consumed a manner as possible. It is function, the usefulness of a product that counts, not cosmetics or arbitrary features.

Better isn’t easy. As Ive puts it: “If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus.”[ii] By being better you will inherently differentiate, but fundamentally this will be to the benefit of the customer.

7. Work and Win as a Team

Ive surrounds himself with a small, handpicked team of designers. The group is extremely close, focused and committed to the same goals. As British fashion designer and friend of Ive’s Paul Smith observes, “It’s good old-fashioned camaraderie – everyone with the same aim, no egos involved. They have lots of dinners together, make lots of field trips. And they’ve turned these gray frumpy objects called computers into desirable pieces of sculpture you’d want even if you didn’t use them.”[iv] Ive is the leader in both position and spirit, as former Apple designer Thomas Meyerhoffer comments, “Jonathan never stood on a chair or made any speeches. But if he hadn’t believed we could do it, we wouldn’t have believed it.”[i] There is a collective confidence, belief and support for each other. In complete contrast to his renowned authoritarian boss, Ive leads without exerting fear but through building admiration and devotion from his team and the wider organisation.

Ive’s team mentality also extends beyond his direct design team to wider groups and stakeholders. He prefers to work collaboratively with engineers, marketers and external contractors who build the products so he can augment his understanding, explore new realms of possibility, and refine all parts of the development process to ultimately deliver a superior solution. “Increasingly I had also come to believe that to do something fundamentally new requires dramatic change from many parts of an organisation. Not only is it critical that the leadership of a company clearly understands its products and the role of design, but that the development, marketing and sales teams are also equally committed to the same goals. More than ever I am aware that what we have achieved with design is massively reliant on the commitment of lots of different teams to solve the same problems.”[iii]

8. Embrace Technology

Ive focuses his design spend by investing in state-of-the-art prototyping equipment, rather than extending the size of his team. He embraces technology to augment the design process, not to replace it. This fits absolutely with his iterative approach, using technology to rapidly model ideas and scenarios to test, learn and then move on to the next iteration. He recognizes the value that technology can bring and uses it to his advantage.

9. Stick to What You’re Good At

Prior to joining Apple, Ive worked at London design start-up, Tangerine, where he ran the business with partner Clive Grinyer. His frustrations in getting British companies to appreciate his work over this period ultimately precipitated his move to California. Ive admits that he wasn’t cut out to be a consultant, as he told the ‘Radical Craft’ conference in 2006: “I was terrible at running a design business, and I really wanted to just focus on the craft of design.” Ive is conscious of his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and focuses on where he can add most value and gain the most success: “I worked out what I was good at and what I was bad at. It became pretty clear what I wanted to do. I was really only interested in design. I was neither interested, or good at building a business.”[iii]

10. Keep the Faith

The first three years of Ive’s career at Apple were tough. This was before the return of Steve Jobs in 1997; then only 29 years-old, Ive was Creative Studio Manager trying to lead the design team during a period in which the company was less open to new innovation. Ive recollected that designers would produce new concepts, only to be sent back to their drawing boards because of senior executives’ fixation with focus groups and marketing data. “When I joined Apple the company was in decline. It seemed to have lost what had once been a very clear sense of identity and purpose. Apple had started trying to compete to an agenda set by an industry that had never shared its goals.”[iii] Apple’s products began to look as boring as everyone else’s. Jobs re-joined Apple on July 9 1997; he immediately made sweeping changes, dropping most of its products and cutting staff. On his first tour of the design department based across the street from the main Apple campus, he looked over Ive’s prototypes and exclaimed, “My God, what have we got here?”[i] Jobs, despite looking at some alternatives, realized what he’d found in Ive and eventually made him Senior Vice President of Industrial Design. Yet he still had to prove himself; as Valarie Sobolewski, a Software Engineer at Apple, recalls, “Jonathan took his share of beatings early on. To be in Steve’s world, you’ve got to be willing to take a beating.”[i] Ive soaked up the pressure and the rest, as they say, is history. Over this period, Ive retained faith in his own abilities and of the core values that had originally drawn him to Apple. He also felt a higher purpose believing that Apple stood for something that was beyond merely making money. Ultimately, his faith paid off.

And a bonus:

11. Work Hard

Ive hasn’t got to where he is today purely due to his immense talent, his attitude to work is also incredibly thorough. As Clive Grinyer who employed Ive at Tangerine Design observed, “They work bloody hard. So does he. It’s not about the hours. It’s the weeks and months they work on projects.”[i] It’s never a case of just going through the motions; Ive leads the Apple design team through demonstrating his own shear commitment and dedication to the cause. The results are ground-breaking – as journalist Rob Waugh reported, “Arthur C. Clarke remarked that ‘any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic’, I mentioned this to Jony and he told me that they were thinking exactly that when the iPad was going through the studio.”[i] They succeeded.

This post originally appeared on Innovation Excellence


[i] “How did a British polytechnic graduate become the design genius behind £200 billion Apple?” by Rob Waugh, The Daily Mail 20 March 2011

[ii] “Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan Cometh” interview with Mark Prigg, The Evening Standard 12 March 2012

[iii] “Jonathan Ive, Celebrating 25 Years of Design” Design Museum 2007

[iv] “Who Is Jonathan Ive?” by Peter Burrows, Business Week 25 September 2006

“Meet Jonathan Ive, The Designer Behind Apple’s Gorgeous Products” by Rachel Metz, the Associated Press 29 August 2011

“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, 2011

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