The designer whose eye saved Apple

With the iMac and iBook, Jonathan Ive did more than dream up some colourful computer hardware. He created a sensation.
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When you walk into the lobby of St Martin's Lane, possibly London's trendiest hotel, you're met with white walls, moving images of water, a giant chess set. A lone figure in black T-shirt, dark jeans and black Prada boots stands out against the achingly yellow fittings. He holds out his hand. "I'm Jonny."

When you walk into the lobby of St Martin's Lane, possibly London's trendiest hotel, you're met with white walls, moving images of water, a giant chess set. A lone figure in black T-shirt, dark jeans and black Prada boots stands out against the achingly yellow fittings. He holds out his hand. "I'm Jonny."

Somehow Jonathan Ive, Apple's vice-president of design and creator of the company's iMac and iBook computers, isn't quite what you'd expect. He's funny, but in a hugely understated way; he emanates certainty, but not arrogance; he's obsessed with the big picture, but fanatical about fine details.

Then again, reconciling contradictions is what he does for a living. Even before he went to work for Apple, Ive wrestled with contradiction of technology that was meant to make tasks easier actually making them nearly impossible.

Then, as a design student in Newcastle, he used the first Mac. The interface impressed him, but more than that: "The relationship you could have with the product was a very deep one because of this fanatical care that a collection of fairly anarchic individuals in California had taken over details that might never be discovered."

His professional association with Apple began out of two rather contradictory elements. In the early Nineties, when Apple first asked him to consult, "I was a partner in a consultancy called Tangerine... Ideal Standard was one of my other major clients, and they're a manufacturer of ceramic.

"These were absolutely polar industries. The computer industry is founded on a brutally fast rate of change, and if you're not innovating, you're going to go out of business. Then you've got this other industry that's still making stuff in the way they were doing it years ago.

"You've also got this very different design challenge. The washbasin's form and its function are one and the same, and that one-and-the-sameness is its identity - what makes it a sink. Whereas when you're dealing with high technology, there are no internal workings. The functioning is a mystery to most people, so the product's identity is pretty much defined by the design."

He continues: "One of the things I've always been really interested in is the meaning behind an object, and just how you communicate meaning with objects. What is really awkward about a computer is, if you start to ask some simple questions about what it is, what does it do, well, your computer might do something different to my computer, and your computer's going to change what it does fundamentally in two seconds. It's a unique object.

"So, if as a designer you're trying to figure out where to base your narrative, can you base it around its ultimate function, that's clearly difficult. The more you try and struggle with these basic questions, you realise it's quite complicated, and that there are some good reasons why this industry has been creatively bankrupt for so long."

Ive thinks the computer industry obsesses with chip speed and hard-disk size because these things are "easy to measure and easy to talk about.... The more emotive and less tangible assets are ignored." But as he wrote in The Product Book (BD&AD/Rotovision, 1999), "Value can be significant even if its measures are neither empirical nor easy to articulate." As the iMac would demonstrate beyond doubt. People tend to respond to the iMac the way they would to puppies or babies, but this wasn't part of his plan per se. "The goals were to make it simple, accessible, friendly, and we saw those as necessary goals, but not as sufficient, because we could have just done a pink fluffy teddy bear. We felt for the product to have any sort of integrity, and truly to resonate with people, we had to somehow try and wrestle with this issue of the object's identity."

Apple didn't do it through focus groups, which Ive abhors. "Focus groups really stand testament to people who are without any vision and are desperately looking for insurance to substantiate a decision. They guarantee that you don't offend anybody, and they also guarantee that you don't really innovate... you end up designing by consensus."

Instead, Ive relies largely on his own powers of observation. "As a designer you should be looking at how people use objects, how they relate to them." That's not to say he's driven by his consumers' opinions: neither the iMac nor the iBook has a floppy disk drive. Ive makes no apology. "If you were designing for consumers and it was about tomorrow and you were trying to move on, it meant leaving behind some of the stuff that's technologically outdated. Sure, at the point where you really do leave it behind, that can create friction. But I generally take that as an affirmation... one of the signals you have done something." Then, mischievously, "I just like the USB connectors."

He shows me a few of his favourite iBook features: "That's the sleep light," he says, pointing at its drowsy transition from green to white. "The sleep light on every other computer just, like, blinks on and off... it defines the object as being incredibly mechanical and very un-human."

Already there are several websites devoted to his "breathing" sleep light, and someone's working on a software patch that will let you change the frequency of its heartbeat. "That sort of care speaks a lot about what we're trying to do," says Ive. "This isn't functionally imperative - but it's really important.

"The solution and implementation we initially pursued was a hardware one, where we got to be doing this glowing thing using a little integrated circuit. That got quite expensive. So disappointed was the entire team that we couldn't do this that the software guys found a way to do it in software."

He also loves the "absolutely gorgeous little stickers" designed by London-based ME Company to go over the function keys. "Oh, yeah, look at the spaceman!" he says. At last week's British Design & Art Direction lecture where Ive spoke, the D&AD president, Richard Seymour, introduced Ive as "a man who has himself become a bit of an icon".

"I really hate design when it's overly proscriptive," says Ive. "If we made a handle that stuck out, it would say, 'carry me HERE'. I really like the idea that the edge is really nice to hold" - the iBook has a rubber edge, moulded around its translucent polycarbonate body - "or if you want to use the handle, it comes out." He's amused by the idea that men won't carry it by the handle; "I'd quite like to carry it this way," he says.

Ive, though fanatical about detail, is no fanatic. He just takes sheer delight in objects - and in people. "Somebody just last week sent me a site in Japan that has lingerie in the five different flavours," he says, smiling. "A part of that is a comment on what the rest of the industry is doing, and how frustrated people have been by an industry that has essentially revelled in disempowering them."

Has he always had a yen to design computers? "Not really," he says with characteristic understated humour. "I'm not naturally interested in computers at all."