Mr iMac wins design prize for banishing beige boxes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jonathan Ive, the Briton whose design career started with washbasins in Essex but who now works in California shaping Apple products such as the iMac computer and the iPod music player, won the inaugural Designer of the Year award last night.

The prestigious prize from the Design Museum in London is worth £25,000 for "the UK designer that made the biggest contribution to design in the past year". Mr Ive, 36, who has been the vice-president of industrial design at Apple since 1998, received the prizeafter flying in from California, where he works at Apple's head office in Cupertino.

"Jonathan's designs have touched millions of people's lives and transformed the workplace," said the fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, who was on the judging panel.

In the past year Apple has released new versions of the iMac, iPod and two versions of its PowerBook notebook computers, all designed by Mr Ive's team. He is a softly spoken man who gives interviews only rarely, and even less often reveals his opinions of other peoples' work. But in an exclusive interview with The Independent last year, he noted that those who mimicked his work were never successful. He said he was unimpressed by those who use, "swoopy shapes to look good, stuff that is so aggressively designed, just to catch the eye". He said: "I think that's arrogance, it's not done for the benefit of the user."

Mr Ive's designs have for years ensured that Apple's products - which are found in fewer than 5 per cent of workplaces and homes - attract far more attention than rivals in the computing field.

The other designers nominated for the prize, sponsored by MFI, were Solange Azagury-Partridge, creative director of the Parisian jeweller Boucheron; Tord Boontje, a Dutch-born designer of glassware, lighting and furniture; and Rockstar Games, which developed the "Grand Theft Auto" video game series.

The winners were chosen by a combination of more than 20,000 votes from the public at the Design Museum's website, along with the votes of a four-strong jury. Mr Ive won both the public and the jury vote. His rise within Apple, where he had worked since 1992, followed the return in 1997 of Steve Jobs, its charismatic founder who is known to some as a design obsessive. At his previous company he is reported to have spent an afternoon choosing between 15 shades of black for a computer.

When Mr Ive stepped up, Apple's designs were the same as other computer companies', consisting of the cheap plastic "beige boxes". Mr Ive first developed the radical, curved shape of the all-in-one iMac computer, and then had to consult sweet manufacturers to find out how to make the plastic casing both blue and transparent - the other innovation in his design.

The iMac was a huge hit among consumers and helped make Apple profitable for the first time in years. Since then he has lent his unique style to two generations of the iMac computer and the iPod MP3 player, as well as the company's eye-catching titanium notebook computers. The newest version of the iMac has been described by some as "the iMac for the anglepoise generation" but Mr Ive said that it was inspired by the shape of the sunflower.

Born in London, Mr Ive studied design and art at Newcastle Polytechnic (now North- umbria University). In 1989 he became a partner at Tangerine, a London-based design consultancy where he worked on a range of products ranging from power tools to washbasins.

The added ingredient: Elegance

By Charles Arthur

Seen from a great height, Apple's products are specks in the huge world of computing - a few in every hundred. Yet in design terms, they're an oasis in a vast desert.

Touch most PCs and you'll feel a certain give, an uncertainty in assembly that is the curse of being one of the slaves to Microsoft's hegemony, built down to a price to run identical software. Even where it doesn't show physically, you can sense a missing ingredient - elegance.

Jonathan Ive is admired among designers because he pours elegance into products. The 1997 iMac was a gumdrop-inspired solution to making an all-in-one machine. The second, with its movable flat screen, alludes to a sunflower. The iPod is like an everlasting cigarette packet for those addicted to music instead of tobacco.

Rivals make comparable, even cheaper, products. But they don't have it. They don't look desirable. They're just objects for a task.

Careful attention is Mr Ive's métier. Item: a small light on the computer shows whether it is working or in a suspended "sleeping" state. Once sleeping was indicated by a slowly flashing light. Mr Ive changed that. Now the light pulses slowly, as though the machine were truly asleep, breathing in and out. What use is that? None. What value does it have? As much as you put on being pleased.

Mr Ive dislikes the computing business's obsession with ram and megabytes: "Inhuman and very cold". His work has always tried to make machines people would love. Could he ever be tempted away by a Windows PC manufacturer? I doubt it. He couldn't like the abrupt graphics or the zig-zag fonts. Not elegant; not stylish. He's made his own, more elegant world.