His smooth Essex accent has become practically synonymous with Apple’s launch videos over the past few decades and if you’ve had any passing interactions with the world of design, you know what Jony Ive has done for Apple and design at large.
This piece is for business leaders who have seen Apple change the face of consumer electronics before their eyes and have marvelled at what it is that makes Apple so great at churning out hit after hit.
It was this intrigue that made me pick up Leander Kahney’s “Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”. The book chronicles the design prodigy’s upbringing in the U.K., his childhood love for design, early acclaim for his creations, his eventual move across the pond to join Apple, and the years that followed thereafter. Below are key takeaways for business leaders who wish to bring a similar hunger for innovation and growth to their own enterprises.
Note: Less than a year ago, Jony Ive announced his departure from Apple to start his own design firm. Conjecture on what his departure will mean for the company in the years to come is beyond the scope of this piece. The goal here is to look at the decisions Apple took to recognize and empower this rare talent on its way towards becoming cash-laden behemoth it is today.
Start Your Search for Talent In-House
The world has come to appreciate the formidable visionary-leader-meets-creative-genius duo that Jobs and Jony came to become over the years. Few knew that Jony was far from Jobs’ first pick. Soon after his 1996 return to Apple, Steve set out to find a world-class designer. Candidates included Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design (who also worked with NeXT), Richard Snapper (responsible for IBM’s ThinkPad) and car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (arguably the most influential modern automotive designer who came up with a new pasta shape just for the kicks).
Jony realized that his team was in jeopardy and put together brochures for Jobs showcasing the team’s best work and evolving design language. Subsequently, when Steve took a tour of the design studio he was blown away by the creativity in the mock-ups he saw. Jony and Steve bonded during this time over their similar approaches to forms and materials and Steve became a fixture at the design studio over the next few months. And so began the prolific partnership we know and love today.
Empower Your ‘A’ Talent
During Steve’s absence, the power hierarchy at Apple had shifted in favour of Engineering. When Jony was first put in charge of Design, his team was more or less an afterthought; brought in after the after most of the components and basic functionality had been set to do a ‘skin job’ and make it look pretty.
In other cases, designers were brought in to provide a model of what a product should like before Engineering could go ahead and produce it as cheap as possible. Apple had lost its identity during this time and largely looked to its competition for leadership.
Jony was on the verge of quitting when his new boss, Jon Rubinstein, gave him a raise and assured him that design would play a more pivotal role going forward.
As critical as changes like these can be for a company’s future, don’t expect for them to come to pass without some sparks flying. After several years and the successful launches of the iBook and iMac, the power dynamic started to shift towards Jony’s group. This is when turnover in the engineering teams started to go through the roof — a lot of old-timers quit — and a stream of new engineers had to be hired. With the shift towards design, Apple had also reduced its new product development timeline from three years to nine months and not everyone was willing or able to keep up with the pace.
However, Rubinstein explained that the entire transformation was geared towards allowing the Design team to have the right partners who could execute their designs. Manufacturing was also moved to Asian suppliers who were prepared for the new pace of things.
ID (Industrial Design) was given the final say on everything and was quickly becoming the most powerful voice in the company.
In his biography, Steve Jobs is famously known to have explained Jony’s role in the company, “He’s not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me.”
In the words of Good to Great author James Collins, once ‘the right people are in the right seats of the bus’, it’s time for operations to support the talent and allow them to shine in their roles.
Use Operations to Bolster Your Core Competency
Up until Jobs hired Tim Cook in 1998, he had been managing Apple’s suppliers relations on his own. Cook was given the task of overhauling manufacturing and distribution networks which were, by several measures, a mess. The factories were costly and inefficient so Cook started to enlist external manufacturers. He also visited every supplier Apple was working with at the time and struck hard bargains.
While the 1998 iMac was made at three Apple factories and had used LG for its cases and monitors, by 1999 Apple’s factories were sold off and the iMac was outsourced entirely to LG. In 2000, Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (better known as FoxConn) was brought on board.
By outsourcing production, Cook had solved one of Apple’s worst headaches — inventory. Warehouses filled with unused inventory had come close to sinking Apple in ’96 and it had learned its lesson of regarding inventory as “not only evil, but fundamentally evil” in Cook’s words.
Better inventory forecasting was enabled by a state-of-the-art ERP which enabled Apple to build in response to demand and do away with guesswork. The ERP integrated directly with the IT infrastructures of Apple’s suppliers, manufacturers, and retail stores; painting a Dark Knight-esque sonar vision of the entire supply chain.
Daily production came to be based on weekly sales forecasts and parts were left in suppliers’ warehouses until they were required. Within 7 months, Cook had taken Apple’s on-hand inventory down from thirty days to just six. In another 2 years, it was down to two days — setting a new industry benchmark and cutting Apple’s losses significantly.
Cook is also credited with making Apple’s supply chain capable of delivering millions of products in secret, just in time for massive product launches.
On one hand, Apple had Jony and his team designing industry defining products and on another, Cook’s team was figuring out how to produce and distribute them in millions as effectively (and secretively) as possible.
Sweat the Details
I remember the very first time I walked into an Apple store in 2008 and was staring at the MacBook Air — in awe of how a meaningful number of components could have possibly ever fit inside its razor thin frame. I also distinctly remember trying to open up the lid with my right hand, and just as I was extending my left hand to hold down the base of the laptop — realizing delightedly that I didn’t need to.
It was these little moments of user delight that Jony and Jobs were driven by. This drive manifested itself in the seemingly smallest design decisions that the duo made. For example, the decision to have the iBook magically awaken as the lid was lifted, a convention that seems almost ordinary today, but was anything but at the time.
Or the latch on the PowerBook that automatically descended just as the lid was closed.
Or the variable-rate clutch that Jony devised to deliver less resistance in the near-closed position, which allowed me to open the lid of that MacBook Air with one hand back in ‘08.
Or even the choice to make the iPhone completely unbranded, allowing the product to stand for itself as the display appears from behind an infinity pool of glass.
This was the antidote to the personal computing industry’s obsession with numbers and absolutes at the time.
Jony explained that “there has been a tendency to ignore product attributes that are difficult to measure or talk about. In that sense, the industry has missed out on the more emotive, less tangible product attributes. But to me, that is why I bought an Apple computer in the first place. That is why I came to work for Apple. It’s because I’ve always sensed that Apple had a desire to do more than the bare minimum. It wasn’t just going to do what was functionally and empirically necessary. In the early stuff, I got a sense that care was taken even on details, hard and soft, that people may never discover.”
Simplify, Simplify, then Simplify Some More
While simplification is design 101 taught at all schools focused on the subject, its applications extend just as well into corporate strategy.
When Jobs first returned to Apple and started to study the state of everything from product design to marketing and supply chain, he also initiated a thorough product review. The product line was so complicated that Apple had to print elaborate flowcharts to explain the differences between its products to customers, and even employees.
He set up in a conference room and, one by one, invited in the product teams. These meetings quickly made it clear to Jobs that Apple was on a road to nowhere in particular and everywhere in general. After several weeks of these sessions, Jobs had had enough and screamed, “Stop! This is Crazy.”
He went to the whiteboard and drew a chart of Apple’s revenues — declining sharply each year from $12 billion to $10 billion and $7 billion. He explained that Apple couldn’t be a profitable $12 billion or $10 billion company but it could be a profitable $6 billion dollar company.
Next, he drew a simple 2x2 matrix which read “Consumer” and “Pro” across the top and “Portable” and “Desktop” down the side. And thus was born Apple’s new product strategy.
This matrix cut the company to the bone, killed dozens of software projects, nearly stripped down Apple’s entire hardware line, and laid off 4,200 full time staff — bringing the company’s size in 1998 down to just half of what it was 3 years prior. As a result of the drastic measures, the balance sheet was back in control.
Jony had his own way of practicing simplification. His ultimate goal was for his designs to disappear.
“It’s a very strange thing for a designer to say,” he said. “But one of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.”
Few designers apply this philosophy with such singular determination and in the words of author Leander Kahney, “. . . if there’s such a thing as a single secret to what Jony Ive does, it is to follow slavishly the simplification philosophy.”
Most Importantly, Respect Your Work
In his first year of design school, Jony took a sculpting class which required him to make moulds sculpted from plaster. The professor who taught this course was in fact allergic to plaster dust but wore a mask with rubber gloves and taught the course week after week. What Jony remembers most fondly is the respect and care the professor would show to his students’ projects:
“And he had these fantastic big brushes in his pocket. When he came round, he wouldn’t just stop and talk to us; he would make us brush off what we were working on and clear a little space. Even if it was terrible, and in our minds
didn’t deserve any clearing of space, there was something about respecting the work; the idea that actually it was important — and if you didn’t take the time to do it, why should anybody else?
Whether you’re working on a startup in its infancy with little market validation or you’re in charge of a workforce of thousands of employees, the timeless need to respect your work rings just as true. Even if the project at this moment seems hopelessly terrible, treat it with respect and allow it to follow its process of evolution. Because if you don’t care enough about it, why should anybody else?