Jonathan Ive: The Designer Who Changed Our Relationship with Technology

"With technology, the function is much more abstract to users, so the product’s meaning is almost entirely defined by the designer." –Jonathan Ive

Background: In the Land of Beige Boxes
In the 1980s desktop computers were for the most part designed by engineers, and they looked it. During the 1990s desktop computers started to appear on desktops in companies across the world, but they all looked relatively indistinguishable – as generic beige boxes.

A Personal Computer in Every Home
In the late 1990s Apple Computer’s CEO, Steve Jobs, had a plan to bring the personal computer from the office into the home by selling desktop computers to consumers. His vision was a personal computer in every home. The challenge was how to interest the average consumer; how to make people want a Macintosh. Who would get excited about a buying a beige box?

Hello iMac
Then in 1998 Apple introduced the iMac. It looked like no other personal computer.

“The iMac changed the way consumers thought about personal computers and about Apple itself. It gave Apple a vital boost that helped it usher in a new era of consumer electronics that were quirky, fun and colorful….People snapped up 150,000 of them in the first weekend following its release. Apple sold 800,000 iMacs by the end of the year.” 1

But who designed the iMac? Who gave form to Steve Jobs’ vision? The designer who changed the way we use and think about technology is Jonathan Ive.

Apple IMac Original
Jonathan Ive, Apple iMac (1998).

Who Is Jonathan Ive?

Forty-four year old Jonathan Ive was born in London and grew up in a middle-class family in Essex, UK. He went on to study design at Newcastle Polytechnic in the mid-1980s. As a student there he had won awards for student design from the Royal Society of Arts.2 “By the time he graduated, Ive was already something of a legend in British design circles.”3 After graduation he worked for Tangerine Design in London, but left a few years later for California to join Apple in 1992.3

Ive at Apple
Apple was experiencing hard economic times during Ive’s early years there.  The company was “hemorrhaging money and market share;…it was the whipping boy of Wall Street and the business press.”3  At that time Ive was torn between his desire to maintain design innovation and the need to appease corporate cost cutters. Furthermore, Ive was turning out good work during those years but became frustrated at the lack of attention given to his projects.3

In 1997 Steve Jobs returned to take control of the company he had founded, and everything turned around for Ive. According to author Donald A. Norman, “Jobs said: ‘This is the direction we’re going,’ and he unleashed Jonathan to make it happen.”2 The early working relationship between the two men, however, did have a rocky start. Jobs legendarily could be a tyrant and not always the easiest person to work with. Valarie Sobolewski, a long time software engineer at Apple recalled, “Jonathan took his share of beatings early on.”2

Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive showing off a MacBook Pro, circa 2010.

Jobs, however, recognized Ive’s genius and soon named him Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design.1 Ive would lead Apple’s design team to develop the Powerbook, iPod, iPhone and iPad, products that revolutionized not only the communications and music industries, but also the way people interact with technology.

Design by Ive

Former Apple marketing director Mike Martucci says, “Ive understands that it is the usefulness of a product that counts….Design drives the technology, not the other way around.”2

NewDealDesign founder Gadi Amit makes this common observation on Ive’s work, “The white, clean “look” of the iPod is very derivative of central European design from the late 1960s and early ’70s… Compare many Apple products to the work of Dieter Rams, chief designer at Braun, and you’ll see that it’s almost verbatim.”3

Ive himself focuses “on only what is important and limiting the number of projects, having a deep understanding of how a product is made: its materials, its tooling, its purpose. Most [importantly]…on the need to care deeply about the work."2

Although Ive is a true design“rock star,” he lives a quiet life in San Francisco with his high school sweetheart, Heather Pegg, and their family. Ive values his privacy and rarely gives interviews.3

Finally, according to Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design for MoMA, “Products have to be designed better now for people to buy them because of Jony Ive and Steve Jobs and Apple…All of a sudden people have gotten used to elegance and beauty, and there’s no going back.”1

View Ive’s Portfolio.

1.    Metz, R. (2011). Meet Jonathan Ive, The Designer Behind Apple’s Gorgeous Products. Associated Press.

2.    Waugh, R. (2011). How did a British polytechnic graduate become the design genius behind £200 billion Apple? Daily Mail Online.

3.    Burrows, P. (2006).  Who Is Jonathan Ive? Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

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