Read Inside Steve's Brain Online

Authors: Leander Kahney

Inside Steve's Brain (10 page)

Ive can be hard to pin down on specifics. He has a tendency to talk in the abstract, and sometimes slips into corporate speak. He deflects personal questions, but get him talking about design and it’s hard to shut him up. He talks design with great enthusiasm, gesticulating passionately and scrunching his fingers for emphasis.
At one of Apple’s product presentations, I asked him for a couple of quick comments about the design of the aluminum case that houses Apple’s high-end professional workstations (the same case has been used for several years in a string of products, from the Power Mac G5 in 2003 to the current Mac Pro), which are made from austere slabs of raw aluminum that are as unadorned as the alien monolith in the movie
2001, A Space Odyssey
He was only too delighted to describe the philosophy—and all the hard work—behind the design of the machine. “I guess every time you do something, you feel particularly pleased with something you just developed,” he said. “This one was really hard.” Ive walked over to a display model sitting nearby. He indicated its plain aluminum case. “There’s an applied style of being minimal and simple, and then there’s real simplicity,” he said. “This looks simple, because it really is.”
Ive said keeping it simple was the overall design philosophy for the machine. “We wanted to get rid of anything other than what was absolutely essential, but you don’t see that effort,” he said. “We kept going back to the beginning again and again. ‘Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of the other four parts?’ It became an exercise to reduce and reduce, but it makes it easier to build and easier for people to work with.”
Ive then launched into a passionate twenty-minute tour and description of the new computer’s design. He would have gone on longer if he hadn’t been cut short by a member of Apple’s PR team, who reminded him he had other appointments. Ive couldn’t help himself. Design is his vocation. Get him started, and he’ll talk at length with great sincerity and enthusiasm about the design of something as deceptively simple as a latch for an access panel. In parting, I asked Ive to compare the Power Mac G5 to high-design computers from the world of Windows PCs, such as those from Alienware or Falcon North-west. These machines have sometimes tended to look like hot rod muscle cars, decorated with painted flames or chrome grills.
“It’s really much more potent when you don’t put on a veneer pretending to be powerful,” he said. “I see it as a tool. It’s an extremely powerful tool. There’s not a plastic façade that adds to the fact that it’s a really powerful tool. It’s very, very obvious that it is what it is.” He continued, “From a designer’s point of view, it’s not an appearance game we’re playing. It is very utilitarian. It’s the use of material in a very minimalist way.”
Ive’s impromptu tour of the aluminum computer case reveals a lot about the design process that produced it: the drive to reduce and simplify, the attention to detail, and a respect for materials. Plus there’s Ive’s passion and drive. All of these factors contribute to Ive’s unique design process.
A Penchant for Prototyping
Jonathan Ive and his wife, Heather, live with their young twins in a house near the top of Twin Peaks overlooking San Francisco. The house is described as “unostentatious,” but Ive drives a James Bond car—a $200,000 Aston Martin.
Ive originally wanted to design cars. He took a course at London’s Central Saint Martins Art School but found the other students too weird. “They were making ‘vroom, vroom’ noises as they did their drawings,” he said.
He enrolled in a product design course at Newcastle Polytechnic instead.
It was at Newcastle that Ive developed a penchant for prototyping. Clive Grinyer, a fellow student and later one of Ive’s colleagues, remembers visiting Ive’s Newcastle apartment. He was flabbergasted to find it filled with hundreds of foamcore models of his final-year project: a hearing aid and microphone combination to help teachers communicate with deaf pupils. Most of the other design students built five or six models of their projects. Ive was “more focused than anyone I’d ever met on what he was trying to achieve,” Grinyer said.
Oddly, Ive had no affinity for computers as a student. “I went through college having a real problem with computers,” Ive said. “I was convinced that I was technically inept .”
But just before leaving Newcastle in 1989, he discovered the Mac. “I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use,” he said. “I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company: how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky—almost rebellious—company, the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money.”
Over the years, computers have grown on him. In an interview with
magazine, he explained that he’s fascinated by their multifunction nature. “There’s no other product that changes function like the computer,” he said. “The iMac can be a jukebox, a tool for editing video, a way to organize photographs. You can design on it, write on it. Because what it does is so new, so changeable, it allows us to use new materials, to create new forms. The possibilities are endless. I love that.”
After leaving Newcastle, Ive cofounded the Tangerine design collective in London in 1989, where he worked on a wide range of products, from toilets to hair combs. But he found contract work frustrating. As an outsider, he had little influence on the outcome of his ideas within the company.
In 1992, he got a call from Apple asking him to submit some concepts for early laptops. Apple was so impressed, Ive was hired as a designer and moved to California. But as Apple went into decline during this period, design was relegated to a dusty basement. Apple’s managers started to look to the competition for inspiration. They wanted focus groups. Ive came close to quitting. He worked independently and alone. He’d continue to design prototype products, but they often never got any further than a shelf in his office.
Of course, things have been very different since Jobs returned. Ive is the same designer he used to be, but the outcomes are the polar opposite.
Ive heads up a relatively small team of about a dozen industrial designers, who have worked together at Apple for many years. “We have assembled a heavenly design team,” Ive says.
The team works in a very private studio set apart from the rest of Apple’s campus. Housed in a nondescript building, the studio is sealed off from most of Apple employees for fear of revealing upcoming goodies. Access is granted only to a select few with authorized electronic passes; doors and windows are shaded behind black privacy glass. Even former CEO John Sculley was locked out of the design studio. “Talk about a pissed-off executive,” said Robert Brunner, the head of the design group at the time.
There’s very little personal space inside the studio. There are no cubicles or offices. The studio is a large open space with several communal design areas. It is full of expensive, state-of-the-art prototyping machines: 3D printers, powerful CAD (Computer Aided Design) workstations, and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine tools. There’s also a massive sound system pumping out electronica all day, some of it sent from Ive’s friends back home in Britain. Ive is a confessed music nut, and a close friend of top techno DJ John Digweed.
When it comes to tools, no expense is spared. But instead of hiring more and more designers, Ive puts his resources into prototyping machinery. “By keeping the core team small and investing significantly in tools and process we can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare,” Ive said. “In fact, the memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work.”
The small, intimate team is key to being creative and productive, Ive says. He denies that Apple’s innovations came from one individual designer or another, but the team working together. It’s a process of “collectively learning stuff and getting better at what we do. One of the hallmarks of the team is inquisitiveness, being excited about being wrong because that means you’ve discovered something new.”
Whenever he talks about his work, Ive always emphasizes the team. He has no ego. After Digweed first met Ive, it took him months to discover what Ive’s real role was at Apple. “Jonathan was saying how they’d designed different things and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, my God. His work is used by creative people across the world every day but he has no ego about it.’ ”
Ive’s Design Process
Ive has often said that the simplicity of Apple’s designs is deceiving. To a lot of people, the products seem obvious. They are so plain and simple, there seems to be no “design” involved at all. There are no frills or accoutrements that trumpet the design process. But to Ive, that’s the point. The task, Ive said, is “to solve incredibly complex problems and make their resolution appear inevitable and incredibly simple, so you have no sense how difficult this thing was.”
The simplicity is the outcome of a design process characterized by generating a lot of ideas and then refining them—the same way the interface for OS X was designed. The process involves multiple teams at Apple, not just the designers. Engineers, programmers, and even marketers are also involved. Ive’s industrial designers are involved from the get-go of every project. “We get involved really early on,” said Ive. “There’s a very natural, consistent collaboration with Steve, with the hardware and software people. I think that’s one of the things that’s distinctive at Apple. When we’re developing ideas there’s not a final architecture established. I think it’s in those early stages when you’re still very open to exploration, that you find opportunities.”
To find these opportunities, Jobs assiduously avoids a serial, step-by-step design regime, where products are passed from one team to the next, and there’s little back and forth between the different departments. This is not always the case at other companies. Jobs has said it’s like seeing a cool prototype car at a car show, but when the production model appears four years later, it sucks. “And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory! ... What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”
In interviews, Ive has talked about “deep collaboration,” “cross pollination,” and “concurrent engineering.” Products being developed at Apple aren’t passed from team to team, from the designers to the engineers to the programmers, and finally to the marketers. The design process isn’t sequential. Instead, the products are worked on by all these groups simultaneously, and there’s round after round of reviews.
The meetings are endless. They’re an integral part of the “deep collaborative” process, and without them there wouldn’t be the same amount of “cross pollination.” “The historical way of developing products just doesn’t work when you’re as ambitious as we are,” Ive told
. “When the challenges are that complex, you have to develop a product in a more collaborative, integrated way.”
The design process begins with a lot of sketching. Ive’s team works together, critiquing each other’s ideas and incorporating feedback from the engineers and, of course, Jobs himself. The team then works up 3D computer models in various CAD applications, which are used to make physical models in foamcore and other prototyping materials. The team will often build several models, testing not only the outside shape of the new product, but the interior as well. Prototypes precisely modeling interior space and the thickness of the walls are sent to hardware engineers, who check that the internal components fit. They also make sure there’s sufficient airflow through the case, and that interior components like ports and battery compartments line up.
“We make a lot of models and prototypes, and we go back and iterate,” Ive said. “We strongly believe in prototyping and making things so you can pick them up and touch them.” The number of models made is exhausting. “We make lots and lots of prototypes: the number of solutions we make to get one solution is quite embarrassing, but it’s a healthy part of what we do,” Ive said.
Robert Brunner, a partner at Pentagram Design and former head of Apple’s Design Group, said, crucially, Apple’s prototypes are always designed with the manufacturing process very much in mind. “Apple’s designers spend 10 percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming,” he said. “They spend 90 percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.”
The method is akin to a technique known to psychologists studying problem solving as “generate and test.” To solve a problem, all the possible solutions are generated and then tested to see if they offer a solution. It’s a form of trial and error, but not as random; it’s more guided and purposeful. Apple’s designers create dozens of possible solutions, constantly testing their work to see if it is approaching a solution. The process is essentially the same as techniques used in a lot of creative endeavors, from writing to creating music. A writer will often start by banging out a rough draft, spilling out words and ideas with little thought for structure or cohesion, and then go back and edit their work, sometimes multiple times. “Trying to simplify and refine is enormously challenging,” Ive said.

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