4 Thoughts on Design From Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive

He discussed his approach to ideas at The New Yorker's TechFest

Ive said even he thinks 'constant use' of an iPhone isn't always the best thing. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

When it comes to the world of technology design, few are revered more than Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer.

Ive, who holds more than 5,000 patents (according to Apple), has been instrumental in crafting every Apple product since the 1990s, working closely on a daily basis with former CEO Steve Jobs and now alongside current CEO Tim Cook. However, apart from being the voice of product launch videos, he rarely talks publicly about his ideas or his work.

Speaking at The New Yorker’s TechFest this afternoon in conversation with David Remnick, Ive discussed Apple’s design process, his own preferences and how even he thinks using your phones too much might not always be the best idea.

Here are four ideas Ive discussed:

1. The importance of care

Asked what he detests, Ive said “most things.” That’s because he said most things are built in an opportunistic way, either because of cost or a demanding schedule. He said products are very rarely “built for people.”

Ive said the design team was inspired by the “loathing” the team members had for their older, pre-iPhone phones. He said they were “soul destroying.” Ive said that while we don’t always know why we might like something, we can sense when it’s created with care. That relates to everything, from selecting raw materials down to the design process.

“As a species, I believe that we sense care,” he said. “We find it very hard to articulate, but I think we sense care in the same way we sense carelessness.”

2. How good ideas happen

When he first joined Apple in 1992, Ive wasn’t particularly interested in technology or the idea of making money, although he was interested in the company and the culture. And even in 1996, as the company was declining and slipping into irrelevance, he said Jobs still did not talk about money, even though the company was losing “fabulous sums” of it every quarter.

“We suddenly learn a lot about life through death,” he said. “And I learned a lot about a collection of people that I guess we’d call a corporation, but a healthy one and a very unhealthy one.”

That time in Apple’s life “broke my heart,” he said. However, Ive said he remained focused on the product. He said the communication of a fragile idea into something more concrete is part of what saved Apple during its darkest days.

“There is just something about the creative process that I still find remarkable,” he said. “On a Tuesday, there’s not an idea; it’s just Tuesday. And on Wednesday, there’s an idea. And it invariably starts as a very tentative and fragile thought. And I think nearly always it is so nebulous that the density to try and describe it is very important and formative to that idea.”

3. Overuse is rampant

Remnick asked if Ive is aware of how the invention of the iPhone has fundamentally changed the way people live and the way their brains work. Ive said that while he tends to be more focused on the next product than on the ones in the past, he does see a difference between how something is sometimes used or misused. When pressed for an example of a misuse, Ive confessed: “perhaps constant use.”

“I do think it’s just sometimes nice to have space,” he said. “I think we fill space because we can—not because we should.”

4. Learn how to focus

Learning how to focus on an idea or a project is more of an effort than an art, Ive said.

“It’s not that you sort of decide to be focused one month,” he said. “But the hourly, daily, extraordinary effort that it takes to focus … And one part of it is how often you say no.”

Ive said he had a teacher who was skilled at focus, but would ask him repetitively, almost patronizingly, how often he would say no to things.

“The art of focus means ignoring, putting it to the side, and often it’s a real cost.”

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.