Misunderstanding Jony Ive

A number of years ago, a senior colleague of mine died. He was larger than life, dominated any room he entered and had a number of quite incredible traits and skills as a human being. After his death, things rumbled on – we scored some considerable achievements, we continued to grow, we sometimes failed – but we kept going. Earlier this year, the man who worked with my departed colleague most closely announced that he was leaving the organisation. Reasons for his leaving were thrown around our team and then, over drinks one evening, he confided in me: ‘Every day I come in here, I see him. I see him everywhere’. The walls echoed with my colleague’s laughter, his ideas and his energy. It’s hard to continue when your best friend – maybe even your professional father figure – passes on.

This story should sound familiar if you’ve been watching Jony Ive’s recently-announced departure from Apple. Ive and Jobs’s sympatico is a well known, if perhaps mythologised, aspect of Western corporate history. From the weird bromance portrayed in the film Jobs with Ashton Kutcher, to the most touching illustration of this relationship in Ive’s eulogy for his departed friend after Jobs’s death, we are all aware of their partnership.

Unfortunately, Ive has come to represent something sinister in the ever-expanding and increasingly narcissistic world of Apple commentary and analysis. Apple’s well known design missteps in recent years have been explained by Ive’s apparent detachment from reality and, despite interviews where Ive has sounded jaded, demoralised and lacking energy, most analysis about Ive has missed the deeply personal story of a man who lost his best friend. Ive has become a caricature, an English villain, in an all-American success story.

Apple commentators cannot fail to accept Ive’s unprecedented impact on the company and the design world. But their explanations of Ive’s significance in changing design history are tortured. On the Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa acknowledged that Ive’s influence was immense but noted how Ive’s name, in recent years, ‘is used as an expletive…as the singular personification of all the design we don’t like at Apple’. Nevertheless, To Siracusa:

The bottom line is that if there’s something you don’t like about Apple design during the time when Jony Ive was the head of design, it’s on Jony Ive.

In this narrative, Ive goes from hero to villain. Without the influence of Jobs, the worst of Ive’s tendencies apparently came to the surface. In a well-cited post, John Gruber stated:

In the post Jobs era … we’ve seen the software design decline and the hardware go wonky. I don’t know the inside story, but it certainly seems like a good bet that the MacBook keyboard fiasco we’re still in the midst of is the direct result of Jony Ive’s obsession with device thinness and minimalism.

John Siracusa opined that executives like Tim Cook were unlikely to disagree with Jony Ive’s suggestions about design. Marco Arment spoke of a ‘weird dynamic where Jony was more powerful than Tim [Cook]’. Ive had power in Apple ‘without editing’, without a moderating force. This narrative, which all commentators admit is based on no internal knowledge, maps nicely onto all of the Apple commentariat’s traditional bugbears: the MacBook keyboard, the Apple TV remote, the ‘trash can’ Mac Pro.

This narrative gives Ive a transitory status in Apple lore, where he is both accepted as a design genius and scapegoated for all errors. His influence on successful products is because of his part in a great ‘team’ but errors fall solely at his feet. Christ, no wonder the man came across as exhausted. He once told Stephen Fry that he was excited by California culture because it fostered his creativity. Ideas, he said, are fragile and can break easily under strain, especially early on in their creation. The weight of Apple-watchers’ expectation must have been suffocating. Ive has become another victim of the internet’s obsession with individualising success and failure, and a false image of Apple as a cute family enterprise (an image perpetuated by the company and the prominence of certain executives) rather than a corporate behemoth. Any errors made after Jobs’s death were down to a corporate culture, not any one individual.

Apple followers’ ignoring of the human side of the Ive story is indicative of something profoundly disturbing: the desire to dehumanise Ive into a force who – sans Jobs – can be blamed for all of Apple’s most recent failures. And now Ive has gone and Apple continues to make decisions that favour form over function – see the Apple Card’s cleaning and storage instructions – Apple followers insist that this is the last echo of Ive’s distorted sense of design reality.

Perhaps without Ive as the commentariat’s favoured lightning rod, we might see that Apple’s design failures often come from hubris, a lack of competition from elsewhere and the pitfalls of being part of a large, perhaps unsustainable, corporate culture. Big companies get so big that, with the best will in the world, they have difficulty with quality control: especially as material tolerances get lower. Above all, though, without Ive, some Apple commentators have lost their pantomime villain and the way they respond to Apple’s errors will have to shift.

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