On Jony Ive’s Role at Apple

Abdel Ibrahim, writing for AppAdvice:

In the latest episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber discusses with Six Colors founder, Jason Snell, about Jony Ive’s role in the company and how it’s changed in the years since Steve Jobs’ passing. He specifically makes mention that he’s heard that Ive’s role has changed in a way where he’s not as much involved in the design of physical hardware as he used to be.

I’ve heard that he has lately been checked out or not as directly involved with product design and that he’s been largely focused on architecture, meaning the spaceship campus and the new stores. And that maybe the other top-level executive who’s been working the most with Ive is Angela Arhendts.

The comment comes on the back of Apple releasing a photo book called “Designed by Apple in California” in which the company looks back the last 20 years of products made under Ive and his design team. Many Apple fans see the book as part of Ive’s slow retirement from Apple, some who believe that Ive has been on his way out for a while now.

This is what I dislike most about podcasting. With everything I write here at DF, I aim for painstaking precision in my choice of words and phrasing. I try not only to make it easy for my meaning to be understood, but also difficult to be misconstrued. On a podcast, that’s not possible. I have no doubt Ibrahim transcribed my words accurately, but the above excerpt is not an accurate representation of what I tried to convey. I think if you listen to that part of the show, the surrounding context makes that clear.

There are definitely people who think Ive might be on his way out. There’s been speculation to that effect ever since his promotion last year to chief design officer and the coinciding promotions of Alan Dye and Richard Howarth to vice presidents of user interface design and industrial design, respectively. The company line is that this new arrangement allows Ive to spend less time on management, and more time directly on, well, design. The skeptic’s take is that this new arrangement allows Ive to be less involved, period, and that the chief design officer title is almost ceremonial.

Ive has also always been a bit of a mystery man at Apple. There aren’t many people who work with him directly, and those few who do, don’t talk about it. Almost everything I’ve heard about Ive’s current role is second or third-hand. Nobody has said to me “Jony Ive has checked out of day-to-day product design.” What I have heard is from people who’ve said “I think Jony Ive has checked out of day-to-day product design.” There is a big difference between those two sentences. The first implies direct knowledge. The second is speculation. That’s what I tried to convey on The Talk Show last week.

Importantly, I’ve also heard from well-placed sources within Apple that there is nothing to this — that while Ive is devoting much of his time and attention to architecture recently (both for the new campus and Apple retail), every aspect of every new product remains as much under his watchful eye as ever. That his chief design officer title isn’t the least bit ceremonial, and instead is an accurate representation of his increased authority.1 Some of this I’d heard a while back. Some of this I’ve heard just in the last few days, in the wake of last week’s episode of the show and the ensuing misconstruing of my remarks.2

The Designed by Apple in California book is fascinating in this regard. It lets you see what you want to see. Steven Troughton-Smith expressed the “this is Ive’s swan song” side succinctly:

That it’s only the last 20 years says a lot — this is Ive’s portfolio, not Apple’s. My impression is that his career is drawing to a close.

I’ll argue the other side: the existence of this book — not just what the book is about, but the extraordinary effort that went into creating and printing it — is evidence that Jony Ive is wholly in charge of product at Apple. Perhaps every bit as much as Steve Jobs was. If Jony Ive wants to make a $300 book of super-high-end product photography, Apple makes that book. (See also: last year’s $20,000 gold Apple Watches.)

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, because I don’t want Ive to leave Apple. Confirmation bias can lead one to see what one wants to see. But if I had to bet, I’d bet he’s not going anywhere. Fundamentally I think Jony Ive loves Apple, feels a responsibility to the legacy of his collaboration with Steve Jobs, and that whatever aspirations he has for the remainder of his career, personally, they’re only possible at Apple. I think if you want to argue that Ive is one step out the door at Apple, you also have to argue that he’s one step out the door of being a designer. That doesn’t sound right to me.

I see why some people think Designed by Apple in California could be Ive’s goodbye to Apple. But it feels to me like Ive’s heartfelt goodbye to his best friend and colleague, five years gone. I don’t think Jony Ive is going anywhere.

  1. I think if Jony Ive were to be slowly extricating himself from Apple, he could get a ceremonial title, but a C-level corporate officer doesn’t sound ceremonial at all. It would be irresponsible for a publicly-held corporation to claim to have a C-level executive who didn’t actually have C-level responsibilities — and Tim Cook is most certainly not an irresponsible man. It has never made sense to me that so many people took Ive’s promotion to chief design officer as a sign that he’s on the way out. Corporate governance is serious business, and the fact that Tim Cook would not play fast and loose with it is reason to take it at face value. ↩︎

  2. When I first started seeing these “Gruber thinks Jony Ive is on his way out” stories, I was appalled. It felt like a punch to the gut, because it wasn’t what I meant to convey, and I realize how influential my word is in such regards. But perhaps it was worth it. It shook a few well-placed little birdies out of the tree, all of whom emphasized that Jony Ive is as connected to product design as ever. ↩︎︎