By John Gruber
Atoms: We are mostly sold out... but there is more!
Apple today announced that Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, will depart the company as an employee later this year to form an independent design company which will count Apple among its primary clients. While he pursues personal projects, Ive in his new company will continue to work closely and on a range of projects with Apple.
First: Wow. There’ve been rumors for years that Ive had one foot out the door, that his last real interest at Apple was designing Apple Park, not Apple products. But it’s something else to see it. This angle that he’s still going to work with Apple as an independent design firm seems like pure spin. You’re either at Apple or you’re not. Ive is out.
Second: This dropped like a bomb. As far as I can tell no one in the media got a heads up about this news. Ever since Steve Jobs died it’s seemed to me that Ive ran his own media interaction.
Third: This may be good news. Ive is, to state the obvious, preternaturally talented. But in the post-Jobs era, with all of Apple design, hardware and software, under his control, 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. Today’s MacBooks are worse computers but more beautiful devices than the ones they replaced. Is that directly attributable to Jony Ive? With these keyboards in particular, I believe the answer is yes.
Fourth: Apple’s hardware and industrial design teams work so far out that, even if I’m right and Ive is now effectively out of Apple, we’ll still be seeing Ive-designed hardware 5 years from now. It is going to take a long time to evaluate his absence.
Fifth: Fuck this “sir” shit. We don’t have titles in the United States.
“Jony is a singular figure in the design world and his role in Apple’s revival cannot be overstated, from 1998’s groundbreaking iMac to the iPhone and the unprecedented ambition of Apple Park, where recently he has been putting so much of his energy and care,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “Apple will continue to benefit from Jony’s talents by working directly with him on exclusive projects, and through the ongoing work of the brilliant and passionate design team he has built. After so many years working closely together, I’m happy that our relationship continues to evolve and I look forward to working with Jony long into the future.”
Translation: He’s gone.
Design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.
This organizational structure makes no sense to me.
I’ve never been an “Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs” person. But part of what made Apple the Apple we know in the post-1997 era is that when Jobs was at the helm, all design decisions were going through someone with great taste. Not perfect taste, but great taste. But the other part of what made Jobs such a great leader is that he could recognize bad decisions, sooner rather than later, and get them fixed.
I think Tim Cook is a great CEO and Jeff Williams is a great COO. But who’s in charge of product design now? There is no new chief design officer, which, really, is what Steve Jobs always was. From a product standpoint, the post-Jobs era at Apple has been the Jony Ive era, not the Tim Cook era. That’s not a knock on Tim Cook. To his credit, Tim Cook has never pretended to be a product guy, which is exactly the hubris that John Sculley succumbed to back in the early ’90s, leading to the Newton being launched far before it was ready and the Macintosh platform languishing.
My gut sense for years has been that Ive without Jobs has been like McCartney without Lennon. Or Lennon without McCartney — take whichever analogical pairing you prefer. My point here is only that the fruit of their collaborations were, seemingly magically, far greater than the sums of the duos’ talents and tastes.
One thing I do know — which Cook alludes to in his statement above, and which I think was made crystal clear in Ian Parker’s extraordinary 2015 profile of Ive in The New Yorker, which is, in my opinion, the most insightful piece ever written about post-Jobs Apple — is that Jony Ive had moved beyond designing computers. And let’s be clear: the entire point of Apple has always been and should always remain designing computers. Everything they make is a computer. Their genius in recent years has been making things that don’t seem like computers but really are computers. Apple Watch is a computer. AirPods are computers. We’ve got computers — excellent computers — in our fucking ears. That’s Apple.
But Ive’s attention turned more toward architecture. Apple Park is going to be a 100-year testimony to Jony Ive’s design. And it’s fascinating to me that Ive is leaving Apple with a single typeface — San Francisco — that the company now uses for everything. It’s the system font for every platform. It’s the only font they use for advertising and packaging. Type choices under Steve Jobs were excellent, but always a little ad hoc. Myriad for advertising and packaging, Lucida Grande for Mac OS X, Helvetica for the iPhone. I think it’s safe to say that Steve Jobs was far less rigorous than Jony Ive. The rigor necessary to develop a single type family that can work for everything from a digital watch face to a 100-foot billboard advertisement is extraordinary. And Ive has also brought that rigorous consistency to Apple’s architecture. Their new campus and their new retail stores are of the same design language — lighting, materials, furniture.
But Apple doesn’t need a chief architect. They’re only going to build one Apple Park and it’s already been done.
It makes me queasy to see that Apple’s chief designers are now reporting to operations. This makes no more sense to me than having them report to the LLVM compiler team in the Xcode group. Again, nothing against Jeff Williams, nothing against the LLVM team, but someone needs to be in charge of design for Apple to be Apple and I can’t see how that comes from operations. I don’t think that “chief design officer” should have been a one-off title created just for Jony Ive. Not just for Apple, but especially at Apple, it should be a permanent C-level title. I don’t think Ive ever should have been put in control of software design, but at least he is a designer.
I don’t worry that Apple is in trouble because Jony Ive is leaving; I worry that Apple is in trouble because he’s not being replaced.