So Jony Ive has a new title. So what? This banal little reshuffling could have a much bigger impact on Apple than you’d think. As Ive steps back from running day-to-day operations, it will make room for new designers — and a new design language — to emerge from the studio he managed for 20 years. And it’s about time.
The announcement that Ive would be moving from Senior Vice President of Design to Chief Design Officer at Apple was made in a profile of Ive published yesterday in The Telegraph. He will now be free to travel and, in the words of an email Tim Cook sent to the team obtained by 9to5Mac, focus “entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives.” Business Insider says it could be “the end of the Ive era.” Taking his place will be Alan Dye, the new head of UI, and Richard Howarth, the new head of Industrial Design.
As Ive steps back and two of his employees step up to take his place, what will it mean for the look and feel of future Apple devices? Well, let’s take a look back at the designers that shaped Apple’s product lines to see how much a few people can change the company’s signature products.
Apple’s First Design Genius
In the early 1980s, Apple hired a German designer named Hartmut Esslinger — who worked under the auspices of his own company Frog design — to make its products into enviable pieces of design.
What Esslinger came up with was called Snow White; a language that still echoes through Apple gadgets today. Everything Apple came from Snow White: The inlaid logo. The white and grey plastic. The sleek, simple profiles and focus on unpretentious, user-friendly UX. It “expressed the very specific values and aspirations of Apple,” Esslinger said in 2009. “The key was that Steve Jobs wanted ‘the very best design, not only in the computer industry but the entire World.'”
And it paid off. Apple became a sensation — not just for its electronics but for the aspirational lifestyle that Snow White came to represent. It simply looked like the future, and as a bonus, it operated like it too. Back in 1999, Esslinger said as much about his time at Apple in an interview with Forbes. “Ultimately brand position is what counts, and brand goes back to the emotional content of products,” he said.
What happened? Well, Steve Jobs left Apple, and Esslinger followed him. What came next was a dark period for Apple. Other computer makers copied Snow White, and Apple stopped feeling special, as Ed Tracy explains in his classic Apple and the History of Computer Design:
As Apple’s products became less differentiated, their perceived value lowered. In late 1989, it first became clear that they would not prosper long selling almost exclusively expensive computers with nearly unchanging physical designs.
Unfocused experiments, like a vertically-oriented monitor, reigned. Apple’s sales floundered. Without its reputation as a leader in design, it was simply nothing special.
Apple’s fortunes changed with Jobs’ return, of course, but in many ways Ive — who joined the team a bit before Jobs came back — turned things around from a design standpoint. Starting with the iMac, he gave Apple the design language it had been missing since Esslinger left.
The Third Gen
It’s been more than 20 years since Ive developed Apple’s second language, and in some ways, Apple has come full circle back to the 1980s. Its second wildly successful design language has made it into a cultural phenomenon — one that has been copied and even improved upon by its competitors, just like Snow White was in the 1980s.
The Apple Watch has been compared to Newton, Apple’s failed PDA experiment. And in some ways, that fits with the moment in history Apple seems to be repeating. That’s not to say Apple is in trouble the way it was during those years — Apple is rolling in cash and expanding into China at breakneck speed. But it’s also in transition. The Apple Watch isn’t the next iPod or iPhone. What is remains to be seen.
We’ve known, thanks to the New Yorker‘s recent profile, that Jony Ive has pined to return home to England for years. As Business Insider’s James Cook points out, this will let Ive return home without a departure from Apple. Perhaps promoting him — and freeing him from the drudgery of Cupertino — is a way to keep him from moving on completely from Apple, and avoid the kind of brain drain that Jobs and Esslinger’s departure from the company in the late 1980s created.
We still don’t know who will be the next Ive. Introducing two of his proteges as his immediate replacements will allow Apple to test them under Ive’s general oversight. Even Ive worked on some clunkers when he was first starting out at an almost-bankrupt Apple — an experience he called “extraordinarily painful.”
It’s easy to forget that Apple has seem some seriously close calls in its very short history, and easy to forget that a lot of those problems were related to design. Ive isn’t leaving Apple. This isn’t necessarily a way for Apple to dodge the SEC, or any number of other theories or rumours about the news. But it does clear a path for Apple to bring up a third generation of designers — without the chaos and uncertainty that plagued their successors.