Industrial Craftsmanship

Review of Leander Kahney’s “Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”

When Jony Ive was working on a radically modern telephone design for his final-year undergraduate university project at Newcastle Polytechnic, he invited his friend, Clive Grinyer, to take a look. When Grinyer arrived at Ive’s apartment he was in for a surprise. As Leander Kahney, the author of Jony Ive’s biography writes, Grinyer “found the apartment filled with more than a hundred foam model prototypes of Jony’s project, his design discipline on display. When most students might build half a dozen models, Jony had built a hundred.”

Iteration is something we’re used to seeing from Apple’s product strategy. Every year or so the company updates a product in each of their categories, but rather than taking revolutionary steps there are always a collection of small—and sometimes not so small—evolutionary changes, each building on the foundation that is the last generation. Iteration is also one of the main reasons for Ive’s success as a designer, or, more precisely: ceaseless, systematic iteration fueled by a relentless work ethic.

In Art & Fear, David Bayles tells the story of a ceramics teacher who divided his class into two groups, telling one group that they would be graded on the quality of their work, required to produce just one great pot, the other on quantity, required a certain amount of pots to make the grade. It turned out that the group that produced the best work was the group that was tasked with making the most. The creation of actual products was far more beneficial to the learning process than sitting around and theorizing on how to make the best possible product.

From the very beginning of his extraordinary career, Jony Ive has developed a strong work ethic, working his paper designs into full-scale models at every iteration. As Ive himself says: “when you make a 3D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes. It galvanizes and brings focus from a broad group of people.”1 For example, when Ive’s team were working on the new latch mechanism for the Titanium PowerBook, they designed, and actually produced, a sample of twelve different power buttons, each slightly different than the rest. When the team was working on the first iPhone they made a series of models for various screen sizes, and, having tried each physical model in the hand, were able to pick out the most comfortable size. As Kahney reports, a former Apple designer said that they spent millions of dollars producing such prototypes. Quality is not the opposite of quantity. Quality is the outcome of quantity—or, more precisely: it’s the result of producing a lot and filtering it down to the very best.

Although Apple’s design is always attributed in the media to Jony Ive, it’s actually the product of a team of around sixteen people, the team otherwise known as IDg (Industrial Design Group). Each designer is responsible for his or her project, so a particular model or iteration of an Apple product is not necessarily designed by Ive, although the team obviously shares and brainstorms ideas together and sticks to a coherent design language in their work. This allocation of credit to Ive is not malicious, and from all indications Jony Ive does not appear to be the type of person who cares much about credit (he once said that he does not like collecting prizes). The prominence of Ive’s name seems more for the sake of protecting the rest of the team from outside forces like journalists and headhunters. I would add that this also shields the team from public scrutiny, and thus, pressure. Because it is their work and not themselves that will be judged, the designers of the IDg are more open to experimentation and more radical solutions.

Beyond iteration, there emerges a clear theme of craftsmanship, which, in the modern sense, is the possession of a working knowledge of how the entirety of the product fits together and works. For example, at one point in time—a time before the return of Jobs, and before Apple even had a proper design team—Apple approached the famous car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro for his help. He took on their commission and created a few product concepts. But his ideas were not detailed prototypes, they were “impressions” that were passed down to his team, who then interpreted those impressions into clay models, making their own design decisions as they went along. This was the very opposite of how Ive approached his work.

Where Giugiaro is more akin to an artist, Ive is a craftsman. Even in his childhood Jony Ive was fascinated with how things were made, taking things apart so he could discover the secrets of their innards. At university, Ive would think through every detail of his work, down to the placement of every last screw. A designer with such a deep appreciation of construction, as well as a knowledge of the materials from which a thing is made, is not merely “skinning” a product, that is, is not merely creating a beautiful shell in which the innards created by other engineers are to live, but rather, is engaged in the creation of the whole from the inside out. It allows the designer to find better solutions and to rethink the construction of a product in a way that an artist creating mere impressions would never be able to do. This is, quite literally, industrial craftsmanship.

  1. Quoted in Mark Prigg, “Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan Cometh,” London Evening Standard, 12 March 2012
July 2016