Jayashantha Jayawardhana profiles Jonathan Ive

The first half of 1997 saw Apple Inc. at its lowest ebb. Every news article about the company would open with the stock phrase: ‘The beleaguered computer maker Apple…’ In June that year, Wired magazine took this further with a cover that had a big Apple logo with a crown of barbed wire and a caption that read: ‘Pray!’

These are among the memories that the harried head of industrial design at Apple – Jonathan Ive – remembers to this day.

But the critics were soon proved wrong when Steve Jobs returned to Apple some 12 years after his egregious ouster to take the reins of the company. His efforts with Ive sparked a creative collaboration that would be instrumental in engineering the most remarkable corporate turnaround of the 1990s.

On his return to Apple, Jobs initially approached Richard Sapper who had designed IBM’s ThinkPad to replace Ive. But the latter turned down Jobs’ offer as he didn’t want to abandon his lucrative IBM contract for a minuscule company.

Jobs also invited Hartmut Esslinger – Apple’s industrial designer in the 1980s – to come on board. Esslinger reportedly convinced Jobs that Apple’s existing design team including Ive was very talented and competent if given the right leadership.

Ive recalls meeting Jobs at Apple’s design studio. Fearing the worst, Ive had his resignation letter in his pocket. When Jobs eventually met Ive, he exclaimed: “You’ve not been very effective, have you?” The exclamation was preceded by an expletive.

Coming from Jobs, this was half a compliment. Jobs was clearly convinced that the studio’s work had value even if Ive could be blamed for not communicating its worth to the company.

That day, as Ive revealed to The New Yorker, they started collaborating on what became the iMac. Their creative collaboration would go uninterrupted until Jobs became too ill to work in 2011 and saw Ive, an industrial designer, become Apple’s greatest product. At Jobs’ memorial in 2011, Ive called him “my closest and most loyal friend.”

Today, some eight years after Jobs’ death, Ive is Apple’s Chief Design Officer. He is in essence an artist and Apple is a corporate giant that relies entirely on his design judgement.

Ive’s mark is on everything Apple builds – from the airy minimalist chic of its 506 retail stores to groundbreaking devices like the iPhone and iPad, and new arrivals such as the Apple Watch and HomePod speaker. “He’s so good on proportion and dimension,” says Laurene Powell Jobs, who  has consulted Ive over the years about eyeglasses, flatware and the right height of countertops to name a few.

A few years ago, in an interview with Time, Ive famously remarked: “We’re surrounded by anonymous poorly made objects. It is tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care – just like the people who make them. But what we’ve shown is that people do care.”

“It’s not only about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well-made. We make and sell a very large number of beautiful well-made things. Our success is a victory for purity, integrity and giving a damn,” Ive also said at the time. This encapsulates his design vision and philosophy for Apple.

From his young days, Ive practically grew up among tools and workshops – drawing inspiration from some unlikely sources like a Rams designed Braun MPZ 2 Citromatic juicer in the kitchen. His father Michael Ive, now retired, was a secondary school teacher of design and technology, and later a government adviser on design education.

When Michael saw an ingenious obstacle in wood and cardboard made by his little boy for a pet hamster, and a drawing of a scuba diver that was so accurate in its perspective with an astonishing sense of movement, he knew Jonathan was no ordinary kid.

Ive recalls an unusual Christmas gift from his father. It was an agreement: “If I spent time determining what I wanted to make and developing the idea with drawings, he would give me some of his time and together, we would go into the university workshops and complete it.”

In 1985, Ive enrolled at the Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) and started studying industrial design. He joined Apple in 1992, met Jobs in 1997… and the rest is history.

Clive Grinyer – who co-founded Tangerine, a London based design consultancy and knew Ive well – described him as “the most focussed human being I’ve ever come across.” Steve Jobs also echoed those sentiments.

Ive’s work is widely believed to be influenced by Dieter Rams of Braun fame. While Rams’ designs have been sold by the thousands, Ive’s pieces have been sold by the millions – they add up to over 1.5 billion pieces by today’s conservative estimate – a rare feat that few can emulate.

The question that begs to be asked is: if he left the company, would Apple still be Apple?