By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
July 1, 2009

Jonathan Ive, the reclusive designer of the iMac, iPod, PowerBook G4, MacBook and iPhone, made a rare public appearance Tuesday night at London’s Royal College of Art, where he was the guest of honor and featured speaker at an “Innovation Night” dinner.

The event was by invitation only, but one of the attendees was the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, who filed an appreciative report on the Beeb’s site.

“What emerged,” writes Cellan-Jones, “were some fascinating insights into the culture of Apple and the craft of industrial design. Ive was insistent that the key to Apple’s success was that it was not driven by money – a claim that may raise eyebrows amongst shareholders and customers – but by a complete focus on delivering just a few desirable and useful products.’For a large multi-billion dollar company we don’t actually make many different products,’ he explained. ‘We’re so focused, we’re very clear about our goals.’ “

The format of the talk was a fireside chat with Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College. Among the highlights:

  • “We don’t do focus groups,” Ive said firmly when asked how Apple (AAPL) decided what products to build. He explained that focus groups resulted in bland products designed not to offend anyone. (To which Sir Christopher added Henry Ford’s famous line that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they would have demanded a faster horse.)
  • Ive stressed the physicality of design — “from the Apple design workshop full of machines, throwing off a lot of noise and dust,” writes Cellan-Jones, “to visits to Japanese aluminium craftsmen to learn how that material could be crafted into a laptop casing. Yes, of course he and his team use all the latest computer-aided design tools — but he also likes to knock out a physical prototype and feel the weight of it in his hand.”
  • Ive told the story of how, as a young boy, he had taken apart an alarm clock and discovered inside the spare outer casing “an entire watch factory.”

“Extraordinary complexity wrapped in a simple, functional, touchable, beautiful case,” concludes Celan-Jones. “That seems to be the Apple design ethic.”

Got it in one.

Ive is scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate Wednesday from the Royal College, whose graduates include Ridley Scott (who directed the 1984 “Big Brother” Mac commercial), artist David Hockney and inventor James Dyson, designer of the Dyson vacuum.

[The photo of Ive in Apple’s design shop courtesy of filmaker Gary (Helvetica) Hustwit, whose new documentary
was released in March. Ive appears briefly in the trailer pasted below the fold.]

You May Like