Beauty, Truth, and Jony Ive

MacBook Air

The prevailing wisdom about software design at Apple is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of simulated real-world materials, slavish imitation of physical devices, and other skeuomorphic design elements, producing a recent crop of applications that suffer from an uncomfortable tension between the visual design of the software and its usability and features. After the executive reshuffle six months ago, we Apple fans have been hoping that Jony Ive, now in charge of Human Interface for both hardware and software, will end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

With iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 looming, we’re left to wonder exactly what kind of software designer Ive will turn out to be. Certainly, Apple’s software has been influenced by Ive’s hardware designs in the past—and perhaps vice versa—but this will be the first time Ive is officially in charge of the virtual bits as well as the physical ones.

We may not have much to go on when predicting Ive’s software tastes, but we do know a heck of a lot about his opinions on hardware design. Though Ive has historically spent his time at Apple keynotes in the audience rather than on the stage, he’s starred in many, many videos wherein he explains why Apple’s great new hardware product looks and works the way it does. In these videos, his message has been remarkably consistent.

Ive demands that the hardware be true to itself—its purpose, its materials, the way it looks, and the way it feels. Here’s a quote from one of Ive’s rare appearances outside an Apple press event, talking about hardware design at Apple.

When we’re designing a product, we have to look to different attributes of the product. Some of those attributes will be the materials that it’s made from and the form that’s connected to those materials. So for example, with the first iMac that we made, the primary component of that was the cathode ray tube, which was spherical. We would have an entirely different approach to designing something like that than the current iMac, which is a very thin, flat-panel display. […]

A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like [the iPhone] is actually getting design out of the way. And I think when forms develop with that sort of reason, and they’re not just arbitrary shapes, it feels almost inevitable. It feels almost undesigned. It feels almost like, well, of course it’s that way. You know, why wouldn’t it be any other way?

Steve Jobs also subscribed to this philosophy. Witness his explanation of the design of the first iMac with an LCD display at Macworld New York in 2002. Here’s how Jobs described Apple’s solution to the inherent compromises (in 2002 technology) of putting an optical drive in a vertical orientation and trying to pack an entire computer behind an LCD display.

The big ideas was, that rather than glom these things all together and ruin them all—a lower-performance computer and a flat screen that isn’t flat anymore—why don’t we let each element be true to itself? If the screen is flat, let it be flat. If the computer wants to be horizontal, let it be horizontal.

It’s interesting that Jobs and Ive saw eye to eye on hardware design and yet seemed far apart, at least in Jobs’s final years, when it comes to software design. While Jobs was reportedly a champion of rich Corinthian leather, Ive could only wince when asked about it in an interview.

I’m confident that we’ll see less leather, wood, felt, and animated reel-to-reel tapes in Apple’s future software products, but the question remains: what does it mean for an application or an OS to be true to itself?

I’m not sure how Ive will express that concept, but Loren Brichter, creator of Tweetie and Letterpress, offers one possible interpretation on an episode of the Debug podcast (starting at 6:10, and again at 1:02:26, specifically mentioning Ive). Letterpress is an exemplar of the so-called “flat design” aesthetic (and it’s also currently featured on the front page of Apple.com). Brichter designed the look and feel of Letterpress based on the things that modern graphics hardware is naturally good at doing: drawing and manipulating flat planes of mostly solid colors.

A design philosophy so tightly linked to nitty-gritty details of silicon chips and OpenGL APIs is unlikely to resonate with Ive as much as it does with a programmer like Brichter, but the end results may be similar. I expect Ive to focus on harmony between the look and feel of the software, the materials and finish of the hardware, and most importantly, the intended purpose of each specific application. (It’s kind of a shame that Apple’s already used the “Harmony” code name.) This is my message to Jony Ive and my hope for iOS 7, OS X 10.9, and each bundled application: to thine own self be true.