According to any reasonable set of quantifiable measures, Jony Ive departs Apple as the greatest product designer who has ever lived. His hit products sold in vast numbers and were fundamentally transformative to both the company he worked for and the world at large. We all know their names: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. Together, these products helped set the direction for the most consequential industry of the last century.
As the leader of design at Apple, Ive inevitably receives acclaim for work done by other people on his team. This is what it means to be the public face of a collaborative endeavor involving hundreds of people. Ive himself is the first to credit his team, always using the word "we" in his appearances in Apple's design videos. One gets the impression that Ive has historically used "we" to refer to the design team at Apple, rather than Apple as a whole, but he certainly never meant it to refer to himself.
While the iPhone is obviously the most important product in Ive's portfolio, his most significant and lasting contribution to Apple and the tech industry in general is embodied by a product that he worked on much more directly, and with far less help: the original iMac.
Aside from dramatically reversing Apple's slide into obscurity, the iMac finally pushed the industry over the hill it had been climbing for decades. Nearly overnight, it went from an industry primarily concerned with technical specifications to one that more closely matches every other mainstream consumer business—one where fashion and aesthetics are not just a part of the appeal of a product, they are often the dominant factor. As much as any individual product design, this is Ive's legacy.
There is a certain predictable progression in the career of creative professionals. In the beginning is the acquisition of basic skills and experience—the tools needed on the road to mastery. Work done in this phase is more likely to be constrained by the orthodoxy of a given industry. The first step to making a great product is to make a competent product. One must know the rules before breaking them.
The lives of creative people are often animated by a few deeply held notions. These may be philosophical, aesthetic, fanciful—anything that stirs the soul. Early creative work often fails to embody these ideals to the satisfaction of the creator. Perhaps one's skills are not yet adequate. Perhaps one lacks the confidence to defy convention to the degree required. An early-career creative professional is surrounded by constraints.
With the acquisition of greater skill and authority comes more freedom. If you're Jony Ive, working in a company where that skill has led to world-changing hit products and their associated fortune and well-deserved corporate promotion, you may find yourself with very few limitations indeed. Everything has come together to finally give you a chance to do it right for once—to get closer than ever to that deeply held notion, that ideal.
It's not hard to guess what animates Ive's design philosophy. He's repeated some variation of it in nearly every Apple product design video. Ive wants to get to the essential nature of a thing. By stripping away the extraneous, we are left with the intrinsic truth of a thing. A successful design should seem obvious in retrospect. It should seem inevitable.
This philosophy has been embodied in the products themselves, and its potency has tracked Ive's career. Early on, technical, financial, and authoritative limits led to designs that today's Ive would likely view as over-complicated: a jigsaw of decorative exterior panels fastened to an inner framework housing a hodgepodge of components.
Contrast this with latter-day products like the unibody Apple laptops, where a single slab of machined aluminum replaced dozens of individual parts and their associated fasteners, seams, squeaks, and rattles. Or look at products like AirPods and the Apple Pencil that seem not to be assembled at all, but rather to have sprung into existence as complete entities. When introducing each similar product or manufacturing advance—each further simplification—Ive's joy has been apparent, even through his usual understated demeanor.
And so we come to the most common criticism of Ive's work. With so few limitations on his power and skills, the spark that animates his creative philosophy has been allowed to burn so brightly that it has overwhelmed everything else. Symmetry overrides utility1. Simplicity overrides flexibility2. Purity of form overrides quality of function3.
This creative arc is dramatized in spectacular fashion in Zima Blue, an animated short that's part of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death & Robots. I don't want to spoil the ending; suffice it to say that I doubt Jony Ive's career beyond Apple will lead to quite such a dramatic conclusion. But the dogged pursuit of a core animating belief rings true to me.
If Ive has overstayed his usefulness at Apple, it is only by a little. Few careers in any field will ever match his run at Apple. His designs changed the tech industry forever, and he hit home run after home run on the playing field that he built.
It's often said that the best creative work requires limitations. In this case, another piece of industry wisdom also applies: success hides problems. But in the years to come, when I look back on Jony Ive's work at Apple, I doubt I'll dwell much on the tail end, when he very nearly caught that thing he'd been pursuing for his entire career. Will he ever catch it? Does anyone? I'm not sure it matters to me. After all, it's the chase that I love.