It’s official. The man behind so many iconic product designs for Apple is leaving to form his own design company.
On the surface, this seems like a huge blow to Apple. Jony Ive helped design some of the most iconic products of all time. Notice I didn’t say tech products. That’s because his designs transcended tech.
The iPod’s click wheel was revolutionary at the time. The iPhone introduced the masses to multi-touch and inspired a wave of copycats. The MacBook Air reinvented the laptop with a design that could fit in a manila envelope. And the iPad made Windows-powered Tablet PCs look downright dowdy.
But if you look at the current state of things, some Apple products are starting to look stale.
Even if you ignore the controversial butterfly keyboard, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro line have been surpassed in design by Dell (see the XPS 13) and others that have embraced thinner bezels. And Apple hasn’t experimented in ages with other materials. HP, for example, has a leather 2-in-1 in the Spectre Folio that I really like.
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The iPad Pro has been modernized with slim bezels and Face ID, but its optional keyboard is one of the worst I’ve ever used and feels like an afterthought. (To be fair, it is.)
How about the iPhone? The notch introduced on the iPhone X became a calling card that other smartphone makers initially aped for no good reason other than the fact that it looked Apple-y. But now other companies have forged ahead with clever full-screen designs, some of which incorporate a pop-up camera. And other companies like Oppo are showing off under-display cameras.
The new Mac Pro, as amazingly powerful as it is, has been derided as an oversized cheese grater.
The point I’m trying to make is that Apple could use someone to shake up the aesthetic of its products. But the trick is being willing to take more risks without sacrificing your brand identity — and without doing something so bold it could blow up in your face like the still-delayed Galaxy Fold. Adding more colors, like Apple did with the iPhone XR, is not enough.
Taking over for Ive will be design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of industrial design, and Alan Dye, vice president of human interface design. According to Apple, Dye and Hankey "have played key leadership roles on Apple’s design team for many years.” They'll report to Apple COO Jeff Williams.
As John Gruber notes in his analysis on Daring Fireball, not having a single design head could be a mistake. "I don’t think that 'chief design officer' should have been a one-off title created just for Jony Ive. Not just for Apple, but especially at Apple, it should be a permanent C-level title." He also writes that having Gruber in charge of both hardware and software design was a mistake.
It’s important to note that Ive will reportedly still be working with Apple while at his new firm on “a range of products.” But it’s clear that Ive won’t be able to devote nearly as much as his time to Apple as he has in the past.
And that might not be such a bad thing as Apple embarks on a new decade of innovations.