Saturday, October 07, 2017, 04:50 am PT (07:50 am ET)
In a conversation at The New Yorker’s TechFest conference in Manhattan on Friday, Apple chief designer Jony Ive gave a small glimpse into the development of the upcoming iPhone X, and the time that it takes for technology to catch up to ideas —and AppleInsider was there.
JONY IVE, CHIEF DESIGN OFFICER, APPLE, IS INTERVIEWED AT THE NEW YORKER TECHFEST
OCTOBER 6, 2017
SPEAKERS: JONY IVE, CHIEF DESIGN OFFICER, APPLE
DAVID REMNICK, THE NEW YORKER
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the presentation is about to begin. Please take your seats.
REMNICK: Good afternoon.
At “The New Yorker,” the preferred mode of expression and rhetoric is understatement. So I’ll say this: Michelangelo was a painter, Jony Ive was a designer.
As Apple’s chief design officer, he leads a creative team that is broadly regarded as, without question, the world’s best. He holds 5,000-plus patents, which is 5,000-plus more than me.
And his work is held in the permanent collection of art and design museums all around the world.
He’s a chance —he’s the chancellor of the Royal College of Art and holds honorary doctorates from the Rhode Island School of Design, from Oxford and from Cambridge. A native of London, Sir Jony —Sir Jony, can I —is that OK?
IVE: That —that’s quite correct.
REMNICK: I like that. I want to be Sir David, actually.
He was made knight commander by her majesty, the queen, in 2013.
So Jony, I want to start —we —we had a brief conversation the other day which sparked this question.
In a wonderful profile by Ian Parker in our magazine we were lucky to do, you described something extraordinary.
We live in two worlds at once, even in —even in the city. We live in the natural world, trees, grass, dirt.
REMNICK: And we live in the manufactured world.
And when you walk around the manufactured world, too much of it —so much of it testifies to carelessness in —in —in human activity, in engineering, in ascetics.
What do you mean by that? What is carelessness and what —how does it offend you and maybe push you toward creative work?
IVE: Well I think that this —this —this stems from a realization. And I think, I mean, this is —I think this is a big deal that every single object that is made testifies to the values and the preoccupations of the people that got together to make it.
And I guess it’s —it’s a, sort of, an occupational hazard of mine, but I find it very hard not to see what —what’s behind the object. Because the object really is the culmination of multiple decisions. It’s —it’s a comment on, sort of, an individual’s, sort of, sets of values; a collection of people, how they work and what they believe in.
But everything made testifies to a —a criteria and set of values.
REMNICK: And did this concept, ascetic and otherwise, occur to you as a —as a young person and drive you towards your life’s work? What did you —what we’re you seeing in the world?
IVE: Well, I think what struck me was just the incredible amount of effort that goes into every single little thing.
I mean, in —in this room, the —the —it didn’t just happen. There were so many conscious decisions made.
And I think as, probably just before I went to —to art school, I was curious about —I —I —I was trying to figure out what my reaction —what constituted my reaction to an object. Why did I like certain things? And why did I absolutely detest other things?
REMNICK: What did you detest?
IVE: Most things, really.
REMNICK: I knew I liked you.
IVE: I —I —well I —you know, you look at things and you can see most things are built either in an opportunistic way; they’re built to a cost, they’re built to a schedule and very often they’re not built for people. And…
REMNICK: Can you be specific about that?
IVE: Well, the…
REMNICK: I mean, besides the New York subway system.
IVE: Well, so I —I —it was a tentative thought that has now become something I believe to be very true and I think is a fairly robust thesis, which is I —I truly believe that we may not be able to consciously articulate why we like something, but I believe as a species, I believe we sense care. Some —and we would find it very hard to articulate, but that we —that we genuinely sense care in the same way we sense carelessness.
And —and I —I think that —I mean, this has been a multi-multi year struggle but just trying to understand —because an awful lot of what preoccupies us in my day-to-day job that is unseen, certainly unseen with your eyes. And we —we can become so fanatical that at certain points think, “Does this really matter?”
And I mean, the care that we will put into designing the inside of a product just because it seems like the right thing to do, because materials are precious, and if we are going to be a good responsible custodian of translating them from a raw material to a final product, they should be treated seriously.
And I think it —the —that the stuff that makes me crazy is just you see some things that seem to be a vehicle for self-expression —and I’m not interested in seeing a designer wagging their tail in my face. If it’s a table it needs to work as a table, and be beautifully resolve. If —self-expression is —is fine art.
And or there’s just a flippancy and just this general sense of, “Well, we just have to get it done,” and this, sort of, sense of inevitability.
REMNICK: You work in the ultimate intersection of technology, business concerns and art. And I want to try to get a sense from you how, on the most basic products that you’ve worked on, basic inventions and designs that you’ve worked on, how the chicken-and-egg problem begins.
And —and you’re a great collaborator for years and years with Steve Jobs. And where did the ideas come from? I mean, I —people ask that of songwriters and poets and all kinds of things and it sounds very basic and sometimes futile to try to grapple with. But how does it —how did it work and how does it work? What precedes what?
IVE: I mean, I think there a number of very different approaches and I think they —they —they’e not mutually exclusive. So I —I think sometimes there are very —there are things that drive you crazy and you think there has to be a better way of doing this.
So —so when we worked on the iPhone, certainly a significant part of my motivation was the loathing we had for the phones that we were using.
REMNICK: Why? Because they felt horrible in the hand, they didn’t work, they just looked like crap? What was it?
IVE: I think all of that.
That —I mean, I think they were —I think they were little soul-destroying.
You know, communication is an important thing. It normally is a prelude to revolution, and they were —they were flippant. They were poorly made. They were —to me, they testify to convenience, and a lack of ambition. And to me, one of the things that I —I just find it hard not to take affront at that. I think we’re important, and we deserve at least a sincere effort.
So —so —so you have projects that really grow from that sort of motivation, and you also have —I mean, one —one of the, I think, defining characteristics of the design team is we are just hopelessly inquisitive, and so we’re constantly exploring. And whether that working with our friends in the different —in the respective technology groups, or whether that’s just exploring thoughts that are more about culture and context. So these things are all bubbling away, and I think normally what —when those come into some sort of alignment, you get to do something more profound.
REMNICK: You’ve described yourself as a dreadful businessman. And by the way, as —for a dreadful businessman, you’ve done all right. You really mean it, or is that the self-effacing side of —of your personality or —or what?
IVE: No, I —I —I have a problem with numbers, and I don’t really have much interest been in —in business. I —I really —I’m very clear. I knew I’ve been very fortunate that I discovered very early on where my competence laid, and it was —it was deep, but very, very quickly, if I moved beyond the boundaries of designing, it was —my, you know, expertise really did drop off and my relevance that the same.
But I —I do think that —I mean, Steve was very clear that the goal of Apple was not to make money. And we were very, very disciplined and very clear about how we configured our goals. And actually, this is interesting. This is a good example of this. I —I was —I joined Apple in ’92, and I got to watch —I was very interested in the company and the culture, not particularly technology, when I graduated.
As an independent designer in London, Apple were a client. And so I went over to —in ’92, and it was just as Apple was starting its decline into total irrelevance, and it was an extremely painful time. And I’m sure many of you will know how we —we sadly learn a lot about life through death, and I learned a lot about a collection of people, that I guess we call a corporation, but a healthy one and a very unhealthy one.
But I —I —I got to live through a succession of CEOs whose focus was turning the company around. And that mainly meant, let’s try and make more money than we lose. And it was very much a money-focused turning around effort. And, what was shocking when Steve returned in, I think it was ’96, he did not talk at all about money.
And we were —I mean we were losing fabulously large sums of money every quarter. I mean quite astonishing, but he didn’t talk —because he didn’t talk about money. It’s very easy —I mean if you want to stop losing so much money you can make some fair;y draconian cuts and hope you might make —so, that wasn’t the focus. The focus was the products was more direct than this. The products aren’t very good, are they? Let’s focus on making some good products.
REMNICK: So, what was the Lennon-McCartney breakthrough with you. In other words you get in the room with him and you find some common language Lennon and McCartney somehow had this mix of talents, one more raw, one more cynical, the other one coming out of the you know British dancehall tradition, and somehow the next thing you know they’re revolutionaries together.
And I know you want to make sure that Steve Jobs is the singular figure in this. OK, OK but you have pretty damn big role here. How did you —what was the specificity of the relationship because I get the feeling it wasn’t him saying, make this and come back later.
IVE: Oh no, no, we —I mean, I’ve never quite had this experience before, and I’ve not had it since. But we, on first meeting, in a quite shocking way, really didn’t click. So I mean, we just established an immediate understanding.
REMNICK: What was said? Where was it? What was it like?
IVE: He came to the design studio, and he realized that there was this huge disconnect between the work we were doing and work that Apple was shipping. And he made the observation and articulated his observation with saying how incredibly ineffective I’d been.
And he was completely right. As the head of design I’d been ultimately completely ineffective, and been making models that you could dust. That was it. But I think…
REMNICK: Were you offended? Were you upset when he said this?
IVE: Oh, no. The truth was very —it was —it’s sort of hard to hear, but somehow the situation was harder than his words, because I moved from London to join this group of hippies in California, and I thought there was something very special about the company.
And I was working for a consultant where you are just designing, but in a way that’s so removed from a set of values. I was very invested in this company, and it broke my heart’s watching it drift into irrelevance.
But, I think, I mean to your question of how we got on, I mean, we became very close friends. We would go on holiday together, and we would work together pretty much every day. We’d have lunch every day and spent a chunk of the afternoon.
But I think there is something —I am still intrigued by this, which is that there’s just something about the creative process that I still find remarkable, that you know, on the Tuesday there’s not an idea. It’s just Tuesday. And on Wednesday, there’s an idea. And it starts —invariably starts as a very tentative and fragile thought. And I think nearly always it’s a thought that one of us would have, and it’s so nebulous that the ability to try and describe it and communicate it is very important and formative to that idea. And I think that’s why our relationship and our ability to somehow sense in an almost pre-verbal way, was fundamental to —to the work that we did.
And the — I still love that how, you know, you can have a thought that is so fragile that can become something so powerful, and I’m in awe and I still can’t —I —I feel so grateful that I can —I can participate in this process.
REMNICK: One of Steve Jobs’ heroes was Bob Dylan, and Dylan described when —he’s been at it for a long time. He’s in his 70’s now. He hasn’t stopped writing songs. He’s been writing songs since he was 20 years old. At the —at the very latest, 20 —so that’s 50 years of songs; there are hundreds of them. But there was a period between 1963, say, and the late 60’s where they were coming out of him in a magical way. And when he’s asked about that period —he calls it the “quicksilver period.” He describes it as if it had all the songs are being dictated to him in a way. He said, I could never do that again now. I can do this now. I can write —I can do this, I can Frank Sinatra songs, I can do all these other projects that have their value, but that period was magical and inexplicable. Do you feel that you had that with him, and that it’s irreplaceable somehow?
IVE: I —I —I think —I think that’s a lovely observation of —of that as a point in time. And the nature of that, I don’t believe, will —I can’t see happening in the same way. But I —I am 100 percent confident that we will be —continue to be prolific. And one of the reasons is…
REMNICK: And evolutionary?
IVE: Yes, I think so, absolutely. I —I —I think because one of the lovely things —I mean, as a design to we’ve worked together for a very long time. As a development community, you know, we have decades and decades. But we’ve learned —you know how its —there’s something particular and I think something quite special when you learn in community. And we have been sort of amassing experience over the years that combined with a number of technologies that obviously I can’t talk about.
REMNICK: Try me.
IVE: But I really am genuinely very excited about, and I…
REMNICK: Are you excited about artificial intelligence?
IVE: Yes, because I think —I mean, I think that can enable —I think that’s such a broad term, that is almost already becoming to mean so much and so little.
But I’m excited about what that could enable, what that could afford, because, I mean, we make tools and if —I —I’m excited about what —what good tools can —can lead to.
REMNICK: Let —let’s just stay on one tool that’s ubiquitous. You walk down the street. You’re in the subway. You’re bumping into people on the street as a result. There’s a ubiquity about the iPhone and its imitators.
And I wonder, when you’re in life —when you’re out there, all you people who are peeking at your phones right now because they’re —they may or may not be buzzing in your pocket, do you have any sense of how much you’ve changed life and the way daily life is lived, and the way our brains work? And how do you feel about it? Is is —is it —is it pure joy? Are you ambivalent about it in any way?
IVE: No, there’s —there’s certainly an awareness. I mean, I tend to be so completely preoccupied with what we’re working on at the moment. That tends to take the oxygen. Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.
And of course, I feel a joy when the products connect people. We —we —we get —well one, I mean, our customers are fabulous and aren’t reticent though (ph) about giving us feedback. But we do get so many letters.
I mean, it seems —I don’t know, when somebody takes the time to write a letter, that really —that means something. And so, on one side, when we look at the letters that we’ve received and the stories that we wouldn’t have known unless somebody had taken the time to tell their story, that’s encouraging, and that does give me joy. And when the tools are misused, that is —that’s…
REMNICK: How can —how can they be misused? What’s a misuse of an iPhone?
IVE: I think perhaps constant use.
Do you look at your e-mail constantly —and texts?
IVE: With my new watch, I tend to not. Which was one of the—
REMNICK: That was beautifully done.
IVE: It was, wasn’t it? I wish I did that more often.
No, and that —that was —it’s something that it feels a good healthy wrestle (ph). This isn’t a new phenomenon that we have to exercise a modicum of self-control to try and find the right balance.
I do think sometimes, it —it —it’s just nice to have space. I think we fill space because we can and not because we should.
REMNICK: What —let me ask you a very simple question about thinking and which it becomes —it’s, in some people’s minds, more and more difficult..
REMNICK: … because of the noisy, crowded world that we live in —and not that it wasn’t before. You work with a group. You know, when we talk about great artists slash(ph) inventors of the past, Da Vinci and —and the rest, we think of them in individual terms almost always. Is it necessary in the world that you are in, to go from an individual to a group model and how does the —how does the hive work, ideally?
IVE: You know, that’s a great question. Well I —I think one is an imperative. The products that we develop are so complex that they require multiple people that represent a broad range of expertise. And —and I —and I’ve often thought, I mean, in retrospect, what I will remember most fondly will not be the products it will be the process. It will be how fortunate I’ve been to work with some of the most extraordinary people on the planet.
So I —I —I think there’s an imperative that we —you know, you have that diversity, but of course it’s also a wonderful opportunity. When —when —when —what is, you know, the characteristic that does connect —I mean, if I get to sit down for two hours with one of the world’s best silicon chip designers, I could not be happier. And what connects us is a curiosity, and also sort of sense of the authentic pursuit of excellence. We may not get there, we often don’t, but that sense of really wanting to do something, make something very well.
REMNICK: How do you clear away —this is almost an organizational question, but it’s an essential question, and in any creative enterprise —clear away the —forgive me —the crap of everyday concerns and meetings that are of modest interest, et cetera, and think down the line in essential ways. How do you organize that? How did you figure out how to do it in your place of work?
IVE: Well, I —I —I mean, this —this is something very literally I had the most wonderful teacher in Steve, and I have never —I have never met anybody with his focus. And the —the —the efforts —its not you decide to be focused one month and you strung (ph) along, but the hourly, the daily extraordinary effort that it takes to focus.
And I remember sort of early on when we were working, and he was saying that, Jony, you have to understand there are measures of focus, and one of them is how often you say no. And we —we got into this incredibly patronizing deal where he would ask me how often I said no, and I would make stuff up, and one night —no, that’s not quite true. I didn’t make it up, but I wasn’t interested in doing something. So to say no was —was without great sacrifice.
REMNICK: Say no to?
IVE: An idea. And idea that I was excited about, that I wanted to spend time on. And the —the art of focus is even if it is something you care passionately about, focus means ignoring it, putting it to the side. And often, it’s at real cost. And he was remarkable at that.
And there have been a few occasions, a few periods where I felt have achieved that focus, and it’s a little eerie. You do have a sense —boundaries before impedance, before that seems insurmountable, seems trivial. And —and I wish it was and —I wish —it takes so much effort and is exhausting to sustain, but it’s been —all of the good things we’ve done have required that sort of focus.
REMNICK: Do you feel that it gets harder or easier as you get a bit older to achieve that focus and the room to do something great again? Because it’s —you look at the career of —of a lot of artists, there’s an apprentice period, there’s the period of real originality, then there’s the period of self repetition, and then the gentle falling off.
If we’re being kind to ourselves.
It is a rare thing, a rare thing that a painter, a novelist, anybody to have a sense —to do a great thing or series of great things and keep at it. Is that —do you feel as hungry as you were?
IVE: Absolutely. I mean, there’s one thing that’s very interesting here which is I think conspicuously different from the artist which is there are certain ideas that we have and we are waiting for the technology to catch up with the idea.
REMNICK: What technology are you waiting for?
IVE: Possibly …
REMNICK: I don’t mean —I don’t mean a secret. When you look out at the world you say I wish —I wish we had a way to develop the tool to do X. What do you dream about?
IVE: I mean, there are —I mean the opportunities around displays. I mean the opportunities as silicone has become smaller and more efficient computational power extraordinary some of the allowances, some of the opportunities are extraordinary. I mean, the phone that we just announce a couple of weeks ago, the iPhone X …
REMNICK: This has facial recognition.
IVE: That technology is something we have been looking for five years, and we had prototypes that were this big, and this is an interesting one where there a tendency, and of course there is and I understand it, but that with the benefit of hindsight, all of this seems inevitable. You know, of course it’s …
REMNICK: Surprising yet inevitable.
IVE: But for 99 percent of the time, it didn’t work for us. For the vast majority of the development cycle all we had were things that failed. By definition, it was if they didn’t fail halfway through then we’d be done.
And so, there’s —there’s this sort of extraordinary process you go through, where —actually I was talking to somebody earlier about this, and I think actually just starting to realize this paradox more which is there really are two very distinct behaviors that I have to —I have to engage in and I sort of have.
On one hand, it is to be some so curious and inquisitive, and you know what that looks like, but (ph) the constant questions, being light on your feet and being prepared to be wrong. And at the same time, if you’re going to do something new that means that the reason it has not been done before is that is there’s 55 reasons why it hasn’t been done before. And so you have to be so focused and so resolute, and in some ways almost blinkered, but you have to be so determined, but then you have to move between these two behaviors that are almost on the polar opposite.
REMNICK: Is there a cost to that in your life that focus?
IVE: I think so. I think it’s exhausting to have to move between what are very different ways of thinking. I mean, even down to mannerisms. Your mannerisms are different, aren’t they, when you’re being —you’ve got to, you know, this can be solved, this is possible, even though you —much of that resolve is by faith.
And then, on the other hand what if we’re completely wrong? What —what if putting a —a big display up to your ear and the ear triggers everything on the display, perhaps this is an insane idea?
REMNICK: When you look back on it —and we just have time for one last quick question. When you look back on it, we —I think we know what your biggest successes are. What was your most interesting failure?
IVE: What a good question. I’m not sure if failure was interesting, really.
IVE: No, I think we’ve —we —we’ve, you know, made —I think numerous mistakes. But I am confident that the mistakes weren’t born from laziness or some self-satisfied belief that it’s inevitable that they will be successful. I think we’re bunch of very anxious, worrying individuals who generally assume it’s not going to work unless we can prove otherwise.
REMNICK: Jony, thank you so much.
IVE: Thank you, David.