Jonathan Ive, The RCA and Imperial

Recently Jonathan Ive, the elusive lead designer at Apple, spoke/was interviewed at a Royal College of Art’s Innovation Night. It was a private affair and very little from the event has come out. Some snippets are:


And what emerged 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 mulit-billion dollar company we don’t actually make many different products,” he explained. “We’re so focused, we’re very clear about our goals.”

He said that Steve Jobs had always made it very clear that this focus on products was the only reason for Apple to exist – and contrasted the culture with that of other companies who talk about having similar aims: “If you have to spend time institutionalising that, talking about it, you end up chasing your tail.”

So how did the company decide what customers wanted – surely by using focus groups? “We don’t do focus groups,” he said firmly, explaining that they resulted in bland products designed not to offend anyone.

Christopher Frayling reminded us at that point of Henry Ford’s line about what his customers would have demanded if asked – “a faster horse” – and it’s surely true that the point of innovative companies is to come up with products that customers don’t yet know they need.

But it was the physicality of design work that Jonathan Ive was keen to stress – from the Apple design workshop full of machines, throwing off a lot of noise and dust, 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.

From BusinessWeek:

Ive also had bad news for anyone looking to foster a design or innovation-driven culture within an enterprise that doesn’t at heart “get” it. Unless the disciplines are acknowledged and embraced as core values by every employee, they won’t gain traction. “We don’t have identity manuals reminding us of points of philosophy for why our company exists,” he said of Apple’s internal culture. “I’m sure those things are very well meaning, but if you have to institutionalize stuff, you end up chasing your tail.” In other words, unless the commitment to innovation or design is authentic and heartfelt, rather than this month’s short-term strategy to cater to a hot trend, it will be nigh on impossible to build a true, innovation-led culture (and emulate Apple’s success.)

When I was doing my PhD at Imperial College, I often used to grab a meal at the nearby RCA as the food was a million times better than at the Imperial canteen (I’m sure it’s a lot better now) and the women were so enticing and different…

However at that time there were no ‘business’ interactions between the two organisations – it’s good to see that’s significantly changed with the setting up of Design London!


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