At the Vanity Fair Summit, Jony Ive just gave his much-anticipated panel, “Genius by Design.” Ive spent a significant chunk of his time on stage talking about Apple’s design process in broad strokes, touching upon the evolution of ideas and the process by which the team makes decisions on when to make changes to their designs.
Ive started his interview by noting that he feels lucky because he’s had well over 15 years with his team, which has both steadily grown from a small core group to its (still rather small) 16 or 17 members — with no one voluntarily leaving the team in that time.
That time has given Apple’s design team the advantage of having a defined process that plays to the company’s values. In describing a typical work week, he says that it’s not that the team has infinite ideas for dealing with every design problem that arises. On Monday or Tuesday, the team could spend all day drawing up different ideas (with actual pencil and paper) without settling on anything. On Wednesday, an idea arises, and a conversation begins.
Ive says that things really start to shift once they create physical mockups of their ideas out of different materials, including metal or a plastic. That’s when they get to “play” with their work in their design space, with device mockups resting on the exact same wooden tables used in the company’s stores.
Most times, those mockups sport designs that the rest of us will never get to see. “Many years ago we made prototypes of phones with bigger screens. They were interesting features, having a bigger screen, but the end result was a lousy product, because they were big and clunky,” Ive noted when Vanity Fair Editor-in-chief Graydon Carter asked why it took so long for the iPhone to get bigger.
But that same process of playing with physical models is also what leads to changes in the company’s products. Ive noted that the team thought “a large display seems the most natural, intuitively,” but only through iteration over the years (and advancement of technology) did Apple reach a point where they had found enough insights — like realizing that “to make a compelling product with a larger screen, it’s very important to make the edges comfortable, to feel less wide than it really is.”
Ive also spent a section of his panel “geeking out” about design, noting that “for hundreds and hundreds of years, the objects we’ve designed or made, the form is the function.” But with devices powered by silicon chips, the function and form are disconnected — “these products could look like a banana.”
When a member of the audience came up to ask a question about Xiaomi and their unofficial tagline of “the Apple of China,” Ive was very straightforward with his response: “I’ll stand a little bit harsh, I don’t see it as flattery. When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t know it’s gonna work, you spend 7 or 8 years working on something, and then it’s copied. I think it is really straightforward. It is theft and it is lazy. I don’t think it is ok at all.”