February 19, 2014

Book review: Jony Ive - The genius behind Apple's greatest products

Before Walter Isaacson released his biography called Steve Jobs, the most famous biography on Steve Jobs was Inside Steve's Brain by Leander Kahney. It was the third book in a series of books about Apple, it was an unofficial biography, but was still worth the read. Leander Kahney's fourth book with an Apple theme is called Jony Ive - The genius behind Apple's greatest products, and is, as the title suggests, an unofficial biography from 2013 on Apple's famous designer Sir Jonathan Ive.

I've studied Apple's design ideas before and summarized the findings in this article: Designed by Apple - How did they do it? I've also read the book Insanely Simple - The obsession that drives Apple's success, which is another book on Apple's design by Ken Segall, who worked with Steve Jobs at NeXT and then at Apple. The difference between these books is that Ken Segall covers more general principles while Leander Kahney covers more detailed principles about how to design physical products and much more about Jony Ive.

This is an unoffical biography since Jony Ive is not someone who enjoys publicity. When he gets a design reward, he doesn't want to go to the event and collect the price. If he has to give a speech when receiving a design reward, he always talks about the team to share the recognition. Maybe he doesn't like these rewards because he wants his designs to disappear and he's happy when the user doesn't notice his work at all. But he's not an unsociable person since he's often hanging out with the other designers from Apple on his spare time. Due to this fact, Leander Kahney has to struggle a little when he's describing the young Jony Ive since not much information is available, but when Jony Ive has begun to work at Apple, the book improves. A little bit of the book is repetition from Steve Job's official biography, but that information is still needed so the reader can get the full picture.

Jony Ive himself can be characterized as someone who has lived with design since he was young since his father also worked with design. As he grew up he was obsessed with design. He attended several famous design schools in Britain and while his co-students made a few models, Jony Ive filled his apartment with hundreds of foam model prototypes. If he made a change to the design on a piece of paper, he had to make the physical model to understand if it was the right change. Another difference between Jony Ive and other design students was that he understood the entire process from idea to finished product. His co-students designed only the outer shape, but Jony Ive always figured out how to include the internal components and how to manufacture it.

Apple is famous for designing simple products. Jony Ive realized early that simple products is the key to success, because in an era of rapid change, style has a corrosive effect on design, making a product seem old before its time.
"Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter."

To come up with so many ideas, Jony Ive needed inspiration. When designing a transparent product, he brought in transparent products, such as a taillight from a BMW. When designing bathroom equipment at a job he had before he joined Apple, he bought marine biology books for inspiration. It didn't work this time and the manufacturer of bathroom equipment rejected his designs. But Jony Ive was successful with many other projects and became a famous designer before he had finished school.

After Jony Ive joined Apple, and at age 29 became head of design, he could use his knowledge of the entire chain from design to finished product. When someone argued a design couldn't be realized, Jony Ive showed them that it could since he had already made his own cost analysis and talked to the factory. But it was an uphill battle (Jony Ive almost gave up and was about to leave Apple in frustration) until Steve Jobs returned and declared that Apple's goal was not just to make money but to make great products.

To make each product perfect, the design team spent a lot of time at their factories in Asia. An interesting detail here is that Apple tried to use an American supplier of aluminum, but the supplier couldn't figure out how to manufacture Apple's product, so Apple contacted a supplier in Asia who could manufacture the product. One Apple designer explained that 10 percent is design and 90 percent is working with the manufacturers to figure out how to implement their ideas.
"The team spent weeks at the factories in Asia tweaking the molds and chemical mixes of the different plastics, but eventually overcame all of the problems."

One of the few videos on Jony Ive is this one where he explains an important part of Apple's design called unibody design (a higher-precision, less complex design with fewer parts):


To manufacture this design, Apple had to use a manufacturing technology called machining. This technology is rarely used when mass producing products, but Jony Ive knew they had to make it work. The machine behind Jony Ive in the video above is called CNC machine and Apple needed a lot of these to be able to mass produce their products with a unibody design. Apple began buying CNC machines from across the globe, maybe 20 000 machines a year, and they had to spend $9.5 billion to afford them all. This can be compared with the $865 million Apple spent on their retail stores. This was a huge gamble. But thanks to Jony Ive's design, the gamble worked.

So if you want to learn more about Jony Ive and Apple's design process (and can't wait for an official biography) you should read Jony Ive. It's not easy to write an unofficial biography (I have experience from writing an unofficial biography book on Elon Musk) but I think Leander Kahney has been successful.  

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