Britain’s Sir Jonathan Ive is the “soul” of Apple - not Steve Jobs, says biographer

Rob Waugh
Britain's Sir Jonathan Ive (Rex)

“Jonathan Ive is most definitely the ‘soul’ of Apple,” says Leander Kahney, author of an upcoming biography of the British-born designer.

“He is isn’t given enough credit for Apple’s resurrection in the Noughties and current success,” says Kahney.  For good or ill, Steve Jobs soaked up most of that. Ive and his team are the primary architects of the last decade’s products.”

While Jobs became the “face” of the company, which he co-founded in 1976, the quietly spoken and intensely private Ive “drove” the creative process, Kahney says. Jonathan Ive was born in Essex, the son of a silversmith.

Ive designed the coloured iMac that catapulted Apple back on the road to success in 1998 - and his stripped-down design sense was behind iPhone and iPad. There are now 700 million iOS devices - and the PC market Ive revolutionised is now under threat from his own creation.

That period has seen Apple’s market capitalisation leap from $4.8 billion  in December 2000 to $450 billion today.

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When Jobs arrived at Apple, Ive was frustrated - working on doomed products such as the Apple Newton, and in a basement surrounded by “hundreds” of his own ideas, prototypes doomed never to be made.

“Jobs comes in, looks at all Ive’s amazing prototypes and says, ‘My God, what have we got here?’” said Kahney.

Jobs recognised immediately that Ive was what he was looking for - the design brain to power Apple back to success. Jobs and Ive also shared one other, crucial factor - obsessiveness.

“Ive has a mad, total, one-hundred-and-ten-percent commitment to making the best products humanly possible,” says Kahney. Ive reputedly flew to Japan to watch a sword-maker forge a katana - in an effort to learn how to make MacBook Air even thinner. Colleagues describe his understanding of metal as “alchemical”.

Ive recently said, “We are in an unusual time in which objects are designed graphically, on a computer. We have people graduating from college who don’t know how to make something themselves. Until you’ve actually pushed metal around and done it yourself, you don’t understand.”

Ive’s lab remains sealed off from the rest of Apple’s corporate campus - with a “core” team of 20 hand-picked designers, and prototyping machines creating products over, and over, and over again. Surrounding them are teams of hundreds more engineers - and the driving force is Ive’s perfectionism.

“Steve Jobs and Jony hung out almost all day talking about products and design,” says Kahney. “Jony was never just a designer. He was Jobs’ right-hand-man and closest adviser. He’d attend a lot of Jobs’ meetings, even with the advertising folks. Jobs would measure his reactions against Jony’s, and seek his advice on everything. They’d have lunch together almost every day.”

Kahney says that Jobs spent most of his afternoons at Apple in Ive’s office. “It was where he was happiest and most relaxed."

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Ive’s obsessive nature has been what enabled Apple’s “giant leap” from Mac to iPhone and iPad, says Kahney.

“When he was designing bathroom fixtures for Ideal Standard, he spent hours studying water: the movement of water, the politics of water, water scarcity,” Kahney said. Ive’s career at the company was destined to be short-lived.

“He got dozens of books on marine biology. The sinks and toilets he designed ended up looking like Greek statues. Ideal Standard hated them!”

Creating the original iPhone took two-and-a-half years, Kahney says, “ It was a huge gamble and step into the dark for Apple. They went through hundreds of mockups and prototypes, and dozens of engineering models. It was two-and-a-half years of struggle.”

When iPhone appeared, many competitors laughed. “Why would I want to read my email in colour?” laughed BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Baillsie when it launched. BlackBerry is now facing the worst crisis in its history - largely due to Ive’s product.

Kahney says that none of the early versions worked, but Ive kept going. “In the end, they had  this really revolutionary device that is having a massive, massive impact.”

Since Jobs’ death in 2011, Ive has become the “face” of Apple’s products - appearing in videos at the company’s stage shows, and on stage alongside CEO Tim Cook.

“I don’t want to play down Jobs’ influence. He was an amazing leader and all-round micro-manager with great design instincts,” says Kahney.

Jobs handed Ive “his share of beatings” early on - he was displeased with the mouse for Ive’s debut, the coloured iMac, which catapulted Apple back onto the world stage - but the two were often, Kahney says, “symbiotic”.

But while Jobs was known for his explosive temper - famously, he once fired someone in a lift - Ive is quietly spoken, and despite an appearance Kahney has described as “thuggish”, is protective of his team of 20. They, in return, protect him. Few have ever spoken to the press. Apple’s secrets leak from Chinese factories, not from Ive’s inner sanctum.

“He’s very protective of his designers,” says Kahney. “He takes personal responsibility for screwups. I know all this sounds too good to be true, but he’s almost exactly as he appears: an intelligent, well-spoken, English gent.”

Being part of Ive’s team involves, “an insane amount of work,” says Kahney.

“The mad commitment to getting products right,” he says. “There’s Jony’s team of 20 or so designers, who are supported by a team of CAD jockeys and model makers who crank out prototypes. Then there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of mechanical engineers; electrical engineers; experts in cell radios or factory automation..”

Before iPhone hit the shelves, there had been hundreds of prototypes made.

“Each product - there’s just an  insane amount of work that goes into it. Not only was the Steve Jobs and all the executives, there’s   service and support; marketing; legal.  They have a big team of engineers who focus on how the products break or wear out And Apple brings in all these folks from the very get-go, just to make sure they catch problems before they happen.” 

Kahney is confident that Apple is in safe hands - at least on the design front - and is actually hitting a creative “high”.

“Do you know that the iPhone 5S has more computing power than the first MacBook Air?” he says, “It’s my favourite product Apple has ever made. I run my business from it. It’s ridiculously thin and light. But it’s so solid. It’s really, really well made.”

Jony Ive by Leander Kahney is on sale on November 14 via iTunes.