Jonathan Ive was the last guest in Design Museum‘s 25th anniversary series of talks. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I stood outside the museum celebrity-watching as leading British designers steadily streamed in. The Conrans, Paul Smith, Ron Arad, and I think I spotted Anya Hindmarch.
Here are some quotes and insights from the evening.
On how objects embody our values, our identities
Talking of his first experience with a Mac near the end of his Design school education, where he had had frustrating experiences with the PC which he blamed on his technical ineptitude, Ive said:
Through the object, that I was sat in front (of), I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a clear sense of their values, their preoccupations, the things they cared about, the reasons they made it. Vicarious communication via the object, I had a really clear sense of this company in California, that I didn’t know anything about. And that had never happened to me before. This was the beginning of the realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are.
On the human condition, the imperative to create something (when asked how a company making desktop products went on to making things for our pockets)
Ive opened with a mention of the Apple Watch, a product, he said, you cannot buy yet. He said, “The parallels with what happened with the technology of timekeeping and what we are facing is really quite uncanny. .. I think it’s part of our human condition.” He later added, “And that is exactly what happened. It was a multi-century transition. From the clock tower to something that ended up eventually on your wrist. What we are doing has some robust historical precedence.”
There is this natural part of our condition. Which is when you see potent, phenomenal technology, there is somehow, I think, a desire to do a few things. You typically want to make it smaller. That always happens. The first thing you do is huge and you put wheels on it and drive around and stuff. Or you make it small, Or you make it cheaper. And therefore obviously more accessible. Then you make it better, more reliable.
On form and materials (discussing the merits of plastic and glass)
You cannot separate form from materials.
On the inseparability of making and designing (and hat-tipping Terence Conran)
Marc Newson wouldn’t be a great designer if he weren’t also a great maker.
On the creative process, its fragility, its evolution to being exclusive to being something that involves lots of people
Ive talked about the wonder of having nothing to having an idea to having a product.
I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process.. and the way it comes from nothing. … The best ideas .. start with conversations. If it is a big idea, you can distill the idea into a few sentences. I still think it is a very fragile process. Sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object.
Over the years one of the things i have had to learn a lot about is .. listening very very carefully.
A small change right at the beginning defines an entirely different product.
Part of the process is .. it always starts with a conversation and a thought. I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and could stand up in front of a group of people like you and try and explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile.
One of the things I have discovered over the years is that when you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea was, it changes. It is the most profound shift in the entire process. Because one, it is not exclusive anymore, it is not so open to interpretation, it is there and includes a lot of people.”
On the motivation behind design, respect and caring
A lot of it starts with motivation. … our goal is not to make money. It’s much harder for good design to come out of an organisation and to come from that as a driving force. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best product we can.
We are not naive. We trust that if we are successful and we make good products that people will like them.. and we trust that if people like them they will buy them. And we have figured out operationally we are effective and we know what we are doing so we will make money. But we know it is a consequence.
There are many decisions we make which may not make fiscal sense. Which is why the motivation I described is so important. And it can cost a lot more to make it the way we want to make it. And that cant justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it is the right thing to do. It’s made better. There is an integrity there.
I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness.
And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.
On the idea that “good design lasts” and rapid obsolescence of objects now
They can not last so long because they are used, multiple hours of every day, they cannot last as long as you wish they did, because the technology relative to the technology that is now available is so much more compelling.
That is why we all find there is a certain delight in what tend to be singular function objects.
On how design has changed since Ive was a student
Ive once again referred to Terence Conran’s mantra about making being essential to design.
.. in design schools, workshops are expensive, computers are cheaper. .. It is just tragic that you spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not making them.
How on earth do you do that if what we are responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?
He talked about the physicality of objects, and how powerful devices now are in isolation and when connected, and what it means for designers.
In some ways .. the expectation that the contribution the object can make is more important than ever. Somehow for us as physical beings it is really important that the physical object is as compelling as possible. .. places a great demand on those skills to truly understand the physical world, to truly understand the nature of materials.
On copying by competitors and others
Ive discussed how a design studio plays with and develops ideas over extended periods of time, never knowing quite which one will work.
But once you have got a proof of concept “it works”, and then somebody.. it is not copying, it is theft. They stole our time. Time we could have had with our families.
“Do you think when somebody copies what you do it is flattery?”. No.
On being innovative
You know this George Bernard Shaw quote. .. it’s a beautiful thing to say “to do something truly innovative does require you reject reason“.
The conversation and the questions from the audience continued for just over an hour. A lot of thought-provoking points made. Time well-spent.
And one more thing…