Interview with Jonathan Ive [June 10, 1998]
by Dike Blair
for Purple #2, Winter 98/99, pp. 268-275
In 1997 I participated in a "focus group" that consisted of Macintosh clone users. Its purpose was to find out what it would take to lure us back to buying Macs. Aside from competitive pricing and a conflict-free operating platform, what the group members wanted was an objet d'art rather than a generic box on their desktops-I kept my fondness for the beige box to myself. It would seem that our group accurately reflected Apple's marketing data because six months later the eMate notebook, which looked like notebook hardware encased in a giant flattened jelly bean, hit the market. And in August 1998 Apple introduced the iMac, which is an entry-level computer being marketed as an affordable yet powerful (G3 chip) machine with one-button Internet access and cutting-edge design.
Shortly before its debut I saw one of the half-dozen prototypes of the iMac at a NYMUG (New York Macintosh Users Group) meeting, where it was surrounded by a mob of curious Mac mavens. Although the crowd was grumbling about its lack of a floppy drive and had serious questions about peripheral hookups, the design itself was an overwhelming success.
To my mind, beige and gray are to the computer what white and stainless are to the refrigerator-colors that beg to be changed but are rarely improved upon. The two different-colored plastics of the iMac's shell, however-a translucent teal that Apple calls "Bondi blue" and a cool, translucent white, called "ice"-come close to changing this fogy's mind. "Bondi" refers to Bondi Beach, which is close to Sidney and has gotten a reputation similar to Miami's South Beach-a happening place for young, attractive urbanites, especially those who love to surf. The color's name conjures the aquatic sensation of seeing the iMac's innards through blue plastic, and its liquidity suggests ease and fluidity of use. (The ability to surf the net with ease is one of this machine's attractions.) And "ice" is maxed-out cool-hard, smooth, muscular water-pretty clever color monikering if you ask me.
The iMac's space-capsule look falls into the ubiquitous design style that I'll call "ovoidism" (which Jonathan Ive, Apple's vice president of industrial design, tells me is sometimes called monoform design). The twentieth century began with Antonio Gaudi's and Victor Horta's fanciful curvilinear designs, and toward its end, after the modernists' romance with less baroque geometries, we've returned to Art Nouveau's whiplash ellipses, at least in consumer electronics and automotive design. If we look at the spectacular success of the new VW Beetle and the designer spaghetti dish of Lost in Space, it seems that we want ovoidism to extend into the new millennium as well.
The iMac's design reminds me of Henry Dreyfuss's hugely successful, and somewhat ovoidish, designs for the Trimline phone and Polaroid's Swinger camera. The Trimline was intended to promote the idea of a second phone (especially in the teenager's bedroom), and the Swinger was meant to introduce entertainment picture taking to young adults. Like the iMac, both designs imbued technology with fun, friendliness, and speedy modernity. Their design, however, wasn't self-consciously disposable, which was a sensation I received from the iMac. There is a thinness implicit in the colors, materials, and forms, which gives the iMac a toylike quality-an effect that was no doubt intended, as toys are friendly and fun. Perhaps my parents had a similar sensation when handling the Trimline and Swinger. Or maybe, given that the computer has become the most obsolescence-prone expensive appliance, this reflects an ironic integrity (if such a thing is possible). But, if so, it is a little insidious-like the labels on cans of generically branded food where fake printing flaws are meticulously reproduced. But so what. Successful consumer product design is intended to make us desire an object, and excellent design can make us love it. The Bondi blue and the fun, friendly ovoidishness of the iMac did tweak my desire to possess it, and if I do, who knows, love could follow.
Jonathan Ive heads Apple's design team and is responsible for the design of the iMac (and Bondi blue) and of Apple's newest line of computers. Since Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, Apple has pruned the corporate tree, disenfranchised its clone makers, and concentrated its efforts into three areas in which it has excelled: professional computing (especially multimedia and graphics), notebooks and user-friendly desktops. Ive and his department have played a major role in Jobs's plan to put Apple back on its original innovative track.
Ive (31 at the time of this interview) was born in London. His award winning designs include such diverse objects as VCRs and hair combs. Ive worked for the highly successful and hip London-based design group, Tangerine. In 1991, Ive and Tangerine consulted on design studies for the PowerBook. In 1992 Ive left Tangerine to join the Apple design team.
Dike Blair: Can you describe the general design program that Apple presented you with for the iMac?
Jonathan Ive: Basically we were trying to create a hard-core consumer product. The iMac is based on incredibly compelling technology; its capabilities are extreme. The power PC chip is incredibly fast. So much of Apple's roots and equity have been in its understanding of the emotional value of objects. Recently the company cared less about that and shipped products that don't reflect that.
Dike Blair: Who named Bondi blue?
Jonathan Ive: We're a really small design team, and a couple of the guys had lived in Sydney. It's a beach near Sydney.
Dike Blair: It conjures a lot.
Jonathan Ive: It kind of struck a note with people.
Dike Blair: Was the eMate your design?
Jonathan Ive: That was done when I was design director. This is one of those incredibly frustrating things. You're talking to me as the designer, but these projects were very much a team effort, and I wish you could be talking to everyone.
Dike Blair: When was the iMac design initiated?
Jonathan Ive: We started work on it about ten months ago.
Dike Blair: Fast work.
Jonathan Ive: It was really intense, and it coincided with the return of Steve Jobs to the company. Steve has more than appreciation for design; he has a deep understanding of the emotional importance of objects. He's a fantastic collaborator.
Dike Blair: Any specific or general inspirations for the design, like the original Mac?
Jonathan Ive: Not really. There was a goal, which was to take this incredible technology and connect that up with an object. When you spend time with the iMac, you realize that it is very familiar yet it also lives quite comfortably in the future. It's been interesting to us how people have been talking about this sense of future nostalgia. That was completely intentional, although I don't like the word nostalgia because it sounds prissy and, from a creative standpoint, can mean a little laziness. I'd rather call it an object that references the familiar.
Dike Blair: The iMac reminds me of Dreyfuss's aerodynamic stationary objects.
Jonathan Ive: Well, his work reflects the fundamental design principle, that of simplicity. And we wanted the machine to be very simple, or apparently very simple.
Dike Blair: I think the back of the machine is gorgeous--the sveltest-backed computer ever.
Jonathan Ive: Thank you. Actually Steve Jobs has said that the back of the iMac looks better than the front of anybody else's. One of the things that makes the backs of most computers look so agricultural is the ton of cables pouring out. We moved the connectors to the side, which, functionally, makes them much easier to get to and keeps the back quite simple. The back of my computer may as well be its front in terms of what you see.
Dike Blair: Do designers have a term for this kind of ovoid design?
Jonathan Ive: Not really. Some people refer to it as "monoform" in that it's not composed of discrete, primary, formal elements that are then formed together-it's sort of one singular form. But I don't think there is a term that effectively describes what we're doing.
Dike Blair: Are there any practical benefits from this design?
Jonathan Ive: The advantages would have to do with the simplicity of the surface. Some people would say that it's easier to move around, to hold, or to clean, but those are fairly dubious arguments. Those weren't the primary objectives of our design.
Dike Blair: While we're on form and function, are there any moving parts that one sees through the translucent plastic?
Jonathan Ive: Yeah, there are--on the mouse, for example, which I think is one of the particularly successful parts of the system. If you know how mice work, it's quite intriguing. You see through the Apple logo, like a little window on the top of the mouse, into this little mouse factory. You see the ball moving on twin axles-well, it's actually pretty complicated and intriguing what goes on inside the mouse besides the ball rolling. We've tried fairly hard to layer what you can see inside. For the most part you just get a sense of what's inside-a sense of materials reflecting light and a sense of forms and shapes. It's only occasionally that you get a more literal view of what's going on inside.
Dike Blair: Have there been advances in plastics technology that have encouraged your design?
Jonathan Ive: Not really. I think that plastic is really a remarkable material. A lot happened in the 1970s with plastic, but through the 1980s and 1990s very little of the potential of plastic's properties was really exploited. When you look at things like the use of translucent PVC back in the 1960s and 1970s, I think, in some ways, we're just rediscovering the material-realizing just how much you can do with it. Our team has the sense that we've just scratched the surface of what's possible. We're looking at some very interesting processes for our future work.
Dike Blair: Has CAD effected what you do?
Jonathan Ive: It's been liberating and made things more achievable, but it's only a tool. You can look at early automotive design and see that those guys had no problem-well, maybe "no problem" is an exaggeration-designing incredible surfaces and forms without the aid of a computer.
Dike Blair: A tough question: My impression of the iMac was that it had a disposable look. Does one design for that? Do you know what I mean?
Jonathan Ive: I totally understand you. We didn't want it to look trashy. There's a fine line you walk between affordable and cheap. We certainly wanted it to appear affordable, and we wanted to make it clear that this isn't a terrifying technology-a technology that still alienates a huge number of people. We wanted to pop this bubble of, "Computer means: I don't understand this, I don't know how this fits in my living environment." We wanted to create this understandable object. It's weird, but when you do that, you start to reference things that are not intrinsically and terrifyingly valuable. We had some latitude in addressing these issues because the fundamental technology was beyond debate in terms of how powerful and capable it was. What we didn't have to do was use the industrial design to describe its core capability. Do you know what I mean?
Dike Blair: I do. iMac's speed and power were well established months in advance of its release. You got "youth" and "fun" in the design, but what about older folks who may have missed the personal computer revolution? I don't really see the design appeal for oldsters, but perhaps they are not your concern?
Jonathan Ive: It was designed for consumers and to be consumed in great volume-and to be relevant to a great number of people. From an appearance perspective we could debate what something like that should look like, but I do hope that the simplicity and functionality-things like the one large handle on the back, which makes it extremely moveable-make it transcend style preferences.
Dike Blair: There's a little bit of a hubbub about the exclusion of the floppy drive.
Jonathan Ive: The floppy is a really antiquated technology, and at some point it's really appropriate to move on. At that point of transition, there's always friction. That's just a general statement about the decision not to include the floppy. There have been announcements about third-party producers making USB super disk drives that will connect to the iMac and read standard floppies as well as larger disks.
Dike Blair: Your team was involved in the new G3 PowerBooks, which are really beautiful.
Jonathan Ive: Thank you. We were really, really pleased with them. It was sort of frustrating in some senses because the iMac was so new and resonant that many people tended to ignore the new PowerBooks. Now the reception for the PowerBooks is becoming equally animated.
Dike Blair: You've said that this century ends with more of a sense of unfulfilled expectation than one of alienation. What expectations do you expect to fulfill in the new millennium?
Jonathan Ive: Oh, God [laughter] . . . I think it's going to be an incredible downer because people will see that nothing has really changed. The big challenge will be to get over that. In the beginning there was incredible promise in personal computing, and the industry has never really delivered on that promise. As products become more pervasive and ubiquitous, there will be some really interesting opportunities for designers. At the moment we've created these really artificial categories-it's a bit of an anathema to more progressive design.
Dike Blair: What do you think of the idea that organic design in consumer electronics is a prelude to the merger of body and machine? Do you give it any thought?
Jonathan Ive: We think about it a bunch. It's interesting in terms of how designers relate to nature. There's obviously a very literal combination of that which is organic with that which is technological, and then there's the approach of learning natural principles, which can provide an interesting understanding of systems and how systems work. They can provide understanding of structure.
Dike Blair: The iMac makes me think of female pubescence. Do you visualize your design as having any age or gender?
Jonathan Ive: Rather than personifying stuff, we try to keep the emotive qualities of the product very general. Color choice was something that we were very conscious of in terms of gender. The Bondi blue was something that we hoped would be universally appealing.