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Apple’s design future: should we be worried that Jony is leaving?

Craig Grannell mulls over what it means now Apple’s head of design has quit

On June 27, Apple dropped a bombshell as big as any major product announcement: Sir Jony Ive, chief design officer, will depart the company. Although it’s stated he will still work with Apple in some capacity, undoubtedly much of Ive’s attention will be elsewhere, as he builds up his own concern, LoveFrom.

The announcement was a shock because Ive’s designs have become synonymous with Apple, which has for over 20 years been a heavily design-led organization. And remember his groundbreaking work on Macs and mobile drove not only Apple’s direction, but that of the entire tech industry. So often, where Ive led, others followed – whether aping the translucent iMac shell in an era of previously entirely beige PCs, super-skinny laptop forms, or the desire to streamline a mobile device to the point it becomes almost invisible in your hands.

Ive’s iconic iMac design

For many people, the immediate emotional reaction on hearing this news went something like this: what will happen now the guy who designed all the good stuff is gone? After all, pre-Ive, Apple wasn’t exactly innovating in the design space. Without his lead and input, won’t Apple become just another tech company, churning out hardware? This sense of unease was exacerbated further by the news Jeff Williams – Apple’s operations guy – will be who the new design heads report to.

This is an understandable response, but reductive and deeply unfair on Apple’s design team as a whole. It assumes Ive was more a Picasso than a designer – a lone genius crafting his creations, isolated from everyone else. As for Williams being the wrong fit, this misunderstands how design works at scale. Apple has in Ive’s time at the company changed massively – it’s gone from a relatively niche concern to a major player, shifting many millions of devices every quarter. Good design is driven by multiple factors, but when you’re making as many iPhones, iPads and Macs as Apple is, one of the biggest is needing to know you can get them out into the world.

Ive wanted mobile devices to almost disappear when you’re using them

Still, there is one nagging element of doubt – and one that has some justification: who, now, is the final arbiter of taste at Apple? When co-founder Steve Jobs returned to the company in the late 1990s, he decided whether something was or wasn’t good enough. As Ive’s prominence grew, that role was shared between the pair, and was largely passed to Ive when Jobs passed. Perhaps Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will now take on this task between them. You kind of hope so, because if there is one threat to Ive leaving Apple, it’s three dreaded words: “designed by committee”.