Jony Ive is not a Graphic Designer

Jony Ive, at a talk I was fortunate to attend a few years ago (sorry, no linkable write-up exists):

One of the things that’s interesting about design [is that] there’s a danger, particularly in this industry, to focus on product attributes that are easy to talk about. You go back 10 years, and people wanted to talk about product attributes that you could measure with a number. So they would talk about hard drive size, because it was incontrovertible that 10 was a bigger number than 5, and maybe in the case of hard drives that’s a good thing. Or you could talk about price because there’s a number there.

But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.

I think that sort of striving for simplicity is not a style. It’s an approach and a philosophy. I think it’s about authenticity and being honest. Not just taking something crappy and styling the outside in an arbitrary disconnected way.

Over the last week the Internet has been aflutter with rumors about an Ive-driven iOS design overhaul. Nearly all of the conversation has been focused on the visual aesthetic, and that’s not surprising. To use Ive’s words, that is “easy to talk about.”

But the overhaul of iOS is certainly more than skin deep.

  • A purely visual overhaul would not have a WWDC deadline. iOS 7 is not expected to be released until the fall, and betas could use old visuals until then. The fact there is a WWDC deadlines suggests there are real functionality changes that developers need to know about.

  • Ive does not lead visual design. He leads Human Interface design. Perhaps this sounds pedantic, but the distinction between graphic design and interface design apparently escapes a lot of people. One of the more asinine quotes I saw last week came from Maggie Hendrie, the Chair of Interaction Design at the Pasadena Art Center, in Wired:

    The very fact that we’re talking about who’s going to design the icons…is a little bit of a concern. Because that’s not innovative.

    Perhaps the problem is the talking?1

  • Ive himself wouldn’t stand for simply making a new skin. Look again at that quote: he derides the very idea of separating what is on the surface from what the product actually is.

As with most such debates, “skeuomorphism” versus “flat” is devoid of crucial context. When the iPhone came out, nobody used touch devices.2 The signaling benefits of skeuomorphism were very useful,3 especially since most iPhone buyers were buying their first iPhone.

Today, as the premium smartphone market moves towards saturation, an increasing portion of iPhone users are buying their second device. The context is changing. And, likely, so is iOS.

  1. To understand why I say “asinine,” follow the link; Hendrie bemoans that Apple is not like Microsoft or Nintendo. Seriously. []
  2. Yes, I know about the LG Prada That’s why I said “nobody used” as opposed to “none existed” []
  3. And the end of skeuomorphism does not mean flat design; things like gradients and shadows have their place []