Why Jony Ive’s Exit Matters to You

Apple's outgoing Chief Design Officer has had a major impact on your life

Illustration of Jony Ive in black and white
Jony Ive.

Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I don’t care if it’s an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy, an LG, or a Moto, your smartphone owes a debt a gratitude to Jony Ive. The prickly Apple Chief Design Officer with the magical marketing voice, who announced he’s leaving Apple after 27 years, has had an out-sized influence on consumer electronics design. I think it’s fair to say that he, along with the late Steve Jobs, crafted the template for all modern mobile technology.

You won’t notice Ive’s departure. Your iPhone won’t slide out of your pocket, fall to the floor and weep digital tears. Apple certainly won’t collapse without Ive, no more so than it did when founder and former CEO Steven Jobs died in 2011.

Ive, who plans to launch his own design studio, still plans to work with Apple. While acknowledging what will be an ongoing relationship, Apple CEO Tim Cook made it clear that the company and its design efforts will be fine without Ive, telling The Financial Times, “We get to continue with the same team that we’ve had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony.”

He Did It

Jony Ive talking to Tim Cook at the latest WWDC
Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Even so, your affection for your iPhone, iPad, AirPods, iMacs, MacBooks (and all competing products designed to look like them) is a direct result of Jony Ive’s work. Sure, Steve Jobs is credited with knowing what we wanted before we wanted it and as the genius who built and then rebuilt Apple into the giant it is today, but the aesthetic is Ive. In fact, Ive acknowledged being frustrated when Jobs would take credit for his work.

As Ive told Walter Isaacson in the 2011 Steve Jobs biography, "...I will be sitting in the audience and he will be talking about it as if it was his idea. I pay maniacal attention to where an idea comes from, and I even keep notebooks filled with my ideas. So, it hurts when he takes credit for one of my designs."

It’s almost refreshing to hear that kind of pique from an icon. It makes Ive more relatable and helps underscore that the designs you hold in your hands are result of hard work, struggle, and some very human emotions.

Even as Jobs was "taking credit," it was Ive's memorable voice that sold Apple's product ideas. Ive's thoughtful, perfectly enunciated marketing videos introduced countless Apple products. Rarely has a voice and delivery so perfectly embodied a design aesthetic. It's hard to imagine anyone else becoming "the voice" of Apple, though I would thoroughly enjoy listening to all the auditions.

Not All Hits

You didn’t love all of Ive’s designs. 2000’s G4 Cube was often compared to a tissue box and, more recently, the Mac Pro (which I liked) was compared to a giant cheese grater.

However, those kinds of design flourishes, where we see something entirely new or even odd are now the exception. Ive’s substantial talents and even, perhaps, his unique vision are no longer as necessary. 

Mac Pro
Mac Pro.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how virtually all our smartphones, regardless of manufacturer, look alike. The innovation is at the component level and in software. There are fewer and fewer new consumer electronics categories – at least ones that matter. For Apple, the AirPod now counts as a major new product category, even though its design is heavily influenced by Apple’s wired EarPods. Ive obviously poured considerable attention into remaking the Mac Pro design, but that may be because there’s nothing else major to design. There are, obviously, many update and refresh opportunities, but new categories are few and far between.

It’s also hard to ignore how Apple’s shift in focus might’ve impacted demand for Ive’s skills. While Apple still sells millions of iPhones, iPads, and Macs, it’s turning its attention to a new cash cow: Services (TV+, Arcade, Apple Music). Hardware is not necessarily the center of Apple’s universe. No doubt, Ive’s been deeply involved in designing service interfaces. I just wonder how satisfying he found that work.

Ive had a major impact on your software experience, as well. After he took over software design from former Apple exec Scott Forstall (who departed in 2012), Ive made the controversial decision to “flatten” most Apple software design, shifting from, for instance, icons that looked like real world objects (it’s called “Skeuomorphism, “ like when the iBooks icon looked like a physical book) to flatter, more subtly referential designs.

It made Apple Software look a little less friendly, but also cleaned up interfaces across all Apple platforms. I’m betting that you can scarcely remember what the original iPhone interface looked like.

Beautiful Future

Ultimately, there’s nothing calamitous about Ive’s departure. Your Apple products won’t break down in protest and future Apple product designs will probably be just as inspiring (or not, depending on your perspective) as they were before.

Ive’s independence does, though, provide one tantalizing possibility. It’s likely Ive will be working with companies outside traditional consumer electronics. Don’t be surprised if Ive Designs-inspired furniture, cars, clothing, cars, motorcycles, buildings, and more start appearing all over the place. How do you feel about an all-white car in an all-white garage, driven by someone dressed in all white?