The man who makes Apple

The main feature of Issue 69 of MacFormat UK Magazine (November 1998) is a 4-page article about Apple design and contains an interesting interview with Jonathan Ive with the title The man who makes Apple. Although it’s not exactly the usual interview with direct questions and answers, I thought it was well worth reprinting here.

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Apple’s latent flair has flourished under Jonathan Ive. Cliff Joseph talks to the industrial design director who has led the work on the new-look Macs, including iMac.

Jonathan Ive is a happy man right now. As head of Apple’s industrial design team, Ive is the man most responsible for the striking design of the new iMac [1]. Ive has worked at Apple since 1991, but it hasn’t always been fun working there. Recent years have been very frustrating for him and his team: industrial design has always been an important part of Apple’s products, but the people who ran Apple for most of the 1990s seemed to forget this.

We went through a period where the company rhetorically acknowledged the importance of design, but made very conservative decisions, Ive confirms. An example of this is the design of the new PowerBook G3s. Their curvy black lines are in marked contrast to the clunky shape of their most recent predecessors, but Ive reveals that this isn’t a new design: it had been floating around within Apple for some time without being used. The problem was that under CEO Gil Amelio, Apple was trying to play safe and to be like all the other PC manufacturers. So anything that looked too different was frowned upon.

We had some little design victories, like the eMate or the 20th Anniversary Mac, Ive notes. But they were never mainstream products. It was incredibly frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that Ive and the rest of his demoralised group were on the verge of splitting up and leaving Apple, until salvation came with the return of Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder has liberated Ive and his team: Amelio wanted Apple to play safe, but Jobs has returned Apple to the days when it would consciously strive to be different. Steve feels more comfortable about fashion, Ive says.

And that brings us to iMac. Judged just by the hardware inside it, iMac is an impressive computer; but its most striking feature is, of course, its gorgeous cool-blue, translucent case. On the day we met, Ive was wearing a chunky translucent wristwatch, so it seems that he has something of a fetish for the plastic. Part of the attraction, he says, is the simple challenge of working with such an unusual material. It’s difficult to design with translucent plastic, because the inside becomes a part of the outside.

Small details become important. Take the screws that abound in normal PC designs. If you’re working with clear plastic, the screws become visible and look just plain ugly. So Ive and his team designed unobtrusive moulded plastic clips that don’t detract from the smooth curved look of the machine. All sorts of small details, such as the way the colour of the plastic changes with the light at different times of day, were taken into consideration. The plastic panels on the keyboard are ribbed, partly to make them stronger but also, according to Ive, because it just looks more interesting.

Designer attitude
Most PC manufacturers base their designs around a hardware specification. They have a shopping list of components they want to include, and just shove those components into a box. The look of the box is merely an afterthought — if it’s thought of at all.

Ive’s approach is completely different. We design for people, he says. People talk about their Macs the way you’d talk about a small fluffy animal or a member of your family. It’s the Mac’s look and feel that has always given it its distinct personality, and this is especially true of iMac.

iMac was designed for people who care more about its look and feel than about its hardware features. It looks great, but the feel is important as well. To open the panel that covers the machine’s USB and modem ports, you must put your fingers through a small hole in the panel and pull it down. Ive says that this makes the user feel more involved with the machine as you actually have to reach inside it and grip it.

Ive accepts the need to cater for functionality — one of his aims when he created Apple’s tower machines was to give them ‘the best accessibility’ so that you could open them up and upgrade them quickly and easily. But he also believes that worrying about design and satisfying functionality aren’t mutually exclusive.

iMac’s shape and size weren’t just aesthetic decisions: they were also a response to practical issues raised by Apple’s customers. Its all-in-one machines were popular with education users, but combining the monitor and the motherboard in one unit is not without some significant drawbacks. One of the big things we were hearing was that our products were getting bigger. So there were difficult decisions to be made.

One such decision was the omission of PCI expansion slots. iMac’s motherboard was specially designed to be as small as possible, but this meant that there was no room for any PCI expansion slots. The lack of expansion options is one of the few criticisms that has been made of iMac, but including expansion slots would have made the machine bigger and might have deterred some of Apple’s important education customers. We knew that size and weight were really important — so out went those slots.

Ive’s future
iMac is now on sale around the world, but there is still plenty of work for Ive to be going on with. There remains one gaping hole in Apple’s product range: Steve Jobs has stated that Apple wants to produce a portable Mac for the consumer market that will build on the warm response received by the Newton-based eMate.

Unfortunately, Ive isn’t allowed to spill any beans on this next project, but Steve Jobs has also indicated that the new machine will be based on the design of the eMate We may not know entirely what the new portable will look like, but one thing’s for sure — you can bet that we haven’t seen the last appearance of that translucent plastic [2].

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My notes:
1. The article is obviously talking about the first Bondi Blue iMac G3, introduced in May 1998 (and shipped later in August), but this very sentence can of course be applied to the newest iMac line as well.
2. And in fact this portable based on the design of the eMate is indeed the first iBook G3, introduced in July 1999 in Blueberry and Tangerine translucent plastic flavours.

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