Why Jony Ive's promotion means more design, not less

Why Jony Ive’s promotion means more design, not less


Jony Ive and Steve Jobs talk during the first public FaceTime demo, which took place at WWDC 2010 in San Francisco.
Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr CC

Apple is such a strange and secretive company, the news that Jony Ive has been promoted is instead widely interpreted that he’s on his way out.

The Telegraph revealed Monday that Ive has been promoted to Chief Design Officer and freed from the day-to-day running of Apple’s Industrial Design studio.

This was greeted with speculation that Ive is actually stepping back. He’s taking it easy, many theorized, easing into semi-retirement. He’s already halfway out the door, and will soon move back to the United Kingdom, seems to be the consensus among pundits.

I think this is Kremlinology in the extreme. And a little perverse. Apple is often obtuse, and sometimes disingenuous or even dishonest, but I think this news should be taken at face value.

Apple has characterized the move as a promotion, and it is. Ive has been moved up into a rare position that gives him a ton of freedom. He now has the breathing room to be what he really wants to be: a pure designer.

In fact, the promotion allows him to take on an even stronger and more Steve Jobs-like role. We will see more design work from him, not less.

The Telegraph‘s report lays it out quite simply: Jony Ive is giving himself more time to design. Screenshot: MG Siegler

If you look at what The Telegraph actually reported, Ive explains what’s happening and the reasoning behind the move.

He denied that he has relinquished the two departments he headed up, the Industrial Design studio and the Human Interface group. “I’m still in charge of both,” he said quite plainly. And then he added, the new role “frees me up from some of the administrative and management work.”

It’s pretty straightforward.

As chief design officer, Ive will have much less day-to-day responsibility and far fewer reports. He’s not tied down with endless meetings and product reviews. He’s free to do what he does best, and what he loves best — design.

“He’s been at Apple for a long time and has been extremely busy,” a former Apple employee told me. “So it wouldn’t surprise me if he wants to take it a little easier.”

The source added: “This promotion would give him more time to focus on designing and is good for other people to step up and take over things that he doesn’t really want to do.”

Ive is freeing himself from the admin tasks that come with heading up the ID studio and the HI group — delegating those duties to two capable managers. (It’s also a promotion for Richard Howarth, the lead designer of Apple’s biggest product ever, the iPhone. Howarth’s done such a good job with that and many other products, it might have been time to move Jony up and out of the way so Howarth can have his turn in the sun.)

Jony Ive’s passion: design

If anything, the internal moves at Apple mean more creative work from Ive.

His passion is designing. This is why Ive isn’t CEO of Apple, and never will be.

He has no desire to run a company, a job that is largely administrative. He’s been obsessively making things since he was a kid, designing clocks and drawing toothbrushes in school.

He’s an obsessive, compulsive designer. He can’t help himself. He can’t stop.

The Telegraph piece mentions Ive will be working a lot more on Apple’s retail stores — especially in China, where Apple is making a big push. He says he will work on the stores and their furnishings, everything from oak chairs to motorized display tables.

Ive once said he loved working at Apple because the company does so much more than just computers — it makes remote controls and headphones — but the stores give him an even larger canvas beyond tech devices.

Perhaps Jony Ive has taken an interest in architecture that he’s keen to indulge.

Coincidentally, Ive has been working on his own mansion here in San Francisco — it’s undergoing a big refurbishment — as well as the massive Apple 2.0 campus. Perhaps these two projects have awakened an interest in architecture that he’s keen to indulge. And what better way to explore it than a string of architecturally ambitious stores in Apple’s fastest-growing market?

Apple has historically been squirrelly about the folks it fires (Tony Fadell, Scott Forstal), but not about those who retire or leave — Bob Mansfield, Katie Cotton, Natalie Kerris. At Apple, retirement is retirement. There’s no subterfuge.

Perhaps Ive’s retirement would be treated differently. Apple stock would take a hit, but it would be temporary, and I sincerely doubt Cupertino is concerned about that. If Ive were leaving, I think Apple would be straightforward about it.

The position of a lifetime

The biggest clue that this is a real promotion, not a subterfuge, is that Ive has been promoted to a C-level position. As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber pointed out, Apple has only three C-level positions: CEO (Tim Cook), CFO (Luca Maestri) and now CDO (Ive). All the other executives are vice presidents or senior vice presidents. Why would the company create a new top-level position for someone who’s taking a backseat?

And why would Ive step back from a company that lets him do pretty much whatever he wants? He has more resources and more power at his disposal than he would at any other company on the planet (or in history).

Ive is now in a position that resembles Steve Jobs’ role before he died.

“Jony’s design responsibilities have expanded from hardware and, more recently, software UI to the look and feel of Apple retail stores, our new campus in Cupertino, product packaging and many other parts of our company,” said Cook’s statement about the promotion.

In the last few years before Jobs died, he delegated most of the day-to-day running of Apple to his lieutenants. He took meetings all morning, but most afternoons he hung out at the design studio doing what he loved best: brainstorming new products with Jony Ive.

Jobs had enough free time to do a bunch of blue-sky thinking, and look where that led.

Ive is now in the same boat.