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The art of keeping it simple

SMH | Oct. 25, 2011
Steve Jobs found a design soulmate in Jonathan Ive. In this extract from his new biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson explores the bond between the two that cemented Apple's philosophy.

The connection between the design of a product, its essence, and its manufacturing was illustrated for Jobs and Ive when they were travelling in France and went into a kitchen supply store.

Ive picked up a knife he admired but then put it down in disappointment. Jobs did the same. ''We both noticed a tiny bit of glue between the handle and the blade,'' Ive recalled.

They talked about how the knife's good design had been ruined by the way it was manufactured. ''We don't like to think of our knives as being glued together,'' Ive said. ''Steve and I care about things like that, which ruin the purity and detract from the essence of something like a utensil, and we think alike about how products should be made to look pure and seamless.''

At most other companies, engineering tends to drive design. The engineers set forth their specifications and requirements and the designers then come up with cases and shells that will accommodate them. For Jobs, the process tended to work the other way. In the early days of Apple, Jobs had approved the design of the case of the original Macintosh and the engineers had to make their boards and components fit. After he was forced out, the process at Apple reverted to being engineer-driven.

''Before Steve came back, engineers would say: 'Here are the guts' - processor, hard drive - and then it would go to the designers to put it in a box,'' said Apple's marketing chief, Phil Schiller. ''When you do it that way, you come up with awful products.''

But when Jobs returned and forged his bond with Ive, the balance was again tilted toward the designers.

''Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integral to what would make us great,'' Schiller said. ''Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice versa.''

On occasion this could backfire, such as when Jobs and Ive insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminium for the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers worried that it would compromise the antenna. But usually the distinctiveness of its designs - for the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad - would set Apple apart and lead to its triumphs in the years after Jobs returned.

On [the day I visited the design studio] Ive was overseeing the creation of a new European power plug and connector for the Macintosh. Dozens of foam models, each with the tiniest variation, have been cast and painted for inspection. Some would find it odd that the head of design would fret over something like this, but Jobs got involved as well.


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