A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “The Ive Touch.” Subscribe today
At Apple, Jony Ive transformed tech products from bland, clunky gadgets to sleek, sexy and very mainstream objects of desire. Start here, with his greatest hits, and soon you’ll see his signature design language everywhere you look.
When Apple announced in June that Jony Ive, the company’s chief design officer and Steve Jobs’s “spiritual partner,” would be leaving the company after nearly three decades, the tech world let out a collective audible gasp. Ive is responsible for some of the most iconic modern products ever created — by Apple, or anyone else. The iMac. The iPod. The iPhone, iPad and the Apple Watch. It was Ive, along with the late Jobs, who helped drag Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy in the late ‘90s before turning it into the world’s most valuable company.
Ive started at Apple in 1992, when the company was struggling financially and Jobs was off running NeXT. When Jobs returned in 1997 he immediately promoted Ive, who had been thinking about leaving the company, to run Apple’s product design team. His first assignment: turn the “boring beige box” Macintosh 128K into something cheaper, prettier and more popular.
Ive responded with the iMac. Released in 1998, it showcased his new design direction for the brand: fun and accessibility. Instead of focusing on hard-to-understand specs like chip speeds and RAM, Apple would deliver products that “dispensed positive emotions,” according to Leander Kahney in Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products. The iMac was transparent and colorful, like a big gumball dispenser. There was nothing else like it, or even close.
Over the next two decades, Ive leaned into the feel-good factor while designing products that were meant to be equal parts beautiful and functional — and often, as with the iPod, iPhone and more, landing on forms that were truly ground-breaking. Ive refined the minimalist and simplistic approach of his idol, the industrial designer Dieter Rams, along the way developing an obsession with thinness and rounded edges, two of many hallmarks that have become synonymous with Apple’s now-iconic design language.
That the most influential product designer in the world is leaving Apple raises many questions about its future. But don’t expect answers any time soon. As Jon Gruber, among the most fervent journalists who cover Apple, wrote in a recent Daring Fireball article: “We’ll still be seeing Ive-designed hardware five years from now. It is going to take a long time to evaluate his absence.”
Recognizing his genius, on the other hand, is quite simple indeed.
The iMac G3 — yes, the one from Zoolander — was the first Apple product where users could really feel Ive’s influence. It was playful, with a see-through shell, and came in thirteen colors; to this day, it remains the most colorful computer in Apple’s history. And it was a massive success, selling 800,000 units in the first five months and effectively propelling Apple into an entirely new era, with Ive at the design helm.
Signatures: Translucent shell, rounded case back, lack of floppy-disc drive
The first iPod was an instant classic. It put thousands of songs in peoples’ pockets at a time when most portable music players could hardly store a regular-length CD. But the real beauty of the iPod design was its brilliantly simple click wheel: a new user could pick up the device and intuitively figure out how to change songs and scroll through albums and artists without ever glancing at an instruction manual. Two decades later, it remains addictively satisfying to use.
Signatures: Mechanical scroll wheel, rounded edges, aluminum body
Of all the important products that Apple has created, the iPhone is the most relevant to the company itself: iPhone sales account for two-thirds of the company’s revenue. Back in 2007, when Apple released the first-generation iPhone, it was the company’s first device with a multi-touch technology in the touchscreen — suddenly you could interact with your phone by rotating the screen, pinching to zoom, or swiping up, down and side-to-side. The demand was
enormous: Apple sold its millionth iPhone just 74 days after its release.
Signatures: Multi-touch technology, portable music-player functionality, rounded edges
Every company making all-in-one desktops continues to copy the groundbreaking design language of the 2012 iMac: a slim neck supporting a glass display such that it looks as if the monitor is floating in midair. Even Apple knows better to mess with a classic; today’s iMacs appear largely the same. As such, some Apple die-hards to consider this timeless design to be the spiritual successor to the first personal computer, the 1984 Macintosh.
Signatures: Extra-thin monitor, antireflective display, aluminum and glass body
Perhaps no Apple product has garnered as much immediate awe as the first MacBook Air. When Steve Jobs introduced it at one of the company’s famous keynote addresses, he produced it, like a magic trick, from a plain manila envelope to a chorus of amazed ooohs and aaahs and whistles. The latest version, released in 2019, is the thinnest and lightest yet, weighing just 2.75 pounds and only 0.61 inches thick — that’s thinner than a first-generation iPod.
Signatures: Incredibly thin, sleek aluminum body, lightweight
The Apple Watch is a prime example of Ive’s exacting attention to detail. An avid watch collector, he consulted seven horological experts to make sure it felt like a true timepiece, instead of just another smartwatch. The digital crown on the Series 4, for example, is one of the most intricate mechanisms ever created by Apple; its subtle haptic feedback gives the all-digital smartwatch an unmistakably mechanical feel.
Signatures: Digital crown, aluminum and glass body, square face with rounded edges
Many believe that Ive stuck around Cupertino as long as he did just to see Apple Park to completion. People are already calling the 2.8 million-square-foot circular campus his magnum opus, and it’s fair to say that Apple Park is indeed a product — just one made for the company rather than its customers. Ive thought about everything, from the way teams would sit with one another to the specific curvature of the glass, to make sure Apple’s massive new headquarters spoke the same the design language he’d been translating for 22 years as Apple’s lead designer
Signatures: Infinity-loop design, enormous curved glass walls, open workspace