The Behind-The-Scenes Partnership At Apple

The relationship between Apple's CEO Steve Jobs and head designer Jonathan Ive has resulted in some of the most important products of the new century.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

So are you a Mac or a PC person? Well, if you have an iPod, iPhone, iPad or even an iMac, you might love it or maybe you hate it, but you probably don't know much about the man who designed it. We're not talking about Steve Jobs.

SIEGEL: Behind the scenes, Jobs has a partner. And many people credit Jonathan Ive with changing the way people think about design. As part of our creative partnership series, NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the collaboration between Ive and Jobs.

LAURA SYDELL: At Apple, people often refer to the two men as Jives because they're so close. They often talk quietly over lunch in the company dining room or stroll around the grounds at the Cupertino headquarters. When Steve Jobs stood onstage in front of hundreds of people and announced the video phone feature on the iPhone 4, he made one call to...

Mr. STEVE JOBS (Co-founder and CEO of Apple): One of my best friends in the whole world, Jonny Ive, the head of our design team. Hey, Jonny, how you doin'?

Mr. JONATHAN IVE (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple): I'm good, I'm good. How you?

SYDELL: Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs have been inseparable since they met in the mid-1990s.

Mr. LEANDER KAHNEY (Author of "Inside Steve's Brain"): Think his relationship with Jonny Ive is very symbiotic. Steve needs Jonny Ive and Jonny Ive needs Steve.

SYDELL: Leander Kahney is the author of "Inside Steve's Brain." Ive came to Apple in 1992. At the time, Jobs was exiled from the company he founded. Apple had become bogged down with bureaucracy. Ive felt stifled.

Mr. KAHNEY: He felt buried in this big company. He was working on all sorts of very creative projects, very few of which saw the light of day.

SYDELL: In 1996, when Steve Jobs returned to save a company on the brink of bankruptcy, he began an evaluation of everyone.

Mr. KAHNEY: He found Jonny Ive in a basement surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of prototypes of all these prototype projects and recognized immediately that he had a talent there that should be put to work.

SYDELL: Jobs put him to work revamping the Mac computer. The two men seemed to agree on a basic philosophy about designing products - make the designs in the software simple and easy to use. Apple almost never lets media talk to anyone inside the company and would not agree to be part of this story. Ive gave a rare interview about his thinking behind the design for the first iMac to British television's Channel 4.

Mr. IVE: A lot of people at that point and time were nervous around computers, around technology. So our take on it was how we could make the product accessible and not intimidating.

SYDELL: The result was the Fruity iMac. It was introduced to the world with a series of hip commercials that touted five bright color options.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

SYDELL: The iMac reflected the Jobs/Ive philosophy. Plug it in and it works. No separate monitor, no rats nest of power cords, no external hard drives. At the time, it was the best selling computer model in history. Since then, Ive has lead Apple's design team to create some of the most popular products of our time - the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad, all with the trademark minimalism. Ive says when he thinks about design, he thinks about details that matter to users.

Mr. IVE: I seem to know that the designer's taken care of and the development team is taken care of. Now, I think we are surrounded by multiple, multiple products that really testify to companies who don't really care.

SYDELL: Ive was raised in a middle class neighborhood in London and attended design school at Newcastle Polytechnic. While in school, his friends couldn't help but notice that his flat was filled from top to bottom with models for a project to help people communicate with children who had hearing problems. Each model was a little different because Ive kept redesigning it to get it right. Robert Brenner, who has since left Apple, hired Ive in 1992. He says Ive is relentless.

Mr. ROBERT BRENNER: And you really have to be very relentless to get good stuff out in the market. And I think that is an attribute of Jonathan. He was very, very focused on getting it just right.

SYDELL: Jobs is equally obsessed with details, says author Leander Kahney. The night before the iPod was introduced to the press, Jobs discovered that the headphone jack didn't make a click when you plugged in the headphones.

Mr. KAHNEY: So he ordered the engineers to dismantle them all and put in headphone jacks that made a nice satisfying click when you plugged the headphone in. So these guys stayed up all night and then had to repackage the iPods in the morning to give to the journalists and the press. And it was kind of nutsy. I mean, who does that kind of thing? Who's going to notice?

SYDELL: Clearly, Steve Jobs noticed. He took execution of Jonny Ive's designs seriously. Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at Washington University who has studied creative collaborations, says Jobs and Ive together are responsible for what is now called design thinking.

Prof. KEITH SAWYER (Washington University): Apple was at the forefront of this new movement, this idea that design is not something that you add in at the end when you're trying to pick a color scheme or how curvy the corners are going to be. Design is something that you have to build in from the beginning.

SYDELL: Here's Ive in a documentary about design called "Objectified." He's talking about the iPhone and its big glass front.

Mr. IVE: Everything defers to the display. A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that is actually getting design out of the way. And I think when phones develop with that sort of reason and theyre not arbitrary shapes, it feels almost un-designed.

SYDELL: Both Ive and Jobs believe that the hardware must work together seamlessly with the software. The iPhone and the iPod are part of a system, says Professor Sawyer, that includes a music store, a video store and a book store.

Prof. SAWYER: It's not the way it was curved or where you put the buttons. It was thinking about the entire user experience of the iTunes store, of how you get the intellectual property rights with the record companies, right? So all of that together is what made the iPod successful.

SYDELL: To get it all right, author Leander Kahney says, it took both of them.

Mr. KAHNEY: They're creative partners in the fullest sense. You know, it's not that Steve just sort of rejects stuff or accepts stuff, he gives very detailed feedback about the designs that Jonny creates. You know, they work together as a creative collaboration.

SYDELL: And it's hard not to notice that it's a collaboration that has resulted in products so successful that other companies, from Samsung to HTC, have tried to emulate them. But none creates the kind of excitement of a Jobs/Ive design.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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