Last fall, Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive was asked what he would do if he weren’t designing for Apple.
„If I wasn’t doing this, I think I would just be drawing or making stuff for friends,“ Ive said during an interview with Charlie Rose. „Maybe it would just be Christmas tree ornaments, I don’t know.“
Last Sunday, the London hotel Claridge’s unveiled its annual Christmas tree installation.
It was designed by Ive.
Ive’s official Apple bio says he’s „responsible for all design at Apple, including the look and feel of Apple hardware, user interface, packaging, major architectural projects such as Apple Campus 2 and Apple’s retail stores, as well as new ideas and future initiatives.“
But people who know the company well are starting to suggest that Ive has been taking more of a backseat role and may not even be deeply involved in product design anymore, which was where he made his biggest mark on the company.
„I’ve heard that he has lately been checked out or not as directly involved with product design, and that he’s been largely focused on architecture,“ Apple watcher John Gruber told Jason Snell, the former editor of Macworld, during a podcast last week. Ive is mostly working on the new retail stores and working closely with head of retail Angela Ahrendts, Snell said he’s heard.
Gruber later clarified on his blog that he did not mean to imply Ive was on his way out, and that Apple sources have told him „every aspect of every new product remains as much under his watchful eye as ever.“
Kif Leswing/Business Insider
There isn’t a whole lot of evidence one way or the other. But a new glossy book taking a look back at Ive’s best designs is certainly stoking the speculation.
„Criticizing execs is unpopular, but Ive seems stretched thin, burnt out, and bored,“ Apple blogger Marco Arment tweeted. „I’d love to see some fresh design leadership at Apple.“
Rob Price/Business Insider
During Apple’s meteoric rise from 2000 to 2011, Ive was at Steve Jobs‘ side.
He ran Apple’s industrial design department, which was empowered to imagine products like the iPhone. Ive often gave concepts to Apple’s engineering department, telling them to make the product design possible, which is counter to how industrial design works at other high-tech firms.
Ive considered himself Jobs‘ closest friend, and he is still seen as a critical person for the company. His 20-person team designed every single one of Apple’s iconic products in the past 15 years, from the iPod to the iPhone.
If Ive were to retire officially, it could spook investors.
After Jobs‘ death, it looked as if Ive had received even more responsibility at Apple. He expanded his role from strictly physical industrial design to digital user interface as well.
CEO Tim Cook explained the move in a memo to employees, which was leaked and published on 9to5Mac:
„As Chief Design Officer, Jony will remain responsible for all of our design, focusing entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives. On July 1, he will hand off his day-to-day managerial responsibilities of ID and UI to Richard Howarth, our new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, our new vice president of User Interface Design.“
When Ive left, Harper Alexander, his handpicked lab manager and right-hand man, left the group, too — he now does corporate recruiting for Apple.
Many analysts, such as Above Avalon’s Neil Cybart, still believe that Ive is one of the most important people at the company. „With Jony Ive positioned as overseer of Apple design, his influence on Apple’s product direction cannot be overstated,“ he wrote earlier this month.
But earlier this spring, Apple’s iPhone SE launched without a product explanation from Ive, as most previous Apple products had received. And he kept a low profile at the launch event — only one reporter who attended told us he saw Ive, while many others said they thought he wasn’t there.
Ive contributed voice-overs to the launches of the iPhone 7 and MacBook Pro this fall. But as many have observed, he did more press, including two interviews, for his new book than he did for Apple’s latest products.
Ive is certainly keeping a much lower profile than he did before his promotion.
Impossible to tell
Despite Ive’s clear importance to the company and his role in Apple lore, the company does not list Ive as one of its six most highly compensated executives in Securities and Exchange Commission documents.
(Those execs are CEO Tim Cook, CFO Luca Maestri, Ahrendts, Online Services SVP Eddy Cue, Hardware SVP Dan Riccio, and General Counsel Bruce Sewell.)
The last time Ive was listed on a SEC Form 4, which is required whenever an „insider“ acquires or disposes of stock, was in 2009. It said he owned 28,127 shares of Apple stock at the time. There’s been a 7-1 split since then.
Simply put, nobody outside Apple knows how much Ive makes, even though we know what the rest of Apple’s executive team makes.
Shareholders do not know what Ive makes. It could be massive, or he could already be collecting a nominal salary because he’s effectively retired. It’s impossible to tell.
Making it harder for investors to gain clarity on the situation, Ive has traditionally run a leak-free, extremely secretive ship. Even Snell and Gruber, with their inside Apple sources, realize there is only so much an Apple employee would know, given that Ive’s team has traditionally worked apart from the company, especially the software engineering department.
Former Apple exec Scott Forstall, who developed iOS, could not get into Ive’s lab with his senior vice president ID card, according to a biography of Ive.
The team was small, at fewer than 20 members, although it has grown recently and now includes user interface as well. Few people ever leave the group, although Daniel Coster, a longtime member, was wooed by GoPro.
These team members sit together at lunch and are fiercely loyal to one another. If anyone knows if Ive is no longer showing up to the shop, it’s them, and they’re not talking — to other Apple employees or the press.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Of course, Ive could just be head down, working on Apple’s next big thing — the successor to the iPhone that will ensure the company remains the world’s most admired for years to come.
Snell suggests that the Apple Car, now seemingly on the back burner, was an Ive passion project. That’s certainly plausible. One of the reported goals for the Apple Car project was to retain top talent who might be bored working on incremental iPhone improvements.
But it’s much harder to see Ive driving the development behind a pair of smart glasses, or augmented reality, which Apple is currently working on.
Ive told The New Yorker that the face „was the wrong place“ for technology, in a long profile written in the fall of 2014, just before Apple unveiled the Apple Watch. Ive sounded tired:
„He was a few days from starting a three-week vacation, the longest of his career. The past year had been ‚the most difficult‘ he’d experienced since joining Apple, he said later that day, explaining that the weariness I’d sometimes seen wasn’t typical. Since our previous meeting, he’d had pneumonia. ‚I just burnt myself into not being very well,‘ he said.“
A quote from Jobs‘ widow in the same profile hinted at a role change as well:
„He had discouraged the thought that Newson’s appointment portended his own eventual departure, although when I spoke to Powell Jobs she wondered if ‚there might be a way where there’s a slightly different structure that’s a little more sustainable and sustaining.‘ Comparing the careers of her husband and Ive, she noted that ‚very few people ever get to do such things,‘ but added, ‚I do think there’s a toll.'“
Ive’s studio is currently located on the ground floor at 2 Infinite Loop, with a direct passageway to 1 Infinite Loop, where Cook and the rest of his executive team members meet weekly.
When Apple moves into its new „Spaceship“ Campus 2, the industrial design group will get the best location on the ring.
They’ll be on the fourth floor, in a new 30,000-square-foot studio. They will have a view of much of Apple’s campus. It’s a symbol of how important the industrial design group led by Ive has been to Apple.
When the team moves in, will Ive be there, looking at the campus he designed and helped build with them? Or will he be off in England designing retail stores, the Apple Car, or Christmas ornaments for friends?