YD Talks: Looking at the new iPhones and why Jony Ive and Apple are better split apart…

Would you rather design the world’s first diamond ring that’s entirely made out of a single diamond stone? Or would you try to design an 8mm slab of a smartphone that practically looks the same as the 8mm slab of a smartphone you designed last year, because it needs to?

This keynote marks the first of many without Jony Ive lending his suave baritone to the background audio as Tim unveils the new iPhone. Jony Ive left Apple earlier this year, moving on to forming his own design studio LoveFrom along with long-time friend and design collaborator Marc Newson.

There’s no room for Apple to innovate in industrial design, as the company isn’t really set to launch new products anymore. They scrapped AirPower and pulled a disappearing act on the entire ‘smart-car’ project. The last product that Ive could really go wild with was the infamous 2019 Mac Pro, and that design isn’t changing at least for the next 5 years.

I remember a time when Ive allegedly expressed intent to leave Apple (a year after Jobs’ passing), and was made to stay by being promoted to the position of Chief Design Officer. Now at a position that is just second to the CEO, there isn’t much room for Jony to move upwards, and the company’s pivot to services like Apple Pay, Apple TV+, and Apple Arcade means Ive can finally move out of Apple’s structure, extending and experimenting beyond designing notches on 8mm slabs of metal and glass, putting arguably the most disastrous keyboards on their flagship laptops, and over-designing a $1999 display stand for a $5999 cheese-grater-esque computer.

So onto the new iPhone. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are, like every iPhone, the greatest iPhones ever made. They showcase design similar to their predecessors, but with major upgrades to the inner hardware and software, including a chip that provides better CPU and GPU capabilities with lesser power consumption, and camera features that are really professional-grade. The merits of the new iPhones aren’t really visual, but rather strictly technological. Remember the visual jump from the iPhone 3G to the 4, from the 5 to the 6, and from the 8 to the X? They were all spaced roughly 2-3 years apart, but the iPhone X is perhaps the last stop for the iPhone’s industrial design journey (I hope to stand corrected). With an aesthetic that’s now sort of in the sweet spot, Apple’s focus is now on making each subsequent phone perform better than the last.

To reiterate, the new iPhones aren’t really NEW LOOKING iPhones. They’re old iPhones with new tricks. There’s no way in hell that Apple’s teasing a folding iPhone yet, or a 5G iPhone before the infrastructure is ready… or even a bezel-less iPhone because that would need a sliding camera module which would make the iPhone thicker, a cardinal sin in Jony’s design playbook. In fact, the iPhone can’t even get much thinner than it already has, thanks to the limitations of Moore’s Law.

Tim’s pivot to services is probably his lasting legacy as CEO, and it doesn’t have much room in it for radical industrial design. Ive stuck around to help complete Jobs’ vision of releasing the best consumer products, but if anything, those products are now Apple’s undoing. iPhone sales have gradually seen a steady decline, in part because it isn’t worth spending over a grand on new phones each year, but also because Apple’s gadgets stand the test of time, with people on an average using their phones for over 3-4 years before finally making the switch (my flatmate still uses a 6S; pretty happily, if I might add). The bendgate debacle was perhaps a blip in Apple’s otherwise long-standing record of making products that last longer than the competition (they’ll last even longer now, ever since Apple’s begun advocating for the Right To Repair Act that allows third-parties to officially fix broken Apple gadgets). Couple that with the fact that each flagship iPhone now costs more than a grand, and you’ve got a product line that’s losing its annual hype.

So, I ask again… would you willingly choose to play second fiddle to engineers, strategists, UI/UX designers, and service designers, condemned to a lifetime of minutely redesigning old products? Probably not for long, right? The new iPhone is remarkable in many ways, but it also marks the perfect departure for Apple’s design legend who deserves to be able to do MUCH more.

The new iPhone 11 Pro – An old, familiar design, with a new secret sauce

Apple’s product lineup under Jobs was radically different from its lineup under Cook. Cook’s vision for Apple and the iPhone is to take the existing and make it better. Take the earpods and turn them into wireless Airpods, take the iPad and turn it into an iPad Pro, and now with the iPhone, take the world’s most popular smartphone, and turn it into a serious instrument for content creation.

The iPhone 11 Pro is, just like every iPhone, the best damn iPhone ever made, but without Jony Ive, the keynote seemed to evoke a lot of déjà vu. Nothing much has changed as far as the design goes, for starters. There’s a third lens, an A13 bionic chip, and a new color, Midnight Green. Other than that, the iPhone 11 isn’t a dramatic visual upgrade, like the iPhone X was, or the iPhone 6 was. Apple’s innovation, for the most part, has been fueled by cutting-edge hardware and software developments. The new phone has a Super Retina XDR display with industry-leading brightness, vividness, and contrast ratios, while at the same time consuming lesser power. Three lenses give the iPhone 11 Pro superior camera props, allowing you to shoot telephoto, wide, and ultra-wide from the same vantage point, with incredible detail, and also the presence of a low-light night-mode. The cameras on the front are a dramatic improvement too, with a wide lens giving you wide-angle selfies, and a portrait feature on both sides allowing you to calibrate the depth-of-field. The iPhone 11 Pro shines in the video department, with stunning 4K video recording, and tools that allow you to edit video in powerful new ways. The iPhone 11 Pro, as its name suggests, is the consumer-favorite iPhone, but tweaked to suit the demands of a professional. Oh, did I mention, it comes with a free 1 year subscription to Apple TV+ too? That’s just Tim’s way of reminding us that Apple isn’t an industrial-design-driven company anymore, it’s a service-design-driven company now.

Designer: Apple

Revisiting nearly 3 decades of Jonathan Ive’s design evolution at Apple… in products.

With Sir Jonathan Ive’s exit from Apple just days ago, it’s finally the end of an era that Steve Jobs envisioned back in the 90s. Ive left his design agency Tangerine to formally Apple in 1992, recruited by Jon Rubinstein at the time. It wasn’t until 1996, when Steve Jobs made a return to Apple (an almost-bankrupt company at the time), when Jonathan Ive’s career really took off. Along with Ive’s eye for design, and Jobs’ attention to need, detail, and usability, the two formed one of the most successful creative alliances in recent history, taking the company to a valuation of $665 billion in 2011, around the time of Jobs’ demise, and finally to the trillion dollar mark in 2018.

Ive’s journey at Apple can be distinctly broken down into these phases, that roughly fall into the decades too. We’re here to look at the work of Jobs through the lens of time, as he went from product to product and strength to strength with each passing decade. The video above provides a very rare look into Ive’s and Apple’s elusive design process, while the products below aim to codify and categorize Ive’s 27-year-long design journey with one of the most innovative companies on earth. Here’s a look at Jonathan Ive’s 27 years at Apple, in products.

1992-96 Jonathan Ive leaves Tangerine for Apple. Steve Jobs hasn’t made his comeback yet.

There honestly isn’t much to look at here. This was pre-Jobs comeback, when Apple was facing financial difficulties. Ive made his way from Tangerine to Apple, only to realize that most of the design team was being let go of. Rumor has it, he almost tried to quit around the same time, but was pep-talked into staying by Jon Rubinstein. Ive, under Apple, designed a few not-so-successful products at the time… like the Newton MessagePad, shown above. However, his experimentation with transparency (top right) led to a few breakthroughs later when Steve made a comeback.

1997-2011 Apple’s renaissance period under Jobs and Ive. Apple Design follows Dieter Rams.

Design flourished when Steve Jobs made a comeback in 1996. The iMac G3 and the iBook explored curves, and the use of transparency and translucency. Jobs was adamant that the insides of the computers be beautiful enough to showcase to the world, rather than make more white boxes. Ive’s design efforts went into making ‘computers sexy again’.

Ive’s obsession with transparency evolved further, while products that were previously curved, started taking on a more slick appearance. Shown above are the Apple Cinema Display, the iMac G4, and a rare non-Apple product, Harman Kardon’s Soundsticks that were designed by Ive!

Nothing put Apple more on the map than the iPod. It revolutionized everything, and truly made Jobs stand out as a visionary, and cemented Ive’s role in the company. The iPod also owed a big debt of gratitude to Dieter Rams, who’s design language at Braun truly began influencing Ive’s work. The circular jogdial, the no-nonsense design, the philosophy of “Form Following Function”, and the liberal use of white, all were owed to Dieter Rams. While naysayers saw this as Apple ‘not being original enough’, iPods flew off the shelves, and Apple finally became a household name.

As iPods grew popular, Ive strived hard to make them sleeker too. As a result, the Nano and the Shuffle were born. With an iPod for everyone, these came in a variety of formats, stored as many as 2000 songs, and now came in color! Another subtle innovation was that Ive discovered the material that would change the consumer tech industry forever… aluminium.

Aluminum allowed Ive to truly explore Apple’s new aesthetic of beautiful, premium, and sleek products. Aluminum was abundant, could be machined to precision, and Ive even devised a way of utilizing spare aluminum parts from the Mac Pro to make the MacBook bodies (discussed in Gary Hustwit’s Objectified). Ive pushed the limits to how beautifully sleek products could be made, and in 2008, Steve Jobs walked out on stage with a Manila envelope, carrying the world’s thinnest laptop within it… the iconic 19.4mm MacBook Air!

One more thing… arguably the three most important words in Apple’s history. The iPhone is considered to be Jobs and Ive’s magnum opus. So much is owed to the birth of the iPhone. Industries, companies, technologies, materials, the iPhone created them all. The first iPhone, introduced in 2007 was the first true smartphone. It came with a touchscreen you could use with your fingers, and boasted of Apple’s iOS and the birth of the app marketplace. Further iterations only grew better. The iPhone 4 came with a glass front and back, but a slick aluminum frame that made it one of the thinnest phones of its time. It was the perfect size (some still believe so even today) and had Siri, Apple’s voice AI. In 2012 came the iPhone 5, a reiteration of its successful predecessor, with a standard-setting aluminum unibody, a revolutionary 16:9 display, and the world’s first fingerprint sensor on a phone. The iPhone 5 was considered to be the last iPhone co-created by Jobs and Ive.

The iPad debuted in 2010, just a year before Jobs’ demise. Ive designed it to be the sleekest tablet on the market, following the footsteps of the iPhone and the MacBook Air, although the idea for the iPad came to Jobs much before the iPhone. Jony developed a device so iconic that it remained the only strong contender in the tablet market with practically no competition for roughly seven years.

2012-19 Apple finding its post-Jobs identity, & becoming a trillion dollar company.

The 2013 Mac Pro came at a time of uncertainty. Two years since the death of Jobs, Apple was looking for its next great product. The iPhone and the iPad proved to show how great Jobs was at envisioning new products. Apple hoped a redesigned Mac Pro would show people that Apple was still capable of innovation. Jonathan Ive’s redesign didn’t receive much praise, and was often referred to as the trashcan Mac, for its dustbin-shaped appearance. For the people that bought it too, the Mac Pro had quite a few problems, ranging from its heat issues, to the fact that it wasn’t easy to upgrade… a pretty necessary feature considering how much the 2013 Mac Pro cost.

The following year was one of redemption. Apple’s recent recruitments to the design team included designer Mark Newson and CEO of Yves Saunt Laurent, Paul Deneve. These two stalwarts aided Ive in building consumer electronics that were comparable to fashion items, with their sheer sense of style (and even a price tag to match). The Apple Watch was born, kicking off a wearables market. It featured a small screen, a touch-sensitive UI and a rotating crown, all encased in a remarkable aluminum body. The watch came with wireless charging, and featured a built-in heart-rate sensor… a feature that would soon define the Watch’s use-case. As a consumer-friendly medical wearable.

Among other noteworthy design achievements, Apple acquired Beats by Dre., a company that considered Robert Brunner’s Ammunition as their design partners (Brunner was an ex-Apple design lead). Alongside that, Ive’s team even designed the iPhone 6, a smartphone with an incredibly slick design that received mixed reviews, while also being one of the most sold smartphones in the world. Ive’s obsession with slim devices finally led to what became the Bendgate. The iPhone 6 was so thin, it would bend if kept in your back pocket. Apple eventually fixed the problem in the iPhone 6S with a stronger chassis and a harder aluminum alloy. The 6S also gave birth to the era of Rose Gold, a color that Apple debuted in 2015 which became a standard in almost all subsequent iPhones and even in the new MacBook Air.

Later in 2016, Apple announced the iPhone 7, which infamously ditched the headphone jack. The absence of a 3.5mm jack on the phone meant the release of the Airpods, Apple’s incredibly small truly wireless intelligent earbuds. Perhaps not the most consumer-friendly decision, the Airpods were a runaway business success. The Airpods were convenient, incredibly well-paired with the iPhone, and came with touch-sensitive surfaces that let you control playback as well as the iPhone’s core features without taking your phone out. The Airpods were sleek, well-built, and came with their own charging case that you could carry around with you. 2016 was also the year Apple killed ports on the MacBook, leaving just a USB Type-C port and a headphone jack (a strange decision there) on the side. The 2016 MacBook also ended the tradition of having glowing Apple logos on MacBooks.

2017 saw the release of the HomePod, Apple’s foray into the smart-speaker market. Ive pretty much revived the cylindrical design (of the Mac Pro) to create a powerful speaker capable of throwing out high-fidelity sound in all directions with equal intensity. The smart-speaker featured a touch-sensitive upper surface, and could respond to “Hey Siri”. Available in white and black, the HomePod came perhaps too late, with Amazon beating Apple to the smart-speaker market by three whole years.

Towards the end of 2017, Apple announced the AirPower, a tray capable of charging all of Apple’s wireless devices… simultaneously. The announcement was perhaps a little premature, considering two large things. A. The Airpods didn’t charge wirelessly, and B. The technology wasn’t perfected yet. Ive’s design showed how easy it was to lay your products on the AirPower mat and have them charge, but Apple’s engineering team couldn’t get it to work without heating up tremendously. The AirPower was finally shelved in 2019.

2017 also marked a full decade since the launch of Apple’s greatest product ever, the iPhone. Alongside the iPhone 8 (which was due at the time), Ive designed the anniversary iPhone, titled the iPhone X. With a stellar dual-lens camera capable of clicking portrait images with computational blurring, the iPhone X actually sold more than the 8, even with its $999 price tag… and its notch! The notch became a standard detail for almost all other smartphones to follow, as Ive’s vision for a truly bezel-less smartphone became more and more possible. It also meant saying goodbye to the good old TouchID and hello to Apple’s new FaceID, its revolutionary facial recognition system. The new iPhone was also a departure of sorts from Ive’s love for aluminium, since the metal wouldn’t support wireless charging.

The 2018 iPad Pro was the tablet every creative professional needed. With an incredibly powerful processor (as powerful as the Xbox One), a great camera, a redesigned stylus (that charged wirelessly), and virtually no bezels, the iPad Pro became a standard for the creative industry. It also came with a Type-C port, showing users exactly how versatile the tablet was designed to be, as it could be connected to pretty much any other device, and not be inhibited by Apple’s lightning charger.

As Apple’s hardware sales slowed down (nobody wanted to buy a new iPhone every year), the company finally made a pivot to services. The Apple Card was one of them. Machined out of titanium, the card was an exercise in sheer minimalism, thanks to Ive and the design team. it came with a machined Apple logo, and an etched name on the card… that’s it!

Ive’s last product at Apple, the Mac Pro sent quite a few mixed messages. At the time of his death, Jobs made it clear that Ive’s work was not to be interfered with, and he was answerable to no one. The Mac Pro 2019 was proof of Ive’s free reign. It came with a dual-machined airway system that gave the Mac Pro an appearance of a glorified cheese-grater, with an incredibly hefty price-tag. Apple’s trillion-dollar valuation, and Ive’s ability to design without any constraints resulted in one of the most talked about designs of the year so far… that’s until Ive finally put in his resignation along with Marc Newson to form LoveFrom, an independent design outfit that considered Apple as one of its top clients. Let’s see what the 2019 Apple October event has in store for us!

One designer went and redesigned the cheese-grater Mac Pro

You’ve got to admit, whether you like or dislike the Mac Pro 2019, there’s no ignoring it. Especially if you’re from the design community. As a designer (turned writer) myself, here’s a couple of things I’ve learnt the hard way. There’s a general air of designers “knowing what they’re doing”. I’m just as complicit, when I defend my design to a client, or to a marketing team. Sometimes criticism, even if its constructive, can often deliver a slight blow to our ego, which comes from the philosophy that designers make the world a better place. Another very strong behavior that I’ve tried hard to unlearn is the fact that designers tend to look at everything through the lens of a designer… which means everything is a potential redesign project. With my negative feedback of the Mac Pro’s “disgusting” grille, I, for a second, became that person. I still think that Jony could do better (or different), but hey, he operates in a world of unlimited potential, zero constraints, and zero answerability (a part of me is jealous too, yes). My appreciation (or the lack of appreciation) has zero bearing on Ive’s strangely secretive design process. That being said, feedback for the Mac Pro has been extremely divisive, and Hasan Kaymak’s put together a design that he believes captures everything good about the Mac Pro’s 2006 and 2013 editions.

Hasan’s Mac Pro 2020 doesn’t deviate from the silhouette of the 2019 Mac Pro. In fact it embraces it, and comes in the 2013 Mac Pro’s black color, giving us the best of both worlds. The most noticeable change is the absence of the dual-side CNC machined grille detail, which Hasan replaced with a much more traditional slot and mesh. While the revised design detail isn’t particularly eye-catching, it plays it safe… and considering the grille never really faces the user, a relatively normal design detail seems like a fairly logical way to go. Besides, playing it safe would also bring down the relative cost of the Mac Pro by a couple of hundred bucks (given that you don’t have to have a complex CNC machining task), making it slightly less of a pocket pincher. On the opposite side of the grille, Hasan’s added 8 USB-C ports, for connecting all sorts of devices, from hubs, to the iPad Pro, to any other compatible devices you may have. Two audio jacks also sit right above the ports for good measure.

Another design detail change is the vault-lock mechanism on the top of the Mac Pro, which seems absent in Hasan’s concept. Rather than corrupting a clean surface with a fairly large clamp and handle, Hasan goes for something much more discreet, allowing you to simply remove the upper body by pressing down on the stainless steel rods on the top.

The redesign touches upon a common public sentiment, that the Mac Pro doesn’t need to be outright revolutionary. Unlike the iMac or any of the laptops, Mac Pros usually either sit behind monitors, or under tables, or even in render farms. As a device, the Mac Pro has always aimed to look beautiful, but its intent has always been to be functional first… especially given that people are shelling out large sums of money not for looks, but for raw computing power. It doesn’t need to be made using a complex, thick, two-way machined aluminum grille. But hey, who am I to express distaste? I’m just a guy who uses WordPress on a Windows laptop.

Designer: Hasan Kaymak

The latest Mac Pro is proof that Apple needs to step up its Design Game.

The first time I stumbled upon an image of the new Mac Pro, I honestly thought it was a photoshopped meme. Touted as Apple’s most professional high-performance offering, the Mac Pro isn’t new to ridicule. Its previous avatar was compared to a trash-can, thanks to its cylindrical shape. This time, the design team went back to a CPU-esque cuboidal form factor, like in the beloved 1st generation of the Mac Pro… but I’ll be honest. Something is definitely amiss.

Here are a few thoughts as a product designer who’s followed Apple’s journey as a fan as well as an industrial designer myself. Apple’s ‘behind-locked-doors’ design team is finally truly feeling the effects of this isolation. Touted as one of the most secretive companies when it comes to product launches, Apple tries hard to escape leaks from manufacturing plants, and from whistleblowers… but most importantly, it has a blatant disregard for public feedback. That disregard saw itself manifesting multiple times… in the release of the dustbin Mac Pro, the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone, and more recently, in the introduction of the notch (the iPhone was the first to do so, remember?).

The new Mac Pro looks like it functionally fulfills every single one of its needs… and it does. It’s infinitely customizeable, has what Apple calls the world’s most powerful graphics card, and a new fan layout system that is capable of cooling all components swiftly and quietly. The components themselves sit within a steel framework that’s reminiscent of the old 1st generation Mac Pro from 2006, but there’s something about the design that leaves us wanting more. It feels too industrial, with its pipe-based structure, and it comes with an aluminum clad that features what I’d consider one of the most awkward looking grilles that look less “computing behemoth” and more “$5,999 cheese grater”. The grille is virtually purely utilitarian, with its layered circular makeup that’s complex to manufacture, but seems less worth the trouble, from a visual stand-point. Move over to the vault-esque locking mechanism on the top and one must wonder even more, whether the design team at Apple truly can design/create beautiful products in this void of theirs where nothing goes in or comes out.

“Our preoccupation with utility and function defines the design of the Mac Pro”, says Ive. He couldn’t be more right. The Mac Pro has gone from being a powerful, beautiful beast, to an evolved goliath of computing power… but in the process, has lost the beauty we once saw, perhaps a decade ago.

Designer: Apple