The New Yorker has published a deep and compelling piece on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) vice president of design, Sir Jonathan Ive. Alongside CEO Tim Cook, Ive is one of the most important executives at Apple, and he's also one of the most influential characters in the tech industry. Ive doesn't grant many interviews, so when Apple's top designer speaks, investors would do well to pay close attention.
Design as a competitive strength
Apple is known for pushing the limits when it comes to design and economic possibilities. The company does things most other corporations would simply consider impractical or just not economical. To that end, Ive is famously obsessed about his work, and he considers no detail too small or irrelevant. Every last thing receives enormous amounts of deeply focused attention and energy, in service of finding the best possible solution.
Superior design is obviously a major competitive advantage for Apple, and it's a key driver of the differentiated customer experience the company provides. Furthermore, Apple makes things purposely hard to copy, both when it comes to the design and the production process. From the article:
The company's process, which is enabled by almost limitless funds, and by sometimes merciless pressure on suppliers and manufacturers, also provides a layer of commercial armor plating: An Apple object is "manufactured in a way that makes it harder to copy," Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design and architecture at MOMA, said. "That's the genius. It's not only the formal effect."
Apple operates at the forefront of innovation. The company sets industry standards, and many competitors are always trying to replicate its products. However, it takes a very special company to do what Apple does. Robert Brunner, a former Apple design chief, explains what happened when "a very large Korean company" approached him to create an iPhone competitor:
"They wanted us to do it in six weeks." He laughed. "We were, like, 'You don't realize, this was years. This was years of a lot of very good people.'"
It's all about the people
Apple's design team is all about finding and retaining the most talented people. The company has three recruiters solely focused on finding the best talent for the team around the world, and they might only hire one person in a year. According to Ive, only two designers have left the team in the past 15 years, and one of them did it because of health problems. The level of connection and the kind of interaction between Ive and his design team is unique:
To watch him with his workmates in the holy of holies, in Apple's design lab, or on a night out is to observe a very rare esprit de corps. They love their boss, and he loves them. What the competitors don't seem to understand is you cannot get people this smart to work this hard just for money.
This kind of commitment and stability is quite unusual in today's corporate world, and employee motivation goes well beyond monetary compensation or other typical considerations. According to Ive, Apple's design team has a remarkably strong sense of purpose and vision:
At the risk of sounding terribly sentimental, I do think one of the things that just compel us is that we have this sense that, in some way, by caring, we're actually serving humanity," he said. "People might think it's a stupid belief, but it's a goal -- it's a contribution that we can hope we can make, in some small way, to culture."
Ive himself is not going anywhere anytime soon. His connection with Apple started before he even considered working for the company, back in 1985, when he began studying industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, in England. He had the chance to use a Mac for the first time, and he still has a vivid memory about that experience and what it said about Apple: "I had a sense of the values of the people who made it."
The future looks exciting
Ive revealed that the Apple Watch, which will start reaching stores in April, was conceived close to Steve Jobs' death. Ive is a former watch collector, and his colleague Marc Newson founded his own watch company, Ikepod, in the '90s.
Since the beginning, Ive ruled out Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Glass as a smart way to approach wearable computing technology. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is something he considers far superior when it comes to user experience and the role of technology in our everyday lives:
"We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we've always believed." He went on, "We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has." He looked at the Apple Watch on his wrist. "This isn't obnoxious. This isn't building a barrier between you and me."
Newson believes Apple Watch is a visionary and disruptive product:
"The job of the designer is to try to imagine what the world is going to be like in five or 10 years," Newson told me. "You're thinking, What are people going to need?"
The article describes both Ive and Newson as "car guys," saying that every summer they visit the Goodwood Festival of Speed. However, they reportedly feel disappointed with most modern car designs. That observation lends additional credibility to the increasingly growing rumors that Apple is working on an electric-car project. Ive drives a black Bentley, and he also owns an Aston Martin DB4. If his collection is any kind of guide, the coming car from Apple should be a remarkably stylish vehicle.
Andrés Cardenal owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.