It's official. Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) famed designer, Jonathan Ive, is now the company's chief design officer -- a C-level position alongside CEO Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri. Since being promoted to lead the company's design team, Ive has proven to be one of Apple's most influential employees. Investors shouldn't underestimate the importance of such a move. With over 5,000 patents under his belt and a handful of wildly successful new products, including the iPod, iMac, iPhone, and iPad behind him, Ive is nothing short of a guru in the design world.
Relinquishing administrative and management work
The central idea behind Ive's promotion seems to simply be to free him from dealing with day-to-day management duties related to overseeing design at Apple and to give him greater oversight of all things design at the company.
To understand just how big of a deal it is for Ive to be promoted to the C-level, consider that the only other C-level executives after Steve Jobs' return to the company (besides Cook and Maestri) were Apple's previous CFOs (CFOs are legally obligated to hold C-level positions) and Cook when he was chief operating officer under Jobs' leadership.
Apple's just-released executive profile of Ive's role in the new position reads:
Jonathan Ive is Apple's Chief Design Officer, reporting to CEO Tim Cook. Jony is 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.
To aid Ive in leaving behind his management and daily administrative work, two key design leads, Alan Dye and Richard Howarth, have been given official executive design titles. Dye will serve as vice president of user interface design. Howarth is being promoted to vice president of industrial design.
At face value, Ive's promotion seems like good news. It means he will have more time to focus on important design decisions. But is there more to the story?
The cynical view
Longtime Apple journalist John Gruber at Daring Fireball argued there could be a cynical angle to Ive's new title.
There are two basic ways to read this news. The first is to take Apple at its word -- that this is a promotion for Ive that will let him focus more of his attention on, well, design. That he's delegating management administrative to Dye and Howarth, not decreasing his involvement in supervising the actual design work. The second way -- the cynical way -- is that this is the first step to Ive easing his way out the door, and that his new title is spin to make the news sound good rather than bad.
It is, indeed, conceivable that putting other design leads in the spotlight is a move set up to play an important role in easing the concern of Apple investors if Ive does ever step down from his job at Apple. And it is also quite possible that a new role free of much of the day-to-day work Ive used to deal with could mean he plans to be less involved.
Even if Gruber's speculation proves true, Ive probably would not step down for a long time. After all, a major promotion is clearly a statement of long-term commitment from Ive to continue working at Apple. It's hard to imagine Apple promoting him just before he leaves the company.
Whether Gruber is right or not, Ive's promotion certainly isn't bad news. The excellent reassurance that Ive is committed to a key role at Apple outweighs the possibility that the title and role change is simply a way for him to become less involved in design and set the foundation for leaving Apple on a good note someday.