What Jonathan Ive hasn’t done

It is curious how a man who basically just makes phones and computers has risen to god-like status amongst a certain group of people.

This was the heretical content of the thought that popped into my head during the morning session of last week’s ‘Design Summit’ whilst listening to Apple’s (design guru) Jonathan Ive.

The guy turned up with more security than the PM, the interview wasn’t allowed to be broadcast, he deflected more questions than he answered and gave few secrets away. And yet – or perhaps therefore – an audience of hundreds of really-quite-successful-in-their-own-right designers and chief execs were rapt. He has achieved such cult status he can even get away with spelling his name (‘Jony’) a silly way.

Of course, to summarise Apple’s achievement as ‘making slightly prettier phones and computers than the next company’ is to trivialise it. Hundreds of business analysts must have spent countless hours trying to dissect Apple’s alchemy. Making sleek white computers is the tip of the iceberg. As this Economist article suggests, Apple’s hitherto successful business model is based on the consummate execution of an idea rather than a particular technological platform – that of repackaging the technology of the moment in an altogether more desirable form and selling it at a premium price; of understanding exactly how people want to get their information and communicate with each other; and of making the whole process intuitive. Technology for all us people who really don’t care that much about technology. By doing so they have created entirely new markets, new paradigms of how we interact with the technology that facilitates our lives.

For all these reasons the design community loves Ive, but also because he has incontrovertibly demonstrated the value that design can add to a business’s bottom line. In a world where few people really understand how design works, it’s an example they can all point to and justify their contribution. (One does wonder though why there aren’t more Apples, if it’s such a foolproof recipe.)

Hence his wheeling out in front of Government Ministers at the Design Council’s summit. The design community is on a mission to prove its economic importance to government. And by the evidence of last week, they are getting there.

But this is all a bit sad. Rather than representing some kind of coup for the design industry, what it demonstrates is that the management or our physical and constructed world (‘Design’) has – like everything else – become a slave to the rule of the economic imperative. And, weirdly, at a time when we’re just beginning to recognise that being beholden to commercial motives might not a happy world make.

No matter how much we love our Macbook, having it doesn’t make red wine taste any better or change the way we fall in love. It hasn’t fixed the NHS or gender equality. It doesn’t teach us to appreciate our grandparents before its too late, or help us spend five minutes actually listening to our friends. It can’t replace the delight of sitting in an english garden on a sunny day. So congratulations to ‘Jony’, who has, admittedly, changed the world, but it would be nice to occasionally see a bit of perspective about the value of that change.

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