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Friday, June 21, 2024

Jony Ive on Why the iPod Was Apple's First Wearable

After 27 years with Apple, Sir Jony Ive decided to start something new. The legendary codesigner of such products as the iPod, the iMac, the iPhone, the MacBook, and the iPad seems to have found himself with a sort of split vision recently. With one eye toward the past, he is also looking keenly into the future, in an effort to glean how the former might inform the latter. Of course, as one of the world's most celebrated designers working in an industry that studies his every move, he may have his finger on the scale a bit.

At this year’s RE:WIRED conference, Ive spoke with another legend in her own right, chief content officer of Condé Nast and global editorial director of Vogue, Anna Wintour. The conversation ranged from the future of wearables to the power of quiet and Steve Jobs’ cultivated curiosity.

Sound Idea

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the first iPod was unveiled. In today’s world of 5G phones that stream music into our wireless earbuds, it’s easy to forget just how disruptive that little device was, both for the world at large and for Apple as a company. “Up until that time Apple made general computing devices,” Ive recalled in Tuesday’s talk. “And one of the things that was so unique about the computer was its ability to be general purpose. And I think what the iPod really marked was the beginning of creating far more specific products and devices.”

So much consideration went into the creation of the iPod, from the laser-etched metal to the gloss-feeling plastic, and even the color of the earbuds. There was shock and resistance to the idea of white headphones at the time, with people wondering why you would want to draw attention to what was essentially an accessory. But that was all part of Apple’s vision. It was the only part of the device that people could see when the iPod was in use, and those flashy white cables effectively turned every user into a walking advertisement for the new mobile lifestyle Apple was selling.

Together with Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, Ive managed to achieve a lofty goal: to create a design so distinct that it didn’t need a company name or logo on the front of it. Releasing a consumer tech product without such branding was practically unheard of at the time, but that gamble paid off. Hundreds of millions of iPods were sold, and after the addition of the iTunes music store, the device went on to change the way humans buy, listen to, and experience music.

Ive notes that the iPod was, in a very real sense, Apple’s first piece of wearable technology. As for where wearables are headed, Ive thinks the technology will only continue to get more personal. “There’s no doubt … that some of these products will disappear beneath our skin,” he told Wintour. “I can’t think of anything more personal, more specific, more individual, and more intimate than things being inside us.” He didn’t indicate that he, personally, was working on such a device, but one has to wonder what ideas he might have.

Life Lessons

This fall marked another big, but far more somber, anniversary for Ive. October 5 marked 10 years since the death of his friend and close collaborator Steve Jobs. When Ive thinks back to all of his time with Jobs, he remembers him less for his achievements and more for his values and priorities in his way of working. “There was this relish, this celebration of being surprised,” Ive remembers of Jobs. “Even if the surprise actually meant that he was wrong. He was far more interested in the learning than in being right.”

Ive has come to realize over the last decade that, while many people think of curiosity as something innate you may be born with, it’s actually something that must be cultivated, and requires a lot of intention. Some of his memories of his most productive times with Steve Jobs are when they were walking together and not saying much, but thinking in proximity to each other. “Almost always, in my experience, the most powerful ideas occur quietly, and they are fragile. And they need to be—with reverence and respect—gently cared for so they can become powerful.”

The Social Type

Just over two years ago, Ive left Apple as its in-house chief design officer to start an independent design firm called LoveFrom, along with industrial designer Marc Newson. The firm is made up of a diverse group of designers, architects, mathematicians, and more, and the group is working with companies including Apple, Airbnb, Amazon Collective, Montcler, and Ferrari. LoveFrom’s focus is not only pushing design into the future, but also trying to find ways smarter design can help solve the climate change crisis.

Interestingly, the first product LoveFrom has released has its roots in the distant past. It’s a typeface called LoveFrom Serif, and it’s based on some work by typographer John Baskerville that is more than 200 years old. LoveForm managed to track down the original steel punches Baskerville used to cast his typefaces back in the 1700s. The team then scanned and redrew all of the characters, and it now has over 7,000 different letterforms and symbols in a range of different styles it can use in modern designs. Ive thinks it’s a good example of his philosophy of paying respect to the past while keeping an eye toward the future. It’s an outlook underscored by the contrast between the steel tools, which are as physical as design gets, and the digital world of shapes on a screen that are ethereal and manipulable.

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In some ways, Ive’s love of the hands-on aspect of his work relates to the way he sees life in a post-Covid world, where so many of our interactions are remote. “While I am so grateful for our virtual and digital communication,” Ive says, “the danger is that it’s now so good in so many ways that we make that dreadful mistake of thinking it is in some ways a surrogate for actually being together in person.”

Of course, how society will continue to adapt to an increasingly virtual world remains to be seen, but it’s somewhat comforting to know that some designers at the forefront of the industry still believe in the importance of lessons and experiences from the physical one.

For more insights from Ive and Wintour, watch the whole RE:WIRED interview above. Watch the whole conference on WIRED.com.

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