Design Advice From Jony Ive

No matter what your feelings about Apple the company, it’s hard to argue against their focus on design and for the last decade+ the main person behind design at Apple has been Jonathan Ive. Earlier this week via The Verge, I came across Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan cometh, an interview with Ive from the London Evening Standard.

As you might expect there’s some good advice for designers.

Jony Ive

Jony Ive On Design

I suggest reading the interview in its entirety. When I did I saw several themes emerging in Jony’s responses. What you see below are some of his thoughts pulled out of the context of the interview and organized around several themes I observed.

Exploration Within Context

  • Explore without fear of failure.
  • It is so important to be light on your feet, inquisitive and interested in being wrong.
  • You have that wonderful fascination with the what if questions.
  • You also need absolute focus and a keen insight into the context and what is important.

To be creative and innovate we can’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you let the fear of being wrong guide you, then your work will result in the same old. It will be safe, but it will also be boring.

Continue to ask what if and try different solutions. Spend less time thinking about today’s trends and more time thinking about tomorrow’s.

You still need to keep in mind the context of what you’re doing. Exploration is important, but it should remain guided by the constraints of the given problem.

Prototype for a tablet device

Prototype Sooner

  • We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making.
  • When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation.

Abstract ideas are great. Concrete objects are better. Push to the prototype stage sooner rather than later. The concrete will lead to greater understanding and more and better conversation and feedback.

Prototypes will help you quicker separate the good ideas from the bad ones.

Make It Better

  • The goal is to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.

Jony mentions 2 approaches to making a great product

  1. Sometimes things can irritate you so you become aware of a problem, which is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging.
  2. What is more difficult is when you are intrigued by an opportunity…you start asking questions, what if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful?

Approach 2 leads to the following.

  • This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device, rather than tactically responding to an individual problem.

I hope you’ll agree that making better products or websites should absolutely be a goal of design and nothing further needs to be added. What’s more interesting is how we go about making better products.

I think we’re often focused on the problem solving aspect of design and less on the what if aspect. When clients approach us they have specific goals in mind and we ask them questions concerned with identifying the problem they’d like us to solve. How often though do we go beyond the problem and ask the what if?

When I approach a new design I like to start by researching the industry and sites in the industry. I look for what’s common across sites, but also what’s missing and what could possibly be added. I like to ask the what if questions.

This can be a hard sell to clients since the what if will usually cost more than solving the known problem. The what if requires more research, thought, and exploration for something that may inevitably turn out not to be worthwhile. Not every client will let you explore the what if.

We should still strive for asking the what if questions.

Simplicity is the key to brilliance


  • Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way.
  • Simplicity is not the absence of clutter.
  • For instance, the iPhoto app we created for the new iPad, it completely consumes you and you forget you are using an iPad.

The best designs are often those that don’t call attention to themselves. They work best when they help users achieve their goals and otherwise stay out of the way. Simplicity can still amaze and delight, but first and foremost a design should disappear into the background putting the focus on the making things easier for the end user.

Simplicity based on solid design principles, as opposed to the latest trends, will work better and last longer.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away
Antoine de Saint-Exupery French writer (1900–1944)

Sweat the Details

  • As consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed
  • I think that people’s emotional connection to our products is that they sense our care, and the amount of work that has gone into creating it.

Typical consumers may not be able to describe what makes one design better than another. They often equate design with surface aesthetics and products and sites that don’t have the flash of wow come across like they haven’t been designed.

However, consumers can and do sense when good design is present even if they don’t have the words to express why. They can sense when a design has anticipated their needs or when it’s more usable. They know when they have less complaints about a site.

These all lead to the realization (whether conscious or not) that the designer has given great care to the product. It leads to a greater loyalty in both product and company.


Once again I’ll encourage you to read the interview in its entirety if you haven’t yet. It’s a quick read and it covers more than I have here. In my reading I observed several themes, summarized below.

  • Be free to explore within the context of the problem you’re trying to solve
  • Your goal should be to make better products and you can do this by solving existing problems or by discovering the problems we don’t yet know we have.
  • Concrete objects trump abstract ideas. Push your design to the prototype stage sooner.
  • Seek simplicity. The best designs seem obvious in hindsight. Allow your design to stay out of the way while it fosters use of your site.
  • Consumers may not be able to express why one design is better than another, but they will notice. Designs that pay attention to details will lead to greater customer loyalty

It’s also interesting to note how much in common these themes have the design principles of Dieter Rams, which you no doubt know influenced Jony Ive considerably.

Good advice if you ask me. How about you? Do you agree with these thoughts? Is there something I left out?

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    • He is looking a little stern, isn’t he? It’s the official bio pic from Apple’s site.

      Maybe he’s contemplative. He’s looking at the camera and thinking how the design could be simplified and made more elegant and magical. 🙂

  1. Good tips.
    As a designer, we should not be afraid. Creativity is our nr.1 priority, and to be creative we should have no fear in trying different designs.

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