Harvard Business Review

This is from 2019 | 3 minute read

Jony Ive and the Myth that Only Certain People Can Design.

Over the last week, the big design buzz has been on Jonathan Ive leaving Apple. Much of the conversation is around the impact he’s had on the design of Apple’s products — on shaping the form of the things we want and buy. As I reflected on the news, I was struck not by the impact his departure might have on Apple, but instead, on the widening split between consuming things and making things.

Design is both a noun and a verb. For almost a century, we’ve enjoyed a consumer culture that brings objects of design into our lives. These are artifacts of convenience, function, and appeal – they are things, like chairs and shoes and stoves and cars. Kitsch phrases like Louis Sullivan’s “Form follows function” and Hartmut Esslinger’s “Form follows emotion” have reinforced the view that while the root of an object’s form may be in utility or sensibility, our critique of that object should ultimately be based on how it looks. When we buy something, we’re making a statement. We’re saying “I am successful, because I can afford this” and “I have wonderful taste, because I have this wonderful thing.” Owning something beautiful is socially transportable: If I own a beautiful item, I may be beautiful, too.

Design, as a verb, is the process of making things. Sometimes, that process is about a curiosity and exploration of material, as with the work of Ray and Charles Eames. Sometimes, the process is about solving a problem, evidenced in the trend of design thinking. And sometimes, the process is about inclusive democratization, as with the theme of participatory design — a Scandinavian-inspired approach to design that shifts the creative spark from an external source of genius to the people that will be using whatever ends up being made.

When design is something that’s done, not something that’s had, it is empowering. When we’re in the midst of a creative process, we lose sense of ourselves, of our problems and anxieties, even of our goals: we find flow, and in that flow, we grow. “Making things” is something anyone can do. People who are trained to do it, like Ive, do it much better than the rest of us. But those of us who aren’t as good or as experienced still benefit from that creative process — from the process, not from the output. When we make things, we realize that we have autonomy and power. There was nothing, and now there is something.

The products designed at Apple under Ive’s leadership, for all of their beauty and sophistication, have reinforced that design is about magic people making magic things. By placing these phones and tablets and monitors on a pinnacle of grandeur, we’re reinforcing the elitism of design. It says: “There are only some people who can make things. Everyone else should buy things.” We’ve done this with Karim Rashid, Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, and, of course, Steve Jobs.

We can all make things. Let’s celebrate Ive’s impact on the world not by highlighting the stuff he’s made, but instead, by finding inspiration in his ability to make them. Let’s put down our wallets and make things, too.


Kolko, Jon. Jony Ive and the Myth that Only Certain People Can Design. In Harvard Business Review, July 1, 2019.
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