Historically, Apple’s design guru Jony Ive has been wary of talking with reporters, but recently, he’s become the somewhat reluctant poster boy for the Apple Watch. The New Yorker got a first-hand tour of the company’s design studio and spoke at length with Ive about a number of subjects, including the process of designing Apple’s first wearable.
Although most Apple products have Ive’s name written all over them in terms of design language and iconic style, the Apple Watch is perhaps Ive’s greatest triumph so far. Apple’s senior vice president Jeff Williams agreed that the “Apple Watch seem(s) more purely Ive’s than previous company products,” when the interviewer asked him if this device was special to the designer.
Prior to the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, the company was hard at work looking into new product categories and ideas for the future. Ive told the New Yorker that the Apple Watch was conceived “close to Steve’s death,” though he wouldn’t say if Jobs knew about the idea or discussed it with him. Around the same time, the company started work on the iPad Mini and looked into the idea of a larger iPhone. The first prototypes of the iPhone 6 ranged from 4 to 6 inches in size, but the iPhone 4 architecture was “clunky” and “uncompelling,” said Ive, so they decided to wait.
Later, Ive revisited the idea of larger iPhones, which resulted in the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.
“The first one we really felt good about was a 5.7,” he recalled. “And then, sleeping on it, and coming back to it, it was just ‘Ah, that’s way too big.’ And then 5.6 still seems too big.”
Tim Cook added that “Jony didn’t pull out of his butt the 4.7 and the 5.5,” but rather thought about what sizes would be best for iPhone users. Although Apple has been criticized of waiting too long to get into the phablet market, it seems that its designers have been toying with the idea much longer than anyone thought.
In 2011, the press and analysts worried that Apple would suffer without Jobs, and questioned the company’s ability to innovate. Meanwhile, in the design studio, Ive and his design team started thinking seriously about what would become the Apple Watch. As a connoisseur of nice things, Ive also collects watches. When he first started trying to envision a smartwatch, he discussed timeless watch design with fellow Apple designer Marc Newson.
“The job of the designer is to try to imagine what the world is going to be like in five or ten years,” Newson said.“You’re thinking, What are people going to need?”
While Google centered its first efforts on the face with Glass, Ive decided that “the obvious and right place” for a wearable device was the wrist. As soon as he saw Google Glass, Ive said the face “was the wrong place.” Needless to say, Tim Cook agreed.
“We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed,” Cook said. “We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has.”
“This isn’t obnoxious,” Cook continued, glancing at the Apple Watch on his wrist. “This isn’t building a barrier between you and me. If I get a notification here, it will tap my wrist. I can casually look and see what’s going on.”
Once they’d decided on a watch instead of glasses, it was up to Ive to design it well. Among his first thoughts, was the idea of offering many different styles, so as to appeal to all users.
“We could make aluminum, and stainless steel, and gold, and different alloys of gold,” Ive said, adding that the studio is still thinking of other options for future watches.
Although Apple’s modus operandi has always been one device, one design, one Apple, it seems that the Watch has opened up the door to customization. However, since the watch is a piece of fashion, Ive is concerned with making sure that every option is attractive. He refuses to let customers decide willy nilly how they want their watch to look. He even criticized a competitor’s decision to allow the customers to design everything on their own.
“Their value proposition was ‘Make it whatever you want. You can choose whatever color you want.’ And I believe that’s abdicating your responsibility as a designer,” Ive said. It’s unknown which company he was referencing, but it could be anyone from Google with Project Ara, to Motorola with its Moto Maker shop.
Ive wants to save people from bad design choices by giving them only stylish options to choose from. Customers can choose the metal body, the strap, and the watch face. It only took six weeks to design the first model, and its shape didn’t change much, though the strap options did.
Ive said the Apple Watch’s rectangular shape with rounded corners just makes sense. “When a huge part of the function is lists, a circle doesn’t make any sense,” Ive said. He also added that he wanted to have a digital crown that was “strangely familiar,” but didn’t perform the same function as it does on old-fashioned watches.
The Apple watch also has a new display technology, which is an LED with blacker blacks than the iPhone. Ive’s design teammates Richard Howarth and Julian Hönig say the screen is made of sapphire crystal, which is different from sapphire glass at the molecular level. Additionally, they say the zirconia ceramic back is finished with sapphire and the stainless steel is super-hardened.
Thanks to these little touches, Howarth says the watch “would cost so much money if a different company was making it—Rolex or something. It would be a hundred grand or something.” Hönig joked that they’d offer it for 50 grand.
In reality, the watch’s $350 entry-level price tag has the tech industry raising its eyebrows, but high-end jewelry and watch makers are actually a bit scared, the New Yorker hints. You can read more on the Apple Watch, or check out other cool tidbits from the New Yorker profile like Ive’s personal life, his disdain for modern car design, his thoughts on Star Wars’ lightsabers, and more.