Am I too old to have a hero? Or was Hemingway right?

I should start by owning up to being an Apple fanboy. Since I threw off the yoke of corporate IT oppression, I have always had Macs. From the first 12” PowerBook G4 to my current Air, I just like the way they work in the way I expect them to. My semi-religious zeal has spread like a virus through my family. My children have a range of Macs and my wife carries my Mark 1 Air around as if her life depended on it. Then comes the great coincidence.

We decided to sponsor one of the Helen Hamlyn Design Awards this year as part of our Assisted Living Innovation Platform. I had first met the RCA people in 2005 when I accidentally ended up giving a talk at the opening of Materialise, and our evolving understanding of the societal challenges that we address with Innovation Platforms has led us inexorably to include more design into our work. This train of events gave me a VIP invitation to the lecture that was scheduled to be just one part of the RCA’s Innovation Night last week. This year they had secured the presence of Jonathan Ive – my joy was complete! As well as the lecture, there was to be a reception beforehand with the cream of the UK design world (or similar!).

I was delayed by meetings in London and so missed my colleague, Jackie Marshall-Cyrus, give out our prize but managed to get there for most of the reception. I did indeed meet some interesting people, but everyone was definitely waiting for “the man”. That he was sitting out in the sunshine with some friends before going off for his sound check seemed to go past most of us. We were ushered into the lecture theatre at the Royal Geographical Society (seating capacity 750 and quite full) past Ive, who was sitting by the side, looking for all the world like he would rather be somewhere else. Jeremy Myerson gave a neat introduction about design, using several of Darwin’s sayings – a presentation that under normal circumstances would have been memorable, but again, everyone was waiting. As the slide came up, it turned out that it was not going to be a tour de force Keynote presentation by Ive, but a “conversation” with Sir Christopher Frayling. It started slowly, with Frayling asking Ive about design. What came through strongly was Ive’s fascination with the design process, how things go together in general and with materials and haptics. Ive quickly got his discomfort with public speaking out into the open, and the ruse of having Frayling talk with him became clear. As Frayling probed the business side of things, and in particular the difference between the US and the UK, Ive displayed another vein of passion. For him, it’s not about geographical differences, it’s about companies bound together with the common purpose of making good products. Although good products make good money, he averred, once the money becomes more important then the products suffer. This led into a discussion on focus – Apple makes a narrow range of products and chooses not to make things as often as to make them.

There was also an insight when it came to the role of the user in design. Asked about focus groups, Ive thought that they resulted in bland products that were designed to offend no-one. Apple knew the products they wanted to make and they would stand or fall in the market. Not having faith in your own products seemed to be an admission of failure. It lasted about 45 minutes and was curious mixture of insights. That a designer as influential as Ive isn’t comfortable in front of lot of people shouldn’t actually be a surprise – since the two characteristics are unrelated. That he is successful must be a tribute to those in Apple who recognised and nurtured his talent.

Towards the end, Frayling asked him about sustainability and the current Apple drive in the area. Ive’s response was short and to the point. “Without that, you are not really in business!”

Many of us trooped over to the RCA to see the Show itself, a mixture of the whimsical and the overtly commercial. Everyone I talked to was chewing over what they had read into what Mr Apple said, and trying to cope with the sauna-like atmosphere in the rooms. I got to see the winner of our prize and meet Menno Kroezen, the designer, and realised as I looked at the various ideas of the next generation of British designers that our capability in this area is in rude health!


Last updated on Wednesday 12 August 2009 at 15:25

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