Visual Culture

How Jony Ive Remade Visual Culture in Apple’s Image

Jackson Arn
Jul 11, 2019 4:41PM

Photo by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Jony Ive is not the greatest living artist. He is very far from the most famous. He may not even be an artist, depending on who you talk to. But if, as Georgia O’Keeffe said, an artist is someone who fills space in a beautiful way, then the soon-to-be-former head of Apple Inc.’s design team is one of the most influential artists of the last quarter-century.


To say that you can see Ive’s influence everywhere would be an understatement—it’s present even where you don’t see it. A massive chunk of contemporary design, from the glowing overhead lights in a JetBlue cabin to the idiot-proof control system of a Camry seems like facsimile Ive. Even the current Marie Kondo–led vogue for tidying up, with its worship of simplicity, finds a kindred spirit in Ive’s work. It’s likely that Ive’s greatest legacy, greater than any single product, was to expand consumers’ and businesses’ expectations of what should be beautiful—to treat the curve of an earpiece or the girth of a plug as matters of fine art.

Ive’s influence on fine art itself is almost as vast. Some of the most striking works the English artist David Hockney has made in recent years were scrawled on the screen of an iPad. In this new medium, Hockney’s colors seem riper than ever, his lines are bolder and more playful—Ive’s form, in short, fits Hockney’s content like a glove. And the 2018 show at the ICA Boston, “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” was full of nods to the Apple look Ive created, even if many of those nods were satires and scathing critiques. Sondra Perry’s Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016) is a big middle finger aimed at Ive’s company: the crisp frames of the computer screen have become suffocating, and the “bicycle for the mind” is now an actual bicycle.

Sondra R. Perry
Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, 2016
Serpentine Galleries

It is strange to speak of the man who led Apple’s design for two decades, whose creations have sold well over a billion copies, and who has won nearly every major award his field offers as a neglected genius. But when you consider the starring role he played in crafting the world’s most recognizable brand aesthetic, his contributions to visual culture start to seem weirdly unacknowledged. Last month, after Ive announced that he was retiring from Apple to start his own design firm, a journalist for The Verge wrote: “Stop anyone in the street and ask them to name a famous industrial designer and I would hazard a guess that, if they have an answer at all, it would be Jony Ive.” Quite the “if”: Sir Jonathan Ive (everybody uses his nickname) is the most famous living person in a field that has produced surprisingly few famous people.

This has something to do with the field itself. Good design—per Ive’s idol, the German designer Dieter Rams—is unobtrusive. Its purpose is to help consumers pursue their own ends without confusion. The same, it would seem, goes for good designers. By his own admission, Ive has never relished public speaking, and he spent most of his time at Apple overshadowed by his famous boss, someone who wasn’t exactly renowned for sharing the spotlight.

When discussing Apple’s product line from the late 1990s and the early 2010s, it’s tempting to credit Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs alone. Yet the iPod, the iPhone, MacBook, et al., were fruits of a close collaboration between Jobs and Ive, with Ive originating a sizeable number of the ideas and fine-tuning many of the others. According to Walter Isaacson, the author of a 2011 biography of Jobs, the two men had a “mind-meld” (an appropriate reference for two hardcore sci-fi fans). Jobs himself put it more seriously: “If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony.”

Ive had almost finished his design for the iMac when Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997. We also know, from Isaacson’s biography, that Ive created the elegant “neck” model for later versions of the iMac, and that he based the clickwheel and chunky curves of the original iPod on Rams’s products from the ’50s. The MacBook’s casing, a quintessential Ive-ian invention, was made from aluminum with a texture like timeworn stone—rough yet smooth, complex yet simple.

A lot has been written about the influence of the Bauhaus on Apple products, partly because Jobs never missed an opportunity to connect the two. Ive, like his spiritual partner, was an outspoken believer in Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe’s mantra, “Less is more,” but he drew from a much wider range of styles. His original, translucent iMac case did for the PC what Richard Rogers’s Centre Pompidou did for the museum: took an obscure, intimidating object; cut it open; and made it seem jaunty and friendly. If the iMac was almost childlike, the iPhone conveyed otherworldly mystery, evoking the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) brought to life by another shy perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick.

Side view of a G3 equipped Apple iMac, made in 2000. Photo by Thomas Kaiser, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ive’s own footprint in sci-fi is unmistakable and, peculiarly, more than a little sinister. From Black Mirror (2011–present) to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) to The Circle (2017), the future these days is always full of off-white metal and luminous screens that seem malevolent, even when they’re trying to soothe you.

If these movies are any sign, there’s something people find a little unsettling about Ive’s designs. Maybe it’s simply that, as with any really popular style, the “Apple look” has become a victim of its own success, cheapened by countless knockoffs. Or maybe Apple’s mission—and the Ive designs to accompany it—no longer seems as daringly utopian as Jobs managed to make it appear. Good design, Rams argued, isn’t only unobtrusive; it’s long-lasting and environmentally friendly. It’s hard to stay faithful to those dictums when your company’s business model seems to depend on products that stop working a few years after customers buy them.

Still from Black Mirror, Season 4. Courtesy of Netflix.

It may have been inevitable that Ive would break away from Apple, then. Some are surprised he stuck around as long as he did. Already, he’s facing a problem very few artists have the luxury of facing: How do you keep making art when you’ve already remade the way the world looks? And how do you stay unobtrusive when the design world is waiting to see what you do next?

Jackson Arn