Sunflower stalks, sweet factories and fonts
Sunday, January 8th, 2012
When Apple held its public ‘Celebrating Steve’ memorial, the eulogy was delivered by Jonathan Ive. Promoted to Senior Vice President of Industrial Design in 1997 by Jobs, Ive oversaw the product design of Apple’s incredibly successful return to power. Trained at Northumbria University and now 44, he has become one of the most celebrated industrial designers in the world. What has always interested me about his work is the extraordinary level of research and detail he goes into long before the prototypes are built. He once spent months working solely on the stand for Apple’s desktop iMac; searching for the sort of organic perfection to be found in sunflower stalks. When Jobs asked him in the late 90s to create colourful, cheap cathode-ray-tube computers he spent hours in a sweet factory to draw inspiration for the first iMac shell colours. Job’s awareness of design began early in his life as a student:
‘I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example: Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.” (from his speech to Stanford University students in 2005).
Design is in Apple’s very DNA.