Jony Ive’s Mistakes: When Beautiful Design Is Bad Design

It’s past time for a new era at Apple

Photo: James Sheppard/iCreate Magazine via Getty

II interviewed Jony Ive twice: once in 2002, immediately after the launch of the “sunflower” iMac (which looked, at first glance, like an Anglepoise lamp with a screen) and then again in 2014, at the launch of the Apple Watch. Both times, the tricky thing was maneuvering the ebb and flow of the conversation between the things he was really keen to talk about, and the ones where he couldn’t seem to find the words for what he wanted to describe.

In my writeup of the first interview, I said that in those latter moments he sounded “like a man trying to describe God to a world without religion.” And that still seems true: I think he was someone used to describing what he did much more by instantiating it — making it physical — than painting verbal pictures.

In the first interview, he also admitted to admiring people who work on satellites, where you have to justify every iota of space consumed, every gram of weight, because they’re expensive and you only get one chance to get them right. “When you look at how a satellite is made — the formal solution that has to answer a bunch of imperatives, what goes in, what doesn’t, how you fit it together, there’s so much stuff that people don’t think is consciously designed,” he said.

iMac: good. Mouse: bad

All of the plaudits for Jony Ive begin with how he and Steve Jobs saved Apple with the iMac. No doubt about it: that instantly recognizable shape became an icon, and led to thousands of imitations using translucent colored plastic, often in that same Bondi Blue, to show that they were part of the late-90s vibe. In a sense, the iMac was a triumph of packaging: the components inside were pretty straightforward. If Apple had put them into a beige box, the company would now be a historical footnote.

Yet what’s almost universally overlooked in the paeans to Ive’s design legacy is that the fabulous iMac design also included one of his worst mistakes: the “hockey puck” mouse, whose round shape was so unfriendly to the human hand that it effectively kickstarted the market for third-party USB mice out of thin air.

Rarely given a front seat: the ‘hockey puck’ mouse that came with the original iMac

The hockey puck mouse was awful. It was impossible to know whether you had it sideways, 45 degrees off, or what. It wasn’t the same shape as the human hand that would grasp it. It looked pretty, but it worked badly. You could only like it if you spent very little time using a mouse. If design is measured by how well something works, this was bad design.

It’s also overlooked that this mistake was very publicly acknowledged by Steve Jobs as the very first item of his keynote at MacWorld in June 2000.

“This as you may know is our mouse,” Jobs began, over a picture of the original iMac mouse, “and some people don’t like it. We have many faults, but we do listen. Some people think this is the worst mouse in the world… and we’d like to change that. Today we are introducing a new mouse. We may go from what some people think is the worst mouse in the industry to the best.”

That’s quite a thing: straight-up public criticism of his chief designer’s work — criticism that, at the very least, Jobs did not say he disagreed with.

Thinking about Ive’s design philosophy as it unfolded over the subsequent years, the iconic Bondi iMac is incongruous. It’s the only example where Ive took standard components and beautified them purely for the sake of appearance. The hockey puck mouse is much more like what he did in succeeding years: refine an object down to its minimal external constituents.

The quote often attributed to Einstein is “everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” I think the trouble was that Ive often ignored the second part of that advice in the pursuit of refinement.

Handy lessons in ergonomics

The Apple TV remote is often cited as an example of terrible design. And it is. I often compare it to the Sky+ cable remote that I also use every day.

On the surface, the Sky+ remote looks like what people disdain about utilitarian design. It’s asymmetrical! It’s bulky! All those buttons! What do they all do, and how could you ever remember? Then compare it to the Apple remote — which Ive must have at least approved, if he didn’t design it himself. So few buttons! A touchpad! Symmetrical!

Sky+ remote on left, Siri remote for Apple TV on right: shadows indicate depth. The Sky+ remote is 3cm deep, the Siri remote 0.63cm deep.

But when you begin using the Sky+ remote, you discover that it’s thoughtfully, ergonomically made. The button you need the most — select — is right under your thumb, and you can hold it in either hand. The control buttons — up/down, back/forward — are easily in reach. The buttons you’ll rarely use (the numbers at the bottom, the “other services” above) are there, but not intrusively so.

Now compare that to the Apple TV remote. And then remember how maddening that symmetricality is, making it so easy to pick up the wrong way, so the infrared is facing you. (Many people wrap rubber bands around the non-functioning part.) And it doesn’t fit in your hand neatly; your hand has to accommodate to it. You don’t need me to tell you that remote is maddening. Minimalism isn’t desirable in itself. (For what it’s worth, Sky also made a remote with a touchpad, just like the Apple TV remote — it was far more ergonomic.)

Sky+ remote in my hand; Apple Siri remote in my hand. I can reach a lot more of the immediate action buttons with the Sky+ remote (Select, volume, channel (beneath my knuckle), up/down/back, play/pause. They’re much harder to reach — especially play/pause — on the Siri remote.

I have a suspicion that the first iMac mouse, the hockey puck, came from Ive, that the subsequent lozenge-shaped optical mouse was driven by complaints from marketing and customers, and that wiser heads prevailed in the design department. Otherwise, we’d have had an optical hockey puck mouse.

In general, I agree with John Siracusa, who argued on the Accidental Tech Podcast that while Ive surely didn’t personally design everything that came out of Apple during his tenure, as head of design, he’s the one who signed off on them. His name is attached to the work, for better or worse. It’s his legacy, whether he came up with the idea for the carrying handle for the first iBook or not.

The ongoing problem was that Ive’s desire for “less” kept showing up, and when it wasn’t headed off, the results could be disastrous. The 2013 “trashcan” Mac Pro is another case in point. It’s an outwardly beautiful piece of kit, and was announced on stage at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference with Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller brassily intoning “can’t innovate anymore, my ass.” Apple was facing questions about whether, following Jobs’s death in October 2011, it could indeed come up with any more big hits; Schiller’s chest puffing was part of the show.

The G4 Cube (left) and the “trashcan” Mac Pro from 2013. The G4 Cube was discontinued after a year.

The “trashcan” was a reprise of the G4 Cube of 2000, which many have also forgotten. That too was an effort to pack the most possible computer into the smallest possible space without resorting to cooling fans. When it launched, at the same event where Jobs admitted the hockey puck mouse wasn’t so great, I asked an Apple executive who on earth the Cube was meant to appeal to, since it was too expensive for the average buyer, but too limited for the pro market. He assured me that they were sure there was a “prosumer” market for it.

A year later, Apple discontinued the Cube, though the company only said it was putting it “on ice,” implying that somehow those pesky users were getting in the way of a fabulous success. (A hint for hardware companies: there is no such thing as a profitable “prosumer” market.) Its demise shows that Jobs and Ive could fall victim to their joint enthusiasm and get carried away.

The “trashcan” is, I think, down to Ive. You can see that the hardware people had specifications, and he got the design group to build the device to those specs. But he never considered how the people who would use it might want to upgrade it. (Hence Apple’s subsequent admission in 2017 — by which time Ive was gradually phasing himself out and focussing on Apple Park — that the trashcan Pro had “backed us into a thermal corner.” In other words, if design is measured by how well something how it works, this was bad design, again.)

What the trashcan really revealed, though, was that Ive wasn’t listening to the needs of that core market, the pros who had kept Apple alive through its darkest days. It’s surely relevant that the Apple Pro Workflow team now in place was set up after Ive began checking out.

Great artists don’t ship air

A common thread between the G4 Cube, the trashcan, the hockey puck mouse, the iPad, the iPod, the newer iMacs, and the newer MacBook Pro and MacBook designs: no excess air. Jony Ive hates selling you air, which you could say is to his credit. (There’s an apocryphal story about Steve Jobs dunking an early iPod design into a fishtank in his office, pointing to bubbles coming out of it and saying “too big” — apocryphal, because he never kept fish.) But this approach also led him down some mistaken paths.

By the time we got to post-2011, Ive wasn’t into upgrading things. You might repair them, but the days of clever latches that let you replace RAM and hard drives were long past. The iPhone seems to have been the first mobile phone without a replaceable battery, and turned that into an industry standard.

That vague hostility towards humans keeps peeping through. The first-generation Apple Pencil was completely smooth and thus hard to grip, with its odd charging method — it has its own Lightning plug rather than a socket, which also means you can easily pair with a new device just by plugging it in. (How would you enter a passcode on a pencil? Tap it with Morse code?) There was yet another mouse, with a bizarre charge-my-belly design. Everyone else would have put a Lightning port on the front or back, or even had a recessed horizontal port beneath so you could keep using the thing while it charged.

The strength of compromise

In truth, I think Ive’s best work came when he and the design team were given challenges to incorporate by the marketing or research teams. The original iMac is the best example, where the implicit brief is: “design a computer for a low price that will stand out from every other machine on sale.”

The iPod: encase a tiny spinning hard drive in something that will protect it, but also look great. (The click wheel with embedded buttons was, according to legend, an idea of Phil Schiller’s, not Ive’s or the design team’s. That might explain why there was a brief diversion away from it to the dire version which moved the forward/back/pause/play buttons off the click wheel, and above it; I think that was a Design Team move, and it was by far the least popular model in terms of usability. As with the Sky+ remote, the original design minimized the amount of hand movement needed to operate it: it was enormously ergonomic, in tune with your body and your comfort — it wasn’t just about “what looks nice.” The design reverted to the click wheel immediately.)

Touch ID and Face ID are also clear examples of constraints overcome. You want to unlock your phone with your finger; this requires a lens that reads your fingerprint. Okay, but how do you do it elegantly, given that the design language for the phone involves a home button? Face ID similarly is a brilliant idea that necessitated compromises.

The Apple Watch has some great design — the taptic motor to alert you, the sensitivity to raising your wrist, the lugs for attaching the wristband — and some head-scratching choices, such as the “honeycomb” of apps; navigating that is like trying to eat peas with chopsticks. (Ive is said to have been closely involved in the lugs and the honeycomb.)

I think, if you use this lens, you can see that some elements of the machines now on sale were driven by marketing inputs more than desires of design. The Touch Bar on the MacBook Pros (It’s illuminated! It’s got Touch ID! Many pros really don’t want it!) is clearly something dreamed up by marketing folk, who wanted something a bit touchscreen-y that they could offer, because it puts some clear water between the Pro models and the MacBook and MacBook Air. (The existence of those two conflicting lines was surely down to marketing.) The Touch Bar isn’t actively bad — certainly nothing like the keyboard that comes with it.

Unlike the Touch Bar, I think the butterfly keyboard is a Design Team invention, driven (again) by Ive’s imperative to make things, particularly laptops, thinner. Although it arrived after Ive was gently moving out, the slow reaction to the gathering storm of unreliability is indicative of a problem in listening — just as happened with the “trashcan.”

Is the problem in the Design Team, though, or higher up? After all, this is the company that shipped “the worst mouse in the world” for two years with the computer that saved it from bankruptcy. You can see why when things are going well, it might persist for four years with keyboards that are prone to being shonky. Given that the yields are said to be worse for the “butterfly” keys than normal scissor keys, and that they’re more expensive to make, one can only think that either Apple is stubborn as hell at the executive level, or so tightly constrained by its design goals that it can’t figure out a way to reintroduce scissor-switch keys because that would mean designing an entirely new body and case for the whole line.

The other thing I find absurd about the whole keyboard fiasco is that they’re used in the iPad Pro keyboards, where they’re covered in soft material, completely reliable, and a delight to type on. Is it completely impossible to cover the keys on a laptop?

Good omens

Overall, though, there are many hopeful signs. I think Ive’s departure is going to be good for the Design Team and for Apple. The new Mac Pro design is a clear return to the sensible, accessible shapes of the blue G3 and the beloved G5 “Cheesegrater.” Hell, the new Pro has optional wheels, which is definitely a first for any Apple product. (If they make a car, the Pro will be the answer to a quiz question about “what was the first… ”) AirPods are, justifiably, a huge hit. Some execs might be disappointed that the HomePod hasn’t taken off in the same way, but music you can have with you all the time trumps music that stays in one place nowadays. AirPods > HomePods.

Elsewhere, Apple is killing off the confusing elements of its laptop line: as of early July the 12-inch MacBook is no more, and all the MacBook Pros have Touch Bars. So the laptop line makes sense again. (For the iPad, the existence of Pro/Air/plain grouping suggests marketing at work; there’s no design distinction. As the low-end one is just there to capture low-end sales, I’d expect it to persist.)

Jony Ive helped save Apple; that’s not in doubt. But even while he was saving it, some of his designs were annoying people mightily, right from the start. Some of them delighted us and continue to do so. It’s important though to separate out the instincts he had that worked in users’ favor, where simplicity was intended to work for us, from those which didn’t — where simplicity took away the affordances that we need to manipulate objects, like shaving down the handle of a door until only its intention is there, and none of the utility. Jony Ive is gone; it’s time to change the channel at Apple.

Let’s just not do it with the Apple TV remote, though.

If you enjoyed this, you might like my daily list of links and brief commentary at The Overspill blog, also available as an email (signup and confirmation required — free, no ads) or by following @TheOverspill on Twitter. I’m@charlesarthur on Twitter.

Tech journalist; was The Guardian's Technology editor 2005-14. Author of Cyber Wars (hacking) & Digital Wars (Apple v Google v Microsoft). Speaker, moderator.

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