Playing Devil's Advocate as Jony Ive and Marc Newson Guide Apple

The big winner from Ian Parker's Jony Ive profile in The New Yorker was Marc Newson. News that Apple hired the industrial designer was unceremoniously announced this past September in a Vanity Fair article. At the time, his position was described as a role where Newson would contribute his advice to Apple from time to time. In reality, Marc Newson may be one of Apple's more significant hires in recent years.  In an interview with Charlie Rose back in 2013, Jony explained his relationship with Newson, saying, "We share the same view of the world, and the same taste, and we relate to the same attributes or aspects of an object." Newson then added, "Most importantly we really hate the same things."  With Jony and Newson arguably the creative duo guiding Apple forward and sharing much in common with each other, what are the drawbacks and risks in such a dynamic? It is time to play devil's advocate. 

Jony and Newson's Vision Becomes Apple's Vision

One risk in having Jony and Newson control Apple's creative direction is that their view of the world becomes Apple's view. The New Yorker's Jony Ive article positioned Newson as Jony's sidekick on the Apple Watch project, with the final product sharing much in common with Newson's prior watch designs. Their attitude and feelings toward what a device worn on the wrist should look like arguably guides everything about Apple Watch all the way down to how a user interacts with notifications and glances. Is having two minds that think similarly about products as strong as having two minds that share the same philosophy but use different paths to get to the same end point? 

Lack of Criticism

One secret to Apple's success has been the ability for the industrial design team to discuss and debate ideas in the very early stages of product development. Would a Jony and Newson pairing disrupt this creative stage where ideas no longer get the same amount of criticism? Ian Parker hinted at some of these opposing views when describing Jony's push for Apple to become more of a luxury brand, a topic brought up when contemplating who to hire for it's retail chief. Tim Cook and the rest of the executive board had some concerns with Apple losing touch with the mass market, but in the end, former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts was hired as SVP of retail and former Yves Saint Laurent Group CEO Paul Deneve was assigned to special projects. Some will look at this situation and wonder if Jony has the same intuition as Steve Jobs when it comes to being able to consider the details and big picture at the same time.  While the comparisons likely hold no relevancy as times have changed, the argument won't go away anytime soon. 

Questions Around Product Strategy 

A quick search on YouTube would reveal dozens of Newson videos where the industrial designer looks back at his decades of previous contract work designing everything from toilets and guns to airplanes and backpacks. However, Newson's passion is transport and cars, and I don't think it is a coincidence that we now have rumors of Apple showing tangible interest in something related to electric vehicles.  Marc Newson designed a concept car for Ford back in 1999, and during a recent recollection of his work, Newson described his goals with the car: "My objective was not to try to produce something that mystifies people, but to try to produce something that is simple for people to understand. You got to be able to get into this car and with one look understand how to operate it. I hate reading instruction manuals. I throw them away immediately. They just bore me." As for all of the cars in the market that are made by many different parts from many different companies, Newson said, "thats one of the reasons why cars to my liking look incredibly incoherent." Those two statements do a great job of describing the biggest criticism of a Jony/Newson duo: Is Apple now going to tackle whatever product Jony and Newson don't like looking at or using, and is that a good strategy? Would Apple's interest in a car be driven by Jony's and Newson's distaste of the current choices in the market?

Biggest Risk Factor: Incorrect Vision

If Apple wants to move into new industries and products, many decisions will depend on how Ive and Newson not only view the product, but how the product is made, and what will be its purpose and function. In such a scenario, the primary risk will be that their vision for a product doesn't resonate with the Apple customer base. This is why I suspect Apple management granted The New Yorker such far-reaching access for its Jony Ive profile. Apple is framing a discussion emphasizing design's importance in Apple product development in order to reduce the chances that a future Apple product doesn't catch on with its core users. Said another way, Apple will depend on words, and product demo videos, to sell new products to early adopters. Since Apple is a company that places very few bets, each bet is extremely large and one misfire would be very costly. 

Responses to Criticism

There are a few logical responses to criticism originating from a Jony and Newson pairing. Much of the worry or concern originates from the idea that Apple's close-knit industrial design group would no longer function as a team capable of pushing back at Jony and Newson. One can argue that was indeed one ulterior motive for having The New Yorker article published; to stress how design at Apple is actually much more than one or two people. Apple did the once unthinkable and allowed members of Jony's industrial design team talk to the press. A few years ago, Apple was nervous to let their names even leak to the press. Such a change in strategy is noteworthy and deliberate. It would seem that Apple understands what the criticism would be of a Jony/Newson pairing and is trying to address the issue: Design is built throughout the organization and is not dependent on one person.

Since Newson shares many of the same philosophies as Jony and the industrial design team, which was personally built by Jony over the years, there is a good likelihood that the current design talent in place (responsible for the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and now Apple Watch) will continue to function without skipping a beat. It would be more concerning if Newson held fundamentally different views on industrial design, like how a product should be made, in which case the built-in criticism from the design team may not be as effective.  

There is also little evidence to suggest that Tim Cook and the rest of the executive team will just roll over to Jony's demands and decisions. The team still includes executives that have battle wounds from countering, pushing back, and winning arguments against Steve Jobs for years. At the end of the day, Apple is being run by a group of senior executives who have shown the ability to put the product front and center. 

Jony Ive and Marc Newson both have track records that speak for themselves in terms of taking complicated things and making them simple and more functional. The key question going forward will be if they are successful in letting their intuition guide them in an environment where design collaboration and teamwork are rewarded. As long as the product remains Apple's primary focus, a Jony and Newson duo has the potential of working out well.