Apple announced on Monday that Jony Ive will be promoted to Chief Design Officer, relinquishing his day-to-day managerial duties to Richard Howarth and Alan Dye. Reaction to the news has been mixed, with some thinking this announcement is the beginning of the end for Jony at Apple. I disagree. I look at this news as paving a sustainable path for Jony Ive to continue guiding Apple. In the process, we also now know the future leaders of Apple's design efforts. When we understand how Apple turns ideas into products, it becomes clear that Jony's new role is the closest thing yet to the unofficial role Steve Jobs held at Apple. We are in the midst of Jony Ive's Apple.
A Well-Planned and Intelligent Promotion
When Scott Forstall was removed from his position as VP of iOS software at the end of 2012, Tim Cook positioned the move as an effort to increase collaboration. In reality, much of the resulting executive shuffling was done with the near-term in mind. Apple was kicking off the Apple Watch project, and iOS needed a rethinking. Along with maintaining his leadership over the Industrial Design team, Jony was given leadership over Human Interface, which is not a trivial amount of additional responsibility and more importantly, time. While everything over the next two years appeared to go relatively smoothly (Apple software critics would disagree with that assertion), the managerial duties were likely taking their toll on Jony.
In the well-read The New Yorker Jony Ive profile published in February, Ian Parker made it seem like Jony was absolutely exhausted from the Apple Watch development. I just don't think Jony's job responsibilities and workload were sustainable. Here's Parker:
"[Jony] was a few days from starting a three-week vacation, the longest of his career. The past year had been 'the most difficult' he'd experienced since joining Apple, he said later that day, explaining that the weariness I'd sometimes seen wasn't typical. Since our previous meeting, he'd had pneumonia. 'I just brunt myself into not being very well,' he said. He had discouraged the thought that Newson's appointment portended his own eventual departure, although when I spoke to [Laurene] Powell Jobs she wondered if 'there might be a way where there's a slightly different structure that's a little more sustainable and sustaining.'"
Evidence would suggest that Jony's promotion was a long-time in the making and not due to some recent event or sudden decision. Not only is the Apple Watch launch now in the rear-view mirror, but both Howarth and Dye had been positioned in the press going as far back as late 2014. This move is made from a position of strength. Ultimately, promoting Jony to Chief Design Officer is a long-term solution to positioning Jony in a spot where he can do what he does best: make complicated technology more personal.
Titles Are Overrated
While the Chief Design Officer title may cause some to scratch their head with bewilderment as to what it means or doesn't mean, it is important to not get too caught up trying to match Apple corporate titles with importance and job duties. I've long felt Jony is the most powerful person at Apple, despite him not having the CEO title next to his name. As SVP of Design, I think Jony's current title went a long way in seemingly minimizing his influence at Apple. Jony was merely one of eight other SVPs, a comparison that likely was far from the truth.
I look at the title of Chief Design Officer as mostly ceremonial, not indicative of any less willingness by Jony to continue working on future Apple products. Tim Cook couldn't be more clear when explaining Jony's new role:
"Design is one of the most important ways we communicate with our customers, and our reputation for world-class design differentiates Apple from every other company in the world. As Chief Design Officer, Jony will remain responsible for all of our design, focusing entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives. On July 1, he will hand off his day-to-day managerial responsibilities of ID and UI to Richard Howarth, our new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, our new vice president of User Interface Design."
Those job duties not only sound awfully similar to the role Jony has been doing for years as SVP of Design, but they sound incredibly ambitious, effectively giving Jony reign across Apple.
I suspect one issue that many pundits are having when analyzing this news is they are getting too caught up with titles, assuming Chief Design Officer is codeword for "Chairman" or something similar which does indeed have a connotation of transitioning more to a part-time or supervisory role. Similar to how Steve Jobs held the CEO title while Tim Cook performed most of the CEO duties, I think Jony Ive got a new fancy title for no other reason than to show recognition and appreciation for his past accomplishments.
New Leaders Add Clarity
While most were preoccupied with Jony's new job role, Tim Cook added a large amount of known to the sensitive subject of succession planning by announcing two new leaders in Apple design (Richard Howarth, VP of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, VP of User Interface Design). As Jony's public profile increased over the years, the murmur of "Who will replace Jony?" grew louder and louder. While Wall Street has historically had a weak spot when it comes to valuing Apple design and understanding Jony's importance to the company, the greater level of clarity and certainty when dealing with a company's succession planning, the better.
There is not much public information about Howarth and Dye other than they have been at Apple for years (Howarth for 20 years). Both were successful in prior Apple projects, earning their dues and subsequent promotions. Upper mobility is not common at Apple, so I tend to think Tim Cook and Jony Ive must have really been impressed with these two gentlemen.
Apple's industrial design team should be considered more of a family than a collection of co-workers. The 19 industrial designers aren't at Apple for the money or fame. If they were, they would have left years ago. Instead, they believe in and care about solving problems and making great things. They work very well together, judging by the lack of turnover, and they have seen much success turning raw ideas into finished products. Such an environment and background leads me to think these new managerial appointments won't likely usher in a round of corporate politics and changing group dynamics. It certainly is something to watch for, however, with company departures as the clearest evidence of such a situation occurring.
Leading vs. Managing
With Howarth and Dye serving as Jony's two lieutenants in terms of managing day-to-day aspects of Apple design, what would such a dynamic look like and where would Jony fit into the picture? I consider Jony's new role to be much more about leadership while Howarth and Dye handle the more corporate side of things - the actual management of teams. The amount of additional time and attention that Jony can spend on entirely new projects, while leaning on his two right hands to make sure that schedules are being met and projects are receiving all of the resources they need, goes a long way in describing Apple's strategy over the next few years.
I see an environment in which Jony's potential can be unleashed even more now than the world has already seen. Similar to how Steve Jobs was known to head down to Jony's design lab to hang out, I suspect in some ways, Jony wants to do the same - check out of the day-to-day executive grind and lose himself in research and design elements on whatever topic or subject he choses. By being positioned in more of a leadership role than a managerial role, Jony could maybe be more like Jony.
Future Design Projects and Marc Newson
In his Telegraph article, Stephen Fry briefly mentions what Jony Ive will be up to once his promotion takes place: "Jony will travel more, he told me. Among other things, he will bring his energies to bear - as he has already since their inception - on the Apple Stores that are proliferating around the world. The company's retail spaces have been one of their most extraordinary success."
Take a look at Jony's travel itinerary the past few months, and it is no surprise that he will indeed be traveling more. While Fry positions Apple Retail stores as a likely focus for Jony, the truth is he could end up traveling to various countries, meeting and working with different people or simply researching different aspects of the world. While this may represent a change from what some may be used to at Apple, since when was change automatically a bad thing?
Apple's product road map will likely revolve around two major trends: wearables and personal transport initiatives (not to mention iPhones, iPads, Macs). I look at Jony's new role, along with Marc Newson's recent hire as a London-based member of Apple's design team, as the clearest sign yet that these two gentlemen have some big things planned for the future. Here's Marc Newson in a Telegraph article from 2014:
"[T]he world of automobiles I just find completely heinous...I have old cars but I rarely drive them anywhere. I must confess we do have a Peugeot people-carrier thing that I really hate going in. But car design, is driven by marketing, by people that are not designers. And it's just a completely sort of myopic approach...One of biggest sources of inspiration as a designer is basically looking at things and hating them. I have other designer friends who feel the same way, like Jony Ive."
I recently began to lay out the rationale for why Apple will enter the automobile industry and I do think this Jony Ive promotion is a way for projects like an Apple electric car to go forward, not to mention rethinking the Apple Store experience to better match this new product roadmap.
Moving Closer to the "Steve Jobs" Role
Not only will Steve Jobs never be replaced, but Apple should never think that someone needs to fill the role that Steve Jobs held. Steve had specific strengths and weaknesses that make any comparison to someone else illogical. Instead, I think the much more appropriate way of thinking about this subject is to ask who would be the best person to make sure that Apple's culture remains alive and well while ideas are allowed to mature from raw form to finished product, virtues that Steve Jobs oversaw.
In announcing Jony's promotion, Tim Cook talked about how Jony would have less managerial responsibilities. Typically, one would assume a promotion goes the other way around, leading to more oversight over teams. In reality, I suspect Jony's promotion involves overlooking Apple's mission much more closely, with more flexibility than ever before. Jony Ive will still be Jony Ive, but I think this promotion positions him much more closely to the role Steve Jobs had: making sure the product always comes first.
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