Jony Ive Is Bad For Design

You might have missed it—I sure did—but Apple announced the new iPhone on Wednesday at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California. Neither the new iPhone nor the new Apple Watch are a dramatic departure from previous versions. These well made, well designed, and thoughtfully engineered products continue to proceed down a fairly anticipated trajectory. The one “major” change, in terms of hardware, is the discontinuation of the 8mm headphone jack on the iPhone, an annoying detail which I will not get into here.

What I want to talk about is the nauseating, holier than thou attitude showcased in Apple’s “design video” for the new iPhone, narrated by Jonathan Ive.

We in the arts have a problem: we are not taken seriously either as professionals with a talent and skills based trade or as cultural historians. Political footballs are tied around our necks—like the NEA—and lobbed back and forth between Congresscritters in each election cycle. MBA and STEM students look down on us for not having considered, they assume, having a job after graduation. It all really boils down to the fact that no one really knows what we do.

And that’s where Jony Ive comes in. See, when no one knows what you do but you want them to value your work, it’s probably not a good idea to talk down to them about how amazing you are. And that’s what Ive has been doing in Apple’s design videos for years.

I have nothing against Ive personally and I appreciate his work. Apple fanboy or not, I think the design of the Apple line up has been absolutely phenomenal since Steve’s return in the late 1990s, much of which is attributable to Ive and his team(s).

Unfortunately, when you fetishize design language like a hung-over, first year sculpture student trying to justify his shitty midterm project in front of his professor and a room full of students, you make us all look like pretentious assholes. “We have created a product that is the most deliberate evolution of our original founding design.” What?! “…each refinement serves to bring absolute unity and efficiency to the design.” Give me a fucking break, dude. This kind of haughty circumlocution is infuriatingly frustrating, especially for those who did not attend art or design school.

I get it, you want to describe the product in the most glorifying way possible so you use “sculpt” instead of “machine.” Trust me, I waded through the farce of in-class critique sessions, listening to classmates mumble awkwardly about their process while trying to recite as many fancy words from last week’s lecture as they can remember, too. I get you, I do. But when you tell people that the glass on the front of their phone and the metal on the back of it “describe a singular shape,” they don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about—of course it’s a singular shape, it’s a singular phone!—and that’s bad. For all of us.

Sure, you might say that if laymen think that art and design are confusing they will respect these fields. But to that suggestion I offer that perhaps if laymen think artists and designers are confusing they will be less likely to engage professionals for their next project in order to “spare themselves the headache.” And if they are less likely to engage, they are less likely to value, which essentially imposes an “asshole tax” on all of us in creative industries.

Painters, illustrators, photographers, designers, animators, cinematographers, editors, and writers are all struggling in global freelance markets oversaturated with other professionals and amateurs alike, driving down rates and undervaluing the work we do. Add a reluctance to engage a professional into this mix and it’s no wonder there’s so much spec work, so little respect, and an overwhelming under appreciation for creative professionals in corner offices.

It’s a beautiful phone and the design is stunning. I am not seeking to diminish its value at all, I want to make its value accessible.