For those uninitiated to the intricacies of design theory, a toilet and a computer may seem to have little in common. But for Jonathan Ives, vice president of Apple Computer 's Industrial Design Group. and head of the team that designed the futuristic, translucent aqua plastic bubble known as the iMac, there are many similarities.
The personable British designer joined Apple six years ago after a career that spanned the design of bathroom sinks and toilets to consumer electronic products for the Japanese market. He was charged with coming up with a design for the iMac, Apple's new consumer Macintosh, that would both bring Apple into the future, and tie it to its past, he says.
Just like a toilet, it was important that the function of the iMac as a PC be apparent from its form -- people had to know by looking at it that they could type documents, send e-mails and run applications, Ives says. What people recognise as a computer today is "a beige box," but this form has nothing to do with a computer's function. Apple decided to redefine a computer's form, while still making sure people could recognise it as a computer, he says.
"We could make a computer look like a grapefruit," Ives says. Computer companies have just been afraid to break out of the status quo and make anything that differs too much in form, Ives says. "The computer industry is creatively bankrupt," he says. The form of computers has never been important, with speed and performance being the only thing that mattered, he says. "We knew that iMac was fast, we didn't need to make it ugly."
So does that mean we'll see a pink balloon-shaped Compaq Presario or a leopard-print laptop from Hewlett-Packard? Probably not, says Ives, since the iMac is as much about what Apple stands for as a company as it is about redefining people's mindsets about what computers can look like.
"It (the iMac) seems right for Apple, but not for other companies," says Ives, who calls the iMac the most important design achievement in his life so far. "It feels like things are changing all around me and I feel privileged to be a part of it."
But some things about the iMac are not so new.
iMac's all-in-one monitor and computer design is an Apple hallmark, harking back to the first Macintosh in 1984, Ives said. When Interim Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs approached the design team one year ago to talk about building what would become the iMac, he was clear he wanted to build on this historic form while at the same time completely updating it for the future, Ives said. When Apple was struggling with its product strategy several years ago, the machines were becoming more and more conservative and in line with the "beige box" status quo, which wasn't Apple's philosophy, Ives says.
"One thing most people don't know is that Steve Jobs is an exceptional designer," he says. Jobs was involved throughout iMac's entire design life cycle which Ives called "a vigorous intellectual process." A small team of designers worked like maniacs for several months to come up with the design by listening to what consumers wanted, he says.
First, people wanted a smaller PC that was easy to pick up and move; this was especially true in Europe and Asia where living spaces are smaller, Ives says. Ives put a large handle on the back "that invites people to pick it up an touch it," he says. Second, they wanted ease of use, fewer cables to connect and no complicated documentation to read when setting up the machine.
"We tried to do things in a simple, elegant way," Ives says. Most computer makers don't realise how afraid many people are of computers; Apple wanted the iMac to be "approachable," he said. The idea that the iMac comes in one box, has clear plastic that catches the light and shows its changing nature and has a shape that "looks like it just arrived" all contribute to the overall approachability and appeal of the machine, Ives says.
He is heading up the design team responsible for the upcoming portable consumer Macintosh due out in mid-1999, but Ives wouldn't give any hints about how it may look. Because iMac's design was such a departure from the traditional PC, people are expecting something revolutionary for the portable version as well, he says.
"Expectation is extraordinarily high, it's a bit scary," Ives admits.
So where can this design poster child be found during his time off?
"I go to computer shops and hang around and listen to people, I find it fascinating," says Ives, who is so genuine about his love for the iMac that it's hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. "I know it sounds corny, but the biggest kick I get is to see people smiling when they see the iMac, you don't usually see a lot of people smiling in computer stores."