The next decade of Apple design has nothing to do with the iPhone

Kieran Walsh

Type “LoveFrom” into Google and you’ll find results with obscure domain names (.style, .studio) snapped up by design fans in a bid to get the attention of one man: Jony Ive.

In June 2019, Ive announced he was leaving his machined aluminium pedestal as Apple’s chief design officer. After 27 years at the company, he was starting a new design firm called LoveFrom with fellow industrial designer Marc Newson, leaving Apple after five years. Since then, Ive has trademarked “LoveFrom Jony” on a wide range of product categories including drones, beauty items and appliances. For those who believe he may have stepped back creatively from the day-to-day of Cupertino years ago, it appears he is now finally free to design in any mode and category he likes.

That leaves a major question for Apple: who can replace Jony Ive? Jeff Williams, Apple’s supremely capable executive-level fixer, now oversees the design teams in his role as chief operating officer: but it is Evans Hankey, Apple’s first female VP of industrial design, and Alan Dye, VP of human interface design, who have been tasked with maintaining – and evolving – the precise and polished Ive aesthetic.

Hankey’s name appears on hundreds of Apple patents, from iPods to MacBooks to iPad peripherals. Following the announcement of Ive’s departure, former Apple designer May-Li Khoe referred to her in a series of tweets as “undercredited” and “pretty inspiring”. Something of a ghost online, Hankey’s scuffed iPhone appeared in the photography book Designed by Apple in California with Ive commenting to Dazed in 2016: “Isn’t it cool? She destroys her objects.”

Dye’s CV includes graphic design commissions, design work for the fashion house Kate Spade, and a stint crafting iPhone packaging, before being made responsible for user interface at Apple in 2015. Dye was particularly influential in the development of the visual language of watchOS, right down to the device’s watch faces.

Hankey and Dye’s brief is far from a simple copy-and-paste job. Apple needs purposeful, prescient design during the 2020s, perhaps more than ever. With the iPhone more or less an ideal Form, and both the AirPods and the Apple Watch already hugely influential on the rest of the tech industry, it’s products like AR glasses and cars, as well as Apple’s services which will define the next decade of design at Cupertino.

Its rumoured augmented reality glasses, now expected to launch in 2022 or 2023, pose a near impossible challenge for Hankey and the famous ID industrial design team. Even if Apple has been able to miniaturise the technology, every major attempt at developing an AR headset to date, from Google Glass to Magic Leap, has failed to construct a mainstream, socially acceptable face computer.

“That is something I would love Apple to do, to have very much an iPhone moment that takes this whole AR and VR industry, and turns it upside down,” says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign, and designer of the Fitbit. “And yet this is an exceptionally difficult design problem. I dealt with it for two decades. Apple is slowly gathering technologies and concepts that could eventually be used to bring something truly unique and likeable – emphasis on the likeable.”

With the company’s continued push into services, Dye will have work to do to improve the interfaces of offerings such as Apple TV+ and Apple Music. Alongside the competition for content and curators, questions are also likely to arise around attention and value in the Apple ecosystem, and the need to find a balance between engagement and concerns around overuse. (In 2018, investors wrote a letter urging the company to work to reduce iPhone “addiction” in children). Apple’s Screen Time feature, which tracks iOS and macOS usage, as well as “complications”, the interactive, glanceable widgets on the Apple Watch, are steps in this direction.

The minimalist design ethos associated with Ive and Apple has always had its flaws, whether functional – disappearing or proprietary ports, and the much-maligned, slim ‘butterfly’ MacBook keyboards – or environmental: sleek-lined, aluminium unibodies do not lend themselves to DIY repairs. Now in 2020, the butterfly keyboard has been replaced by a scissor-switch mechanism on all new MacBook models and with the EU moving towards a single charging standard for all smartphones sold in Europe, at least one of Apple’s signature elements is under threat.

It’s not all change, though. The 2020 iPad Pro has flatter sides and more sharply rounded corners than recent iPhones. A few iPhone 12 leaks, including one report from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Debby Wu, suggest that this September we will see a return to the flat display and straight, flat edges – this time in stainless steel – associated with the iconic iPhone 4 and iPhone 5.

Beyond this year’s Apple products, Amit predicts that a warmer design vernacular could develop this decade, to break the “monolith” of the cold, machined language of 2010s Cupertino. He points to alternatives in metals, plastics, fabrics, wood and 3D printing, and says he hopes to see subsequent gains in users’ ability to fix, refurbish, upgrade and otherwise “configure their technology objects”. Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, has said that Hankey and her colleagues “ask tough questions” on sustainability; critics are looking for substantive progress that will require Apple’s new design chiefs to adapt some core principles while maintaining their aesthetic standards.

Yves Béhar, the founder of design firm Fuseproject and a long-time Samsung collaborator, says he trusts the deep experience of these design leaders who have been in the “Apple trenches” for years. He agrees the industry is ready for more meaningful customisation in both form and function, especially for younger users. “Colour and personalisation in product design is perceived differently around the world,” he says. “It provides a real opportunity for experimentation.”

One possible cultural challenger to the new Apple duo is Ivy Ross, the jewellery designer who has served as VP of hardware design at Google since 2016. Ross is a proponent of softer colour palettes and warmer materials, as seen in Google’s Pixel and Home product lines, and believes that aesthetics are less about making devices look pretty than “enlivening your senses”. “We’ve gone a bit flatlined as a society – we have a lot of flat screens,” she told WIRED at Milan Salone 2019. “I think we’re craving dimensionality.”

It will remain difficult for competitors to match Apple’s signature control over the relationship between its hardware and software, which could influence the shape of everything from autonomous cars to personal robotics over the next decade. And we haven’t seen the end of Jony Ive’s contributions just yet: Tim Cook says that Apple will be one of LoveFrom’s primary clients.

Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara

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