Jonathan Ive, Apple’s legendary chief design officer, has announced he is leaving the company.
His departure — and Apple CEO Tim Cook’s challenge in replacing him — offer an opportunity to reflect on how executives should go about the difficult job of choosing the right creative talent for their own organizations.
In 1997, Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple and needed to reinvigorate the innovative soul of the organization. He wanted design to be at the core of this renewal. Since Apple was a computer company at that time, you would have expected Jobs would have searched for an expert computer designer — someone well-respected in the industry.
He did not. Before joining Apple, Ive had been an independent design consultant in London. His firm, Tangerine, was involved in designing household products (for example, Tangerine was a consultant for Ideal Standard, then a major player in the bathroom and plumbing industry). The young designer then moved to Apple in 1992, but the designs he was involved in before 1997 were not especially successful. Yet in hindsight it was a brilliant choice. The lesson: When choosing an innovator, look to the future, not the past.
The first product designed under Ive’s leadership was the iMac G3, introduced in 1998. It was acclaimed as one of the most revolutionary personal computers ever released, with a design language that was completely novel for the industry: a friendly shell in translucent colored plastic and an ovoid form that challenged the dominant paradigm of unsympathetic beige boxes.
One takeaway: When you are picking talent for innovation endeavors, you should imagine what is coming down the pike — what the future will look like — and then understand which capabilities you will need to succeed in that future. If Tim Cook has absorbed Steve Jobs’s lesson, his choice of Ive’s successor will reveal his vision of the emerging world in which Apple will compete in the years ahead.