Jony Ive, book review: Some genesis, but few revelations

Cult of Mac editor/publisher Leander Kahney provides some interesting details about what makes a great designer, but adds little new material to the well-stocked library of existing books about Apple.

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products ● By Leander Kahney ● Portfolio Penguin ● 320 pages ● ISBN 978-0-241-00177-6 ● £14.99 (hardback) / £9.49 (ePub ebook)

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products opens with a cute personal anecdote. The author, Leander Kahney, met Ive at an industry shindig and went for a drink: two expatriate Brits together in San Francisco. A few drinks later, Kahney realised he was late and abruptly vamoosed, unwittingly leaving his laptop bag behind. Many hours later, Kahney ran into Ive again in a bar. To his surprise, Ive was still carrying the laptop bag. By way of thanking him, Kahney asked for a few quotes — which he got, to the lurking PRs' surprise.

 The point for Kahney about this story is to illustrate how kind and down-to-earth Ive is. The point for the unwary reader is that it suggests this book will be an intimate portrait of Apple's most significant product designer. The disappointing reality is that it's not. Apple did not assist Kahney with interviews for this book, although he indicates that some staffers spoke to him anonymously. If Ive was one of those, Kahney does not say so.

The upshot is that, aside from some early-life material about Ive, much of the book reads like a rehash of previous books about Apple — which, despite its famous tight-lipped secrecy, is possibly the best-documented company that has ever existed. Kahney himself has written two previous books about Apple and Steve Jobs; there's also Walter Isaacson's compendious 2011 biography of Steve Jobs (which Kahney quotes), two books by Steven Levy (Insanely Great, the 1994 biography of the Mac, and 2006's The Perfect Thing, which studied the birth and development of the iPod), and dozens more covering various aspects of Apple's business and culture. Even Gil Amelio, Apple's mid-1990s 500-day CEO, produced a book about the experience.

From Essex to Cupertino

To be sure, you learn some interesting details about what makes a great designer. Ive was born in Chingford, Essex, the son of a silversmith and lecturer in design, and he learned young both how to make things by hand and how to think about design. Even as an art college student, Ive's talent was seen and appreciated: when he took the Apple job at 25, it was the third time Apple's then design head, Robert Brunner, had tried to lure him there. From the beginning, he was inclined to rethink everyday objects. After stints with the company that sponsored him through art college and with an independent small consultancy, he finally landed at Apple in 1992, five years before Jobs' return. In 1997, he became the head of design when Brunner left (he went on to design Beats headphones —  the company Apple has just bought ).

From then on, however, the book settles into recounting product development: the Newton, the iMac, the iBook...through to the iPad and Jobs's death. If you've never known who was responsible for the current vogue for user-irreplaceable batteries, now you know. Kahney concludes by asking whether Ive, whose designs have been so influential that they're now mainstream, can reinvent himself and his ideas now that Tim Cook runs the business. His guess seems to be as good as ours.