A designer as CEO: Should Jonathan Ive be Apple's next leader?

An open letter to Apple's board of director poses the question of whether design savvy can prepare an executive for the corner office.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
2 min read

Steve Jobs shows no signs of retiring any time soon, but Jess McMullin, who runs the great Business+Design blog, thinks ahead and pre-emptively wraps his head around Apple's succession planning. In an open letter to the Apple board, he urges the directors to consider Jonathan Ive, Apple's SVP of industrial design, as Jobs' successor, if need be. (Mullin was obviously inspired by Bruce Nussbaum's "CEOs Must Be Designers, Not Just Hire Them" post several months ago.)

Jonathan Ive
Jonathan Ive Apple

And yet--a designer as CEO? (Wearing the marketing hat for a renowned design consultancy, I am posing this question as innocently as I can without getting harassed by my creative colleagues.....)

McMullin: "It's not that there's no talent in the C-suites at Apple. But those people are well-oiled parts of the Steve-machine. They do their work to enable Jobs to do his. They're amazing catalysts for Steve's chemistry, and because of this they will never have the independent vision to provide continued market leadership. You might argue that Jonathan Ive is no different. But that's not true: he's a designer who taps into the wells of unmet consumer need that fuel Apple's ongoing growth. With the exception of Steve himself, he's tuned to the zeitgeist that determines winners more than anyone else at Apple. Moreover, he's able to articulate that vision with consistent grace and precise execution. He's got a track record of hitting home runs. If you want to keep the innovation leadership that makes Apple, well, Apple, then you've got to have the driver's seat firmly bolted to the flow of trend, meaning, and consequence. That's the domain of Design, and Jonathan Ive is your Designer."

McMullin may have a point, but in the subsequent paragraphs of his letter, he sort of backtracks. "Of course," he concedes, "he [Ive] may not turn out to be the consummate sales guy that you need to sell dreams to the switchers of tomorrow, or keep the Apple legions loyal." And "he'll need coaching to round out his business fluency." And of course "he'll need a strong team of C-level support."

In other words: maybe what Jonathan Ive needs is an MBA? Maybe it's not such a good idea to lift a designer into the chief executive chair after all? Maybe there's still a vast gulf between managing design and managing a business? Maybe design is "more than just style" but business is also more than just design?