iPhone designer Jony Ive is leaving Apple

The celebrated tech designer, who worked with co-founder Steve Jobs on the iMac, iPod and iPhone, is starting his own firm. Apple will be a primary client.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
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Apple chief design officer Jony Ive is leaving the company.

James Martin/CNET

Apple's chief design officer Jony Ive is leaving the company later this year to form an independent design firm. And Apple will be one of his first primary clients.

While Ive is striking out on his own in a way, he will continue to work with Apple on a variety of the company's projects when he launches his own company, Apple said in a release.

"Apple will continue to benefit from Jony's talents by working directly with him on exclusive projects, and through the ongoing work of the brilliant and passionate design team he has built," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in the release. Apple's press release website appeared to crash within a half hour of posting the news.

Ive told the Financial Times that he felt the time was right for his departure because he's recently completed some significant projects, including Apple Park, which had its official opening a few weeks ago. He also says he has a "very clear sense about the health and vitality of the design team" at Apple.

"I'm actually looking forward to contributing in a different way to projects we've been working together on for, in some cases, many years," Ive said. "While I will not be an employee, I will still be very involved - I hope for many, many years to come. This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change."

Ive's move may not be as tectonic a shift as a possible retirement or leaving Apple completely. But it does mark a dramatic shift for the tech behemoth.

Ive, after all, has been credited with helping power Apple's resurgence after co-founder Steve Jobs took over as its head in 1997. He helped create the iMac , the MacBook line and the iPod music player. It was the iPhone , though, that would prove to be his biggest hit, turning Apple from merely a computer company into one of the world's largest and most profitable.

All those hits have made London-born Ive a cultural icon within the tech industry, and a legend within his adoptive home of Silicon Valley. He's received a slew of awards, including a knighthood. And he's so often narrated Apple product announcement videos that late night comedians have parodied his discussion of detail and low dulcet voice throughout the years.

In 2015, four years after Jobs' passing, Ive was promoted to the newly created position of chief design officer, giving him rein over the look of Apple's retail stores and office spaces, as well as the devices he's known for.

Which is probably why it may seem odd for Ive to leave such a plum job. But longtime Apple watcher Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said Ive's growing portfolio within the company was a signal he was looking beyond the billions of devices he's helped make.

"Ive has always been interested in design beyond technology and computers," he said. "I'm not that sure it'll be the same thing as if he was leaving. His interests are broader, but he'll still be tied to Apple."

Steve Jobs with iMac

Perhaps the most significant computer introduced by Apple during the 1990s, the original iMac all-in-one design made its debut in 1998 alongside a beaming Steve Jobs.

Courtesy of Apple Computer

Leaving a mark

Ive and Apple have for decades had massive influence on the tech world. Together, Ive and Jobs introduced several trends that upended conventional wisdom.

In 1998 and 1999, it was the iMac and iBook, desktop and laptop computers designed for consumers. Unlike the typical grey, beige and black computers that most every other company made, Apple's devices were colorful and translucent.

Its striking designs continued with the iPod, a monolithic stainless steel and plastic device designed as an answer to the simple and cheap music players that were around at the time. "iPod has got Apple design," Jobs said when introducing the device in 2001. The company's colorful ads featuring silhouettes of people dancing to music with the iPod's white headphones in their ears helped further propel Apple into pop culture and cement its iTunes store as one of the most popular places to buy music in the world.

But it was the iPhone and iPad that Ive will likely be best known for. Those two devices helped usher in the mobile device revolution, putting smartphones in billions of people's pockets and making things like the App Store and mobile data a standard part of life. One of the key things that set the original iPhone apart from most other devices back then was its 3.5 inch touchscreen, which eschewed the typical buttons or stylus pointers most phones had back then.

"Doing something that's different is actually relatively easy," he said in a 2016 interview with CNET. "We don't limit ourselves in how we will push -- if it's to a better place. What we won't do is just do something different that's no better."

Ive's departure comes at a pivotal time for Apple, as software and services are taking on even greater importance for the company. Apple still sells millions of iPhones every quarter, but sales aren't soaring like they used to. People are holding onto their devices for longer, which makes it important to give them services that get them paying monthly.

And while Apple has made augmented reality, mobile payments, streaming music and other areas into major focuses over the past couple of years, design is still a key element of the company's products. Maintaining the company's high standard for aesthetics in the appearance of its products will be tested as the company releases augmented reality goggles, as well as new iPhones and Apple Watches.

Ive isn't the only high-level executive to leave Apple this year. Apple's retail chief, Angela Ahrendts, left the company in April after five years at the tech giant. Ahrendts had been the company's highest-ranking and highest-profile female executive since she joined the company in 2014, and some considered her as a potential candidate to eventually succeed Cook as the company's CEO.

Apple didn't immediately respond to a query about who would take Ive's place as chief design officer.

CNET's Abrar Al-Heeti and Steven Musil contributed to this report.

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Originally published at 2:05 p.m. PT
Updated at 5:15 p.m. with Ive comments to the Financial Times.