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Jony Ive biography offers peek into Apple's secretive design lab

A new book by the editor of Cult of Mac gives readers a glimpse into Apple's vaunted industrial design group.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read
Sir Jony Ive Apple
Instead of the sleek, white device that became emblematic of Apple's design chops, the iPod could have come out looking like a yo-yo.

That's one of the details from "Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products," a new unauthorized biography about Apple's designer in chief that hit stores today. It's chock-full of tidbits about the designer, but many of the interesting insights revolve around the details and personality of Apple's notoriously secretive industrial design group.

For example, Leander Kahney, editor and publisher of the Web site Cult of Mac and a former managing editor of Wired.com, gives us a look at early prototypes of Apple's most iconic products. One early design for the iPod looked almost nothing like what eventually shipped in stores:

Jony particularly liked an MP3 player that resembled the iMac's hockey-puck mouse, dressed out in transparent red plastic. Inspired by a yo-yo, the device had a groove around its perimeter for holding the earbud's wires, which slotted into cutouts on the back. (It looked like a round version of the earbud packaging used with the iPhone 5.) The player was controlled by a series of buttons arranged in a circle, with a small black-and-white screen in the middle. It resembled what, eventually, would be the familiar iPod scroll wheel, but at that time was purely button based with no wheel to turn on.
And when designing the iPad, according to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, Ive has said he and Jobs personally poured over more than 20 models of various-sized screens and chose the display size from there. But according to Kahney's book, an unnamed Apple executive who worked there at the time said the size of the tablet was strongly influenced by something less subjective: the size of a standard piece of paper. Kahney also says that some of the larger prototypes had kickstands, like the Microsoft Surface would eventually have.

In terms of the lab's personality, there are two words that journalists and authors usually use to describe Apple's designer in chief Jonathan Ive: quiet and sensitive. But that doesn't mean the team behind the designs of some of the most widely used products in the world isn't above crude humor.

Apple is famous for its sense of showmanship -- from its elaborate product announcements to the packaging and arrangement of a new device when it first meets a consumer.

So why not have a little fun with that first impression? As a joke, when Apple was getting ready to release the iMac G4, the design team laid out the product in the box to look like male genitalia. "You had the neck laying there and the two ball speakers next to it," Doug Satzger, Apple's former Apple designer, told Kahney. "People would open the box and say 'What?'"

These are just some of the lighter design details in the book, diving into the decisions made in the lab. The entire thing is worth a read, and delves into the early life, education, and background of the uber-private designer.