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Apple design chief role hard to fill, as most of his team have left


The Apple design chief role long held by Jony Ive is a hard one to fill, says a new report today, as so many of the core designers have left the company.

Of the three options open to the company, none seem likely to provide the leadership and team buy-in required for such a high-profile position…

Background

British industrial designer Jony Ive developed an extremely close working relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, giving the design chief almost free reign.

Apple originally split hardware and software design, each having a different lead. However, I had long argued that the two were inseparable – and in 2012, he added human interface design to his responsibilities. The decision caused a great deal of friction within the company, leading former software UI head Greg Christie to leave the company in 2014.

After Ive’s departure, Apple returned to a split leadership role, with Evans Hankey in charge of hardware design, while Alan Dye led the software side. However, Hankey’s stint at the top was relatively brief, with her upcoming departure reported last month.

Most of Ive’s design team has left

Bloomberg reports that the company is struggling to fill the role, given that most of the members of Ive’s core design team have also left.

The departures began when Ive moved to a part-time role — officially known as chief design officer — around the time the Apple Watch was launched in 2015. That year, longtime Ive lieutenant Danny Coster departed for GoPro Inc. Two years later, another top Ive deputy, Christopher Stringer, left to found Syng, a high-end speaker maker.

In early 2019, there was another exodus, with key designers Rico Zorkendorfer, Julian Hoenig, Miklu Silvanto and Daniele De Iuliis leaving. That June, Apple announced that Ive would exit to found LoveFrom, a design consulting firm working with Ferrari, Airbnb, Moncler and other brands.

More recently, key team members Jody Akana, Joe Tan, Anthony Ashcroft, Andrea Williams, Jeremy Bataillou and Eugene Whang departed, with the latter four heading to Ive’s firm. Altogether, at least 15 members of Ive’s core senior design team at Apple have exited since 2015.

A key reason for so many departures is that the autonomy the team enjoyed under Ive has been significantly reduced, with Operations reportedly having a bigger say, and greater emphasis on reducing manufacturing costs.

Three options for Apple design chief role – none good

Insiders say there are three options for appointing a new design lead – but all are problematic.

  • Appoint one of the few remaining Ive-era hardware designers
  • Give software lead Alan Dye responsibility for hardware too
  • Recruit externally

The obvious candidate for the first option would be Richard Howarth, but he hasn’t proven successful in making the transition from designer to manager, and it’s unclear whether he would want the change of role. Additionally, after 26 years, he may be eyeing retirement sooner rather than later.

Giving the job to Alan Dye would likely alienate hardware designers, who would see him as an outsider to their team. This is especially so given that hardware and software design teams inevitably clash from time to time, so his appointment may be resented.

Similarly, an outside candidate – for example, from Google or Microsoft – is seen by many as a non-starter.

Apple has struggled to integrate executives from rivals into leadership positions. “It would need to be someone internal,” the longtime member of Apple’s design group said. Bringing in someone from another company would be the “death of the team.”

What would you do in Apple’s position? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: R_ R/Unsplash

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Naveen Kumar

Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.

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