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Apple’s Brain Drain Hinders Efforts To Pick The Next Jony Ive

The company is looking for a new design chief after Ive’s successor leaves after a three-year period.

Sales at Apple Inc. stymied efforts to replace the head of product design, leaving a gaping hole at the helm of a prominent team that was key to the iPhone maker’s long-lasting success.

Legendary design leader Jony Ive left Apple in 2019, and his hardware design replacement lasted about three years. Now the department – still in Ive’s shadow – needs a new leader at a time when there are few obvious choices. And the fate of Apple’s hardware devices, which accounted for more than three-quarters of its nearly $400 billion in sales last year, is at stake.

Evans Hankey, who has held the position since I left, informed Apple last month that she will be leaving. Although Hankey has been with the company for some 20 years, her relatively short tenure at the top of the industrial design team made it difficult to establish a clear vision for new products. Apple also lacks a clear job succession plan, a major problem for a company that sells premium-priced products based largely on their appearance.

In some ways, the department has been on the move since Steve Jobs’ death more than a decade ago, according to those with knowledge of the situation. The Apple co-founder had partnered with Ive that helped create the clean, simple aesthetic that is still the hallmark of the tech giant today. But a greater emphasis on cost, along with other distractions, created new problems, they say.

Apple’s modern design group began after Jobs returned to the company in the late 1990s and became a team of about two dozen people reporting to Ive. The idea was to come up with future products, and they did. Apple put computers in translucent plastic cases. It sold skeptical consumers to the concept that a plate-like phone was better than one full of buttons. It made the world’s thinnest laptop and convinced people to wrap a computer around their wrists.

Over time, the group evolved into two central teams: industrial design and human interface design. The former oversees the appearance of hardware, while the latter, led by CEO Alan Dye, oversees the appearance of Apple’s software. After Ive left, both groups were placed under the purview of Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.

In recent years, the team has lost the majority of the senior designers who worked under Ive, with many of them moving to his new company, LoveFrom. That now makes it harder to replace Hankey, said those in the know. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

The departure began when Ive transitioned into a part-time position — officially known as Chief Design Officer — around the time the Apple Watch launched in 2015. That year, longtime Ive Lieutenant Danny Coster left for GoPro Inc. deputy, Christopher Stringer, left to found Syng, a high-end loudspeaker maker.

At the beginning of 2019, there was another exodus, with the departure of key designers Rico Zorkendorfer, Julian Hoenig, Miklu Silvanto and Daniele De Iuliis. In June, Apple announced that Ive was leaving to found LoveFrom, a design consultancy that partners with Ferrari, Airbnb, Moncler and other brands.

More recently, key team members left Jody Akana, Joe Tan, Anthony Ashcroft, Andrea Williams, Jeremy Bataillou and Eugene Whang, with the last four going to Ive’s company. In total, at least 15 members of Ive’s key senior design team have left Apple since 2015. Hankey, who is leaving Apple next spring, currently has no plans to join LoveFrom, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

That kind of turnover had been rare. Months before the departure began, Ive praised that only two members of the design team left Apple in the previous 15 years and that one of the two resigned for health reasons.

Even before Ive left, Apple’s operations department began to exert more influence over the design team, people familiar with the matter said. That meant a focus on cost rather than purely on looks and features.

“The strength of the team was that we were a core that was connected by the incredible environment that was there and the things we could do in a pretty unconventional way for a big company,” said a longtime member of the group, who asked not to be identified as the matter is private. “It was a special crew. It wasn’t easy after Steve died – things started to get a lot more complicated. There was more pressure and distraction from outside.”

The effort to find a new visionary will likely begin with an internal quest, but identifying the next Jony Ive – or even the next Evans Hankey – won’t be easy. When I left, Hankey was a natural replacement as she was a longtime technical manager and design leader and had worked closely with him.

The length of Hankey’s stint means she didn’t stay long enough to oversee the end-to-end development of a released product. These cycles can last for many years. So the look of the latest iPhones, iMacs and iPads was conceived before Hankey’s tenure began.

Today, Apple only has a handful of experienced senior Ive-era industrial designers on hand, including Duncan Kerr, Bart Andre, Richard Howarth, Peter Russell-Clarke, and Ben Shaffer.

The company could look to that group for Hankey’s replacement, but such a strategy has not worked in the past. Howarth was briefly head of industrial design between 2015 and 2017, but struggled to manage a team of former colleagues. Still, people close to the department believe that he is the only senior member of the team who could lead the team.

Howarth would be a natural choice, said someone close to the situation, adding that the team now consists of many designers who are younger than him and Ive is no longer partially involved, which previously hampered his ability to implement new ideas. .

However, this person and others wondered if Howarth wants the part — and how long he’ll be allowed to stay at Apple. He is, along with Andre, the two longest-serving members of the design group. Howarth has been with Apple for 26 years, and Andre’s tenure has spanned three decades.

Apple has also replenished the design team with new talent in recent years, although the company is unlikely to pick a new face for the top role. Apple recently hired Alex Girard – a former car designer for Waymo, Lucid Motors Inc. and Volkswagen AG of Alphabet Inc. — added to the group along with Peter Riering-Czekalla, the former chief designer of the $1,000 Molekule air purifier.

The iPhone maker could also consider appointing Dye, the head of software design, to oversee the appearance of hardware. Such a move would bring brand awareness and calm investors, although people familiar with the team say his appointment would annoy hardware-focused designers.

Apple could also bring back a former designer, some of whom could be qualified to lead the team after management positions elsewhere. Another option is to recruit a competitor. Google and Microsoft Corp. have recently seen the designs of their products improve under executives such as Google design head Ivy Ross and Surface design lead Ralf Groene.

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

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