Apple Designer Jony Ive's Other Genius: How He 'Managed' His Difficult Boss, Steve Jobs


jony ive and steve jobs


Apple design leader Jony Ive is the visionary behind the way Apple hardware has looked and felt since the late 1990s.

The bondi blue iMac, the super thin MacBook Air, and the glass and metal iPhone 4 are all his designs. So is a colorful new version of the iPhone coming out next week.


These days, Ive is even in charge of the way Apple software looks.

The man is a design hero.

You are (probably) never going to be able to match his genius in that realm.


But there is another skill of Ive's that you can and absolutely should emulate. It turns out that Ive, early on in his career at Apple, was pretty smart about managing his boss.

His boss was Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs is deservedly remembered as a hero of innovation, but he was also always pretty tough to work for. In his book The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, author Alan Deutschman reported that one way Jobs tried to motivate his underlings was by "intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them."


"When he was Bad Steve, he didn't seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions... suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it 'sucked,' it was 'shit.'"

The fact is, Jobs, for all his strengths, could be a pretty awful person to work for. He was passive aggressive and aggressive aggressive.

So, when a 30-year-old Jony Ive began working for Steve Jobs in 1997, he suddenly had a problem lots of people have: a boss problem.


Ive wasn't alone.

Boss problems are so common that the American Psychological Association has a page on its Help Center website dedicated to "managing your boss."

There, the APA advises: "you should try to understand the reasons for your boss' difficult behavior. Assuming your boss generally behaves in a fairly reasonable manner, and that his/her difficult behavior seems to be a result of stress overload rather than his/her character, chances are good that the behavior can be modified."


So how did Ive solve his boss problem?

He exercised the skill that makes him such a great designer - empathy - to imagine a work environment that would keep his boss calm. Then he brought this work environment to life.

The details are in a story published this week by a team of Fast Company reporters, led by Max Chafkin.


(Chafkin's story is an oral history of how, through the power of design, Apple went from getting its butt kicked by Windows 95 to becoming the world's most valuable company.)

In Chafkin's story, a former Apple designer named Jeff Zwerner explains how Ive carefully "manufactured every facet" of Apple's design studio "to make Steve feel comfortable--from what they wore to the ambient techno music that was playing."

Zwerner says Ive instructed his designers that if Jobs were to come in, "everyone had to slowly and deliberately move to the other side of the space."


Another former Apple designer, Doug Satzger, says that what Ive also noticed that Jobs "was a loud talker but that he wanted his voice to be focused on whom he was talking to."

So when Jobs appeared in Ive's design studio, Ive would turn the music in the room louder - "so [Jobs] conversations stayed between the person he was with."

To be a world class industrial designer like Ive, you need to have the ability to imagine how the user of your product will interact with it. Ive used that skill to solve his boss problem.


It turns out this is a widely-advised tactic.

Take, for example, Forbes career advice writer Lisa Qast's story on managing bosses.

It's all about putting yourself in your boss's brain, and seeing what the world looks like from there, and then managing yourself and your environment.


Qast writes:

Understand your manager's goals. Find out his/her objectives and priorities. What keeps your boss up at night? Think about ways you can help achieve these department goals.

Agree on your goals, objectives and projects - then provide regular updates. Meet with your manager to ensure you fully understand and mutually agree upon your goals and objectives for the year as well as all projects for which you'll be responsible. Then, track and provide progress updates, asking for help or advice as needed.


Learn your manager's communication style and flex your style to his/hers. How does your manager prefer to interact? Do they want weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly updates? Do they prefer written reports with lots of details or brief summaries with only highlights? Does he/she want to meet in person or receive email updates and then follow-up with you on any questions they might have? Adapt yourcommunication style to best fit your manager's.

Help your manager be successful. If they are successful, you will be more successful. Don't be seen as a threat to your manager. Actions that can be perceived as threatening include: Bad-mouthing your boss or others in the department, going around your manager or above them to resolve issues and criticizing department processes or policies (instead of making legitimate suggestions for improvement and volunteering for the improvement efforts).

One way to deal with a boss problem is to just quit, of course. Sometimes, that's the way to go. But Ive's case proves that sometimes - maybe in cases where the difficult boss is a demonstrable visionary who will take you places - the best move is stick around and make things work.