Apple’s brain drain hinders efforts to pick its next Jony Ive

Turnover at Apple Inc. has hindered efforts to replace the head of product design, leaving a gaping hole at the helm of a prominent team that’s been key to the iPhone maker’s prolonged success.

Legendary design leader Jony Ive departed Apple in 2019, and his replacement for hardware design lasted just 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 revenue last year, hangs in the balance.

Evans Hankey, who has held the job since Ive left, informed Apple last month that she will be departing. Though Hankey had been at the company for about 20 years, her relatively brief tenure at the top of the industrial design team made it hard to establish a distinct vision for new products. Apple also lacks a clear succession plan for the job, a significant problem for a company that sells premium-priced products largely based on their look.

In some ways, the department has been in flux since the death of Steve Jobs more than a decade ago, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The Apple co-founder had forged a partnership with Ive that helped establish the clean, simple aesthetic that remains the tech giant’s hallmark today. But an increased emphasis on costs, along with other distractions, created new difficulties, they say.

Apple’s modern design group started after Jobs’s return to the company in the late ’90s, becoming a roughly two-dozen-person team reporting to Ive. The idea was to dream up future products, and that they did. Apple put computers in translucent plastic cases. It sold skeptical consumers on the concept that a slab-like phone was better than one packed with buttons. It made the world’s thinnest laptop and convinced people to slap a computer on their wrists.

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

Over the past few years, the team has lost the majority of senior designers who worked under Ive, with many of them going to his new firm, LoveFrom. That has now made it harder to replace Hankey, people with knowledge of the matter said. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

The departures began when Ive moved to a part-time role — officially known as chief design officer — around the time the Apple Watch 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. Hankey, who is leaving Apple next spring, isn’t currently planning to join LoveFrom, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

That kind of turnover had been rare. Months before the departures started, Ive touted that only two members of the design team left Apple in the 15 preceding years and that one of the two resigned for health reasons.

Even before Ive left, Apple’s operations department had begun to wield more influence over the design team, people familiar with the matter said. That meant a focus on costs rather than purely on look and features.

“The strength of the team was that we were a nucleus bound together by the incredible environment that there was and the things we could do in a fairly unconventional way for a large company,” said a longtime member of the group, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private. “It was a special team. It wasn’t easy after Steve passed — things started to become a lot more complicated. There were more pressures and outside distractions.”

The effort to a find a new visionary will likely begin with an internal search, but it won’t be easy to identify the next Jony Ive — or even the next Evans Hankey. When Ive left, Hankey made sense as a replacement because she was a longtime engineering manager and design leader who 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 take many years. So the look of the latest iPhones, iMacs and iPads were devised before Hankey’s tenure began.

Today, Apple only has a small handful of veteran senior industrial designers from the Ive era 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 hasn’t worked in the past. Howarth briefly served as head of industrial design between 2015 and 2017, but he struggled to manage a crew of former peers. Still, people close to the department believe he is the only longtime senior member of the team who could lead it.

Howarth would be a natural choice, a person close to the situation said, adding that the team is now made up of many designers junior to him and that Ive is no longer partially involved, which previously complicated his ability to implement new ideas.

This person and others, however, questioned if Howarth wants the role — and how much longer he may remain at Apple. He, along with Andre, are the two longest-serving members of the design group. Howarth has been at Apple 26 years, and Andre’s tenure has lasted three decades.

Apple has also replenished the design team with fresh talent in recent years, though the company is unlikely to pick a new face for the top role. Apple recently added Alex Girard — a former car designer for Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, Lucid Motors Inc. and Volkswagen AG — 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 look of hardware. Such a move would provide name recognition and could calm investors, though people familiar with the team say his appointment would irk the hardware-focused designers.

Apple could also bring back a former designer, some of whom could be qualified to run the team after managerial stints elsewhere. Another possibility is recruiting from a competitor. Google and Microsoft Corp. have recently seen the designs of their products improve under executives like Google design head Ivy Ross and Surface design leader Ralf Groene.

But 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.”

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