The headline is a contradiction, for what is fashionable cannot be timeless — nevertheless, this is how I see the designs of Jonny Ive, Apple’s chief designer. His original iMac was a work of style. It was made out of shiny, transparent plastic, was full of anthropomorphic curves and came in a variety of colors. Over the years Ive’s designs have moved away from this original explosion of style towards something more restrained, more mathematical. His latest designs are a tribute to Dieter Rams, who sought to produce the timeless through ruthless, methodical elimination. Rams approach produced work that was clean, simple and could stand the test of time because it was not a work of style but his best solution to the given problem.
Ive’s latest work is the same in that it is a ruthless elimination of the unnecessary, which leaves a very simple, minimalist design of metal and glass. What’s interesting about this is that while his direction is the timeless, the products themselves are not — they keep changing every other year, and every other model gets its own design refresh. Fashion is essential if you want to sell more product. The new models will not be as attractive if they look just like the old models, so their style has to change — they have to look different. What allows Ive to focus on solving the problem rather than introducing novel styles is that the underlying technology evolves year to year. This means that the variables in the equation always change, e.g. the button controls are now touch, the size is now half as thick, etc.
Apple’s design stands out precisely because it doesn’t try to be stylish or fashionable, but the best solution to a given problem. In the clothing industry there is essentially no evolution in technology, which means fashion has to keep working overtime and keep introducing new styles and trends. In contrast, the technology in consumer computers keeps evolving every year, and so the underlying problem the design has to solve keeps changing too. Apple doesn’t need to use fashion, they just have to keep evolving the technology, and by extension, the design of the product will also evolve. This allows for a restrained minimalist look that strives to be timeless, yet will become obsolete as the product is surpassed by new technology, giving it the commercial advantage of ever changing fashion.