Schooling via the Trivium? Jony Ive

An occasional look at how aspects of the trivium* may have contributed to the education of various people in various walks of life. What follows is highly selective, the material on which it is based will be open to a wide variety of interpretations and mine might be highly ‘trivial’.

*I am using the trivium 21c interpretation of the trivium

 I’ve (geddit?) been reading the book : ‘Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products‘ by Leander Kahney a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in design, apple or, indeed, education. In the first chapter Kahney writes about Ive’s school days and the influence of his background that I found to be very interesting.

Ive was born in Chingford, North East London in 1967. He spent his formative years there before moving, at the age of eleven, to Stafford in the West Midlands. His dad was a silversmith and his mum a psychotherapist. Straightaway I feel compelled to jump to conclusions about his Apple designs, how they are beautifully crafted and emotionally intelligent but I won’t as that would be too easy after all if we were all such simple chips off the old block then what would we all be like?

I think his father’s influence was crucial. From an early age little Jony would have been exposed to design knowledge or, as I would call it, ‘The grammar of design technology.’ Not only was his father a silversmith, he was also a teacher who rose to become a highly influential HMI specialising in the field of design and technology. It was Mike Ive who saw to it that D&T became part of the core curriculum and moved it from being a ‘low status’ subject to an ‘integrated course that mixed academic study with making things’. Through his dad Jony was able to connect to a world not just of design but also academe. Mike and Jony Ive would discuss design that they would come across in their day to day environment. Not only would they discuss what they saw but they were also thinking about how it could be made better. Here the ‘grammar’ of design would meet the challenge of ‘dialectic’ through gentle exploration, questioning and challenging what they came across.

Jony took part in a variety of activities, he was a drummer in a band, and had a state education typical of people of his age. As an annual Christmas treat his dad let him into his workshop one day every year in which he was allowed to do anything he wanted and his dad would be on hand to support him, helping him put his ideas into action. Mike Ive would insist on one constraint: everything had to be drawn by hand first. This constraint Jony Ive believed helped him develop a hatred of carelessness in a product. Mike Ive took Jony on trips to design schools and studios and by the time he was 13 Jony knew he wanted to ‘draw and make stuff’.

Mike’s influence on his son’s approach to design may have been crucial. As an HMI Mike Ive encouraged teachers to develop a creative process that used ‘drawing and sketching, talking and discussing’ as crucial elements. He also talked about how teachers and designers should not ‘know it all’ and should encourage risk taking in the creative process. In order to communicate to pupils he asked that teachers told ‘the design story’ or as I would call it ‘the rhetoric of design’.

At school Jony got 3 A’s at A level. In the D&T A level the first year was looking at the ‘character and capabilities’ of a range of materials, developing ideas and practical skills and the second year, more academic, centred on a project. From this description we have a ‘trivium’ approach: The grammar of design, knowledge and skills, dialectic of development, and the rhetoric expressed through a project.

Jony’s teachers talk about how good his work was, extolling the quality and sophistication of his drawing and also his exceptional ability to communicate his ideas. He left school clutching his qualifications and went on to study product design at Newcastle Polytechnic. At the Poly students were taught how to ‘think like a designer’, learning practical skills and attending academic classes with a focus on design psychology. The focus was on ‘detail, manufacture and craftsmanship.’ The tradition this approach draws on is one that is based on the German Bauhaus of the 1920s. Crucially this approach has a minimalist principle: ‘designers should only design what is needed.’ From this tradition came the company Braun a company that influenced Jony Ive’s designs for Apple.

At Newcastle the ‘T’ shape in their approach to teaching was important: the I of the T representing depth in one area and the _ representing breadth in a variety of arts and design students were encouraged to mix with others studying other disciplines. Instead of learning how to be an employee Ive’s would learn how to ‘pursue his passion’ and work within teams.

When he came across his first Apple product he felt a connection to it he felt the ‘humanity’ of the product saying: ‘There was a real sense of the people who made it’. After more research he found Apple more appealing as it was a ‘cheeky, almost rebellious company… it had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money’.

Interestingly, whilst at Newcastle, Jony designed a phone, for a competition organised by the RSA, which he named ‘The Orator’. This seems wonderfully trivial. 😉

There are so many little insights into Ive’s design life in this book. To my mind, clearly with a big dollop of confirmation bias to the fore, it shows that an education focussing on the three ways of the trivium: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric can only be a good thing!

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