© Ulla Puggaard

Last week I got the chance to interview Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, at a conference organised by the Norman Foster Foundation. If he could pick any futuristic product, I asked him, what he would like to design?

“A soap dispenser,” he replied, quick as a flash.

“A soap dispenser?” I repeated, slightly baffled.

Ive, 50, is well known for being somewhat reclusive and hates giving speeches; I suspect he only reluctantly appeared at the conference because he is a friend of Foster’s.

In the design and tech worlds, the British-born designer has long been a figure of fascination. After joining Apple in 1992 and swiftly becoming its lead designer, Ive worked closely with Steve Jobs to create the MacBook, the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod, and is thus widely credited for being a key force behind Apple’s iconic, sleek style. “If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson, his biographer.

Ive is rumoured to harbour all manner of futuristic design ambitions, with an appetite for aerospace, self-driving cars and a mysterious project known as “Airbug” (none of which he will discuss in public). So why, I wondered, would he care about something as humble and retro as a soap dispenser? Why not pick something more cutting edge?

Ive wriggled in his seat and explained that he passionately believed that the whole point of design was to celebrate “being human”. That required creating objects that appear to be breathtakingly simple but solve key problems — such as how to wash our hands — in a powerful and beautiful way.

“There aren’t any good soap dispensers,” he explained. He is now on a quest to find or create one, thus solving a problem that “really bothers” him.

I realise this remark may have been a ruse designed to deflect attention from Apple’s real plans (not least the details of its next iPhone). But Ive’s search for the perfect soap dispenser also appeared to be genuine and heartfelt and, as such, it is thought-provoking.

First, it highlights the fact that there is a curious countercultural revolution going on in Silicon Valley. The faster the tech companies dash into the disembodied cyber world, the more the Valley’s titans seem to emphasise their respect for old-fashioned, tangible experiences. “Real-world” items are valued, partly because they seem increasingly rare.

Thus, while parents outside Silicon Valley are sending their kids to computer-coding classes as soon as they can talk, many tech leaders seem to be trying to keep their own offspring away from screens as much as possible: camps where kids bang bits of wood together are very fashionable. So is unplugging your phone, going for screen-free hikes or learning to weave.

Foster, too, reports that his Silicon Valley clients invariably want to see old-fashioned scale models when they commission him for architecture projects. Computer-generated images might be popular elsewhere but not, it seems, among people who have grown wealthy by handling tech.

The second thing that Ive’s quest shows is that the best 21st-century design is not simply about efficiency but also about creating something that makes us feel more human — even, or perhaps especially, in a tech-saturated world.

That might sound obvious. But the challenge of humanising our tech world is a slippery, difficult goal that requires designers to combine their artistic and technological skills. It cannot easily be done with a robot, particularly if you want designs that appeal to our emotions.

***

Many designers recognise this. Indeed, the Royal College of Art, which has just named Ive as its chancellor, is launching a curriculum to capture this trend, described as “Steam” — science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (with the concept of “arts” notably added to the group of “Stem” subjects).

“We will have roboticists and material scientists working directly alongside fashion designers and sculptors,” explains Paul Thompson, the RCA’s vice-chancellor, who adds that the UK government has just given the RCA a £54m grant to develop Steam.

This strikes me as an excellent idea: keeping arts and science in separate educational silos tends to stifle innovation, whereas blending them can help humanise technology. It is telling that Jobs, who himself created some beautiful designs, was trained in Japanese calligraphy.

It will be interesting to see what the RCA does under its new chancellor — and with its simpler projects as well as its more futuristic ones. Indeed, Thompson says one of the first things that he will be asking the new students to do is to create that perfect soap dispenser. “It’s a great challenge,” he says.

Perhaps it is also a reminder of our shared humanity. We all need to wash our hands — particularly in a world where we obsessively clutch our smartphones.

gillian.tett@ft.com@gilliantett

Illustration by Ulla Puggaard

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