Apple is synonymous with its design. But according to a new report from Bloomberg, the company is done with industrial design executives. As Apple’s VP of industrial design, Evans Hankey, plans her departure later this year, she reportedly won’t be replaced. The remaining 20 or so members of the core industrial design team will report directly to COO Jeff Williams instead.
At a glance, the news appears to be an about-face for Apple, a historically design-led company, which appointed Jony Ive to chief design officer in 2015. Williams, on the other hand, is an engineer by trade, first brought in from IBM to lead Apple’s worldwide procurement in 1998, before taking on worldwide operations of all products in 2010. While these roles are largely logistical in nature, necessitating the juggling of the global supply chain, he’s also said to work closely with the product teams, and he was involved with Apple’s flagship products including the iPhone and Apple Watch. In an interview from 2019, Williams offered a glimpse of what this work looked like, as Apple prepped for the launch of the first iPhone. Recounting a moment when the prototype’s plastic screen scratched while in Steve Jobs’s pocket, prompting Jobs to insist on the use of glass in the 11th hour of development:
“I said, ‘Steve, I’ve been looking at glass, and I think within a few years, the technology will make it possible. And he said, No, no, you don’t understand. It ships in June. It needs to be glass.’”
(Spoiler: It was glass.)
Previous to Hankey’s planned departure, both she and Alan Dye, the head of human interface design, reported to Williams. Assumably, Dye still does, meaning Apple’s org chart actually hasn’t changed dramatically: Design on the whole still reports to Williams, but now Williams appears to also be Apple’s new Jony Ive or Evans Hankey, in terms of his more direct creative purview over the industrial design team. (We’ve requested clarification from Apple and will update the post if we hear back.)
It’s tempting to speculate the why behind this change. Apple, which is ever expanding its products and services to stay ahead of the appetites of Wall Street, is backing a logistics-savvy executive, much like it did when it promoted Tim Cook to CEO—who, notably, was Apple’s COO before Williams got the job in 2015.
What this means specifically for Apple’s industrial design operations remain to be seen, but it’s also somewhat precedented. Chief design officer roles are growing at Fortune 500 companies, but their holders’ true influence in those positions is sometimes more questionable. Meanwhile, two of the most storied design firms in the world, Ideo and Frog (both of which have worked with Apple in the past), have eschewed designers in executive roles in the last few years. Frog eliminated its somewhat legendary chief creative officer position back in 2016, while Ideo hired marketing guru Derek Robson as its new CEO in late 2022.
On one hand, it’s shocking to consider that Apple is eliminating designer-executive positions rather than creating them. On the other, if Frog and Ideo are shy to put designers up top, it’s hard to imagine why Apple—a company with a $2.39 trillion market cap that produces goods thousands of miles away from its HQ, which are fully dependent on the tenuous global supply chain—wouldn’t want a logistics mastermind at the top of its org chart.
And yet, the question remains as to whether you can oversee the greatest industrial design team of the modern era while doing anything else—which is why it wouldn’t be surprising at all if, as Bloomberg originally reported could happen: that Apple does appoint a new VP of hardware. Eventually.
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