Apple Drops Its Industrial Design Leadership Role

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

The iPhone maker’s vice president of industrial design, Evans Hankey, won’t be replaced when she leaves the company in the coming months, according to people with knowledge of the decision, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Instead, the company’s core group of about 20 industrial designers will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. The company will also give larger roles to a group of Apple’s longest-tenured designers. Hankey has reported to Williams since taking the job in 2019, when top designer Jony Ive left to start his own firm.

Alarming as this sounds on first read, I am not sure what to make of this. It seems significant only if you ignore the past few years of Apple’s history.

As I wrote in October, when Gurman broke the news of Hankey’s departure, Apple never put anyone in Ive’s old Senior Vice President position; Hankey’s title lacks the “Senior” part of that job title, despite assuming the steep responsibility of shaping Apple’s hardware. The team there has reversed course on controversial design decisions while establishing a new identity in devices like the M2 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro line, and the Apple Watch Ultra.

At the same time, hardware design appears to be taking a less prominent role in Apple’s pitch to customers. Recent product marketing webpages no longer include a “Design” tab in the top menu, and Apple no longer produces videos showcasing the team’s efforts; the most recent one I can find is for the Apple Card. Despite the reduced emphasis, it seems like Apple’s industrial designers are at a peak of quality, class, and style.

My biggest design-related Apple complaints in recent years are in software. I am sure I am not alone in filing several bug reports containing the phrase “insufficient contrast”, and the expansion of back button interfaces in MacOS — now in System Settings — is worrisome. Apple has leadership in that area and plenty of skillful designers on staff. There is still tremendous work being done in that area, but the misses are eating at me.

Just because there is no longer an industrial design figurehead, that does not mean Apple’s products will slip in thoughtfulness and quality. But the symbolic loss of a design head combined with its reduced emphasis in the company’s messaging feels unlike Apple. And making the Camry-driving Williams the de facto head of the industrial design team is not the most confidence-inspiring move.