Mention Jony Ive – or Sir Jonathan Ive (he has a knighthood) – and the first image that comes to most people’s minds is of the design genius behind some of Apple’s most pathbreaking products of recent times. The products that bear his design stamp include the iPhone, iPod, MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air, the Mac Mini and Apple Watch.

[believe tech or not] jony ive’s first killer product - a ballpoint pen - jony ive with hair

But not too many know the design wizard’s first really popular commercial product had very little to do with digital technology. It was made in 1986 during his internship (he was studying at the Newcastle Polytechnic) at the Roberts Weaver Group in London. It was incidentally here that Ive would meet one of the designers who would influence him and also be a close friend, Clive Grinyer (it was Grinyer who would famously say about Ive: “He looked like a hairbrush.”)

As an intern, Ive was asked to work on products for a pen manufacturer for Zebra Co Ltd, a Japanese company. He began with some wallet prototypes and people were so impressed with his work – which was known for being intricate (he still had an eye for detail) – that he was asked to work on a line of pens.

And it was here that the legend of Jonathan Ive was born.

Jony Ive designed a pen that seemed very normal on the surface. It was white in colour of course – white is supposed to be his favourite color. It was made of white plastic and had rubber-like rivets on the side. And well, it wrote on paper.

[believe tech or not] jony ive’s first killer product - a ballpoint pen - jony ive pen design 1

What made it special was something that had absolutely nothing to do with writing. And everything to do with human behaviour.

Ive had noticed that people tended to play around and fidget with their pens even when not writing with them – they would twirl them, tap them, click them and so on. So what he built into the pen was what would be later called the “fiddle factor.” On top of the pen he had designed, he placed a ball and clip mechanism. It served no purpose as far as writing went. It just gave the user something to play with!

The design was such a hit in the company that Jony’s boss, Barrie Weaver, would just take the pen to play with it. And in a move that was rare for an intern’s product, the pen actually went into production and was called the TX2. It sold in massive numbers for years and is still remembered.

It also led to a new term being added to the tech dictionary – “Jony-ness”, which according to Ive’s biographer Leander Kahney meant “an object possessed a sort of unknowable property that made people want to touch it and play with it.

Jony Ive had arrived. Courtesy a pen you could play with!

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