He took the bite out of Apple
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In 1977 Steve Jobs wanted a new logo. A creative who knew nothing about computers took up the challenge. Forty years later, Rob Janoff still feels as if he is getting a love note every time he sees the Apple logo.
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“I obviously didn’t know it would become such an icon,” Rob Janoff, the designer of the famous Apple logo, says. “It’s everywhere, in everyone’s face, like Coca-Cola or Marlboro. And those things are terrible for you. Apple is a thing that can be good for you.” We are on Chicago’s North Side, where Janoff lives, and almost as soon as we take a seat in a café he announces jubilantly that at the age of 69 and after a lifetime of ups and downs, “I am maybe the luckiest person I know.”
Certainly one of the most providential moments in his life was when Steve Jobs first walked into Regis McKenna, the Silicon Valley ad agency where Janoff worked. It was 1977 and Jobs wore sandals, his hair was a stringy mess, and he was still under the misconception that a vegan diet made deodorant and showers unnecessary. Apple was about to launch its Apple II computer, and although we think of Jobs as an uncompromising visionary, fanatical in his approach to design, what he thought he knew about marketing at the age of 22 was all wrong.
Take for instance the company’s original logo, designed the year before, when Apple was founded. Made to look like a medieval woodcut, it showed Isaac Newton reading beneath a tree, a brook extending into the distance, the apple suspended above him about to begin its descent at a rate of 32 feet per second. Written into the picture’s frame is a Wordsworth quote: “Newton...a mind forever Voyaging through strange seas of Thoughts, alone” with “Apple Computer Co.” written on a rippling banner encircling the entire thing. As far as designs go, that one is the antithesis of the sleek beauty and minimalism that Apple is known for today. It’s also the opposite of user friendly – our eyes don’t know where to fall. And the “ye olde” aesthetic actually runs counter to the company’s message:
Apple’s original logo showed Isaac Newton reading beneath a tree, a brook extending into the distance, the apple suspended above him about to begin its descent.
personal computing was supposed to be the future and Apple was the newcomer to the market, taking on the establishment in the form of IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
Back then Janoff had long coils of inky black hair and a thick walrus moustache. He says his vibe was why he was teamed with Jobs. “I was young and weird like him, the countercultural person at the agency. The hippie is not going to trust the suit all that much.”
Janoff understood that as an art director, his lack of familiarity with computers help him framing it for people who didn’t know a lot.
Apple fanatics have speculated that Janoff’s logo – the rudimentary apple shape with its missing bite – alludes to the tree of knowledge and the forbidden fruit tasted by Adam and Eve. Others believe the logo is a tribute to Alan Turing, one of the fathers of computer science, who killed himself in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple. With so many of us devoted to our iPhones and Macs, bowing reverently toward the screens, it’s no surprise that these creation myths exist. But the truth is that Janoff knew close to nothing about computers. He’d previously done marketing for Intel and only then did he learn the basics: that the caterpillar-looking things
were micro-computers and sat inside the big boxes at companies, and punch cards no longer existed.
But Janoff understood that as an art director, his lack of familiarity with computers was actually beneficial. “I could conceptually think of framing it for people who didn’t know a lot,” he says. Apple product releases weren’t yet the mega-events they would become. At that time the ads ran only in electronics trade publications and the computers were bought mostly by hobbyists. “My thing was always to get noticed,” Janoff says, “and that wasn’t that difficult in the tech field then.”
“Everyone else in tech was blue, so we put some colour in it.”
Jobs’s only advice was to keep the logo simple, and the solitary apple with a hovering stem cocked jauntily to one side did just that. Janoff explains that he added the bite for scale – without it someone might think the company was called Cherry. The rainbow stripes had no deep mystery behind them either. The gay pride flag wouldn’t be designed for another year, nor were the bands a reference to Newton’s work on the colour spectrum. The rainbow, Janoff says, was indicative of a sensibility from his college years: the Beatles and the artist Peter Max and “that bright acidy stuff.” The colours were also tied directly to the product. The biggest selling point of the Apple II was its colour capability, and Jobs wanted the computers to appeal to children, who could use them as an educational tool. “Plus, everyone else in the tech field was blue, so we put some colour in it,” Janoff adds. It was kind of the perfect logo design. Immediately identifiable with the company, uncomplicated but eye-catching, and, as Janoff put it, “a little bit counterculture, like a badge.” Even in those early days, stickers with the rainbow Apple emblem started to appear on the back of cars, like membership in a private club.
The rainbow stripes had no deep mystery behind them. The gay pride flag wouldn’t be designed for another year. The colours were tied directly to the product. The biggest selling point of the Apple II was its colour capability.
When Janoff was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s, he always knew he wanted to work with design. He liked to tag along with his mother on trips to the supermarket to see the rows of products. Every cereal box and food can told a story through graphics, colours, shapes and pictures. When I ask about his favourite company logos, he mentions the CBS Eye, the all-seeing emblem of the television network. “That era of stuff from the ’50s motivated me to go into the field,” he says. “It did this cool thing of pictures meaning words. Anyone can understand it, like a secret language.” A more recent logo he cites is the one for FedEx, the courier delivery service, the way its seeming straightforwardness – five blocky letters pressed together, shifting from purple to orange – gives way to the realisation that there’s an arrow in the negative space between the “E” and the “X.”
“I love a logo that gives you a surprise,” Janoff says. “You go, ‘Oh, I get it,’ and the meaning of the whole product is in the secret.” He studied art at San Jose State University, in northern California’s Silicon Valley, and then began his career in advertising. “It was the funnest thing I could think of doing.”
At Regis McKenna, Janoff continued to work on the Apple account. He helped develop a marketing campaign that featured famous American innovators – the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson – and played with the idea of how much more these historical figures could have accomplished if an Apple computer had sat on their desks. For Janoff it was like putting together a theatrical performance, with props and sets and actors for the still shots.
“I love a logo that gives you a surprise. You go, ‘Oh, I get it,’ and the meaning of the whole product is in the secret.”
When Apple opened its Cupertino campus, Jobs threw an enormous party and Janoff arrived to see hovering above the building a hot air balloon stencilled with what had to be the largest rendering of the Apple logo ever made. It was thrilling. Then Jobs took him for a ride in the balloon. “I was in the balloon with the logo I designed on it that’s going up, up, up, up,” Janoff recalls. “That was indicative of where I felt I was going at that time.”
But he sometimes felt the logo could also be a curse. “I had a phobia that people were always thinking, ‘You’re still in advertising? You’re not rich? You don’t have your own huge firm?’” Being new to advertising and working with a start-up that would go on to become one of the most profitable companies in the world was absurdly fortuitous. But Janoff didn’t own the rights to the logo design. He was never an employee of Apple. And there was something stressful about knowing that you did your most lasting work before the age of 30.
Because of Apple’s success, the ad agency Chiat/Day (later TBWA/Chiat/Day) acquired Regis McKenna and with it the Apple account. Chiat would produce the company’s most memorable advertising campaigns, including the 1984 Super Bowl spot in which a woman takes a sledgehammer to Big Brother/IBM, the slogan “Think Different”, and the silhouettes that dance to their iPod playlists. Janoff was relocated to Chiat’s New York offices but was eventually laid off. “It was political,” he says. “When you’re acquired and not hired, you’re never really one of them.”
He found work with other firms. He never had to show a portfolio; the Apple logo was calling card enough. He worked on liquor and car accounts. His clients were national companies with prominent brands. But it was never as much fun as the Apple work, when he was talking directly to the person calling the shots. “Big budgets, big bullshit,” Janoff says. “I told my son not to go into advertising. With big advertising and national brands, it’s all about the bottom line. They get rid of a lot of people. It’s crushing.” One of his jobs did bring him to Chicago, a city that felt inviting and open to possibility in a way that New York didn’t.
Janoff says that during his Regis McKenna years he had been friendly with Jobs, the two of them occasionally socialising. They shared a passion for typography, fonts and graphics, and when Janoff drove to Cupertino to show work to Jobs they would sometimes grab lunch at the Good Earth restaurant near the Apple headquarters. Janoff could sense the electricity inside Jobs even then, a hyper-energy that would drive him to success at almost any cost. But Jobs wasn’t yet the famously bullying manager he would become. “When the stakes got really huge, then he turned into this self-important figure,” Janoff says. “He had a makeover. He stopped wearing clothes with holes in them. He showered. He was entirely different. He started going out with Joan Baez! Give me a break!”
The counterculture trappings that got Janoff onto the Apple account also led him to a human potential training organisation, Lifespring. The sessions taught participants new ways of dealing with life situations and involved extreme self-examination, working on the premise that all of us have locked away pieces of our identity that need to be brought to the surface. Married with two children at the time, Janoff realised he was gay. Suddenly it made sense why he’d never been into the Playboy magazines that colleagues at the office passed around. And also why he couldn’t not look at the guy who rode past on a bicycle with his shirt off. He says the acceptance was a revelation: “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be feeling.” The break-up of his marriage was painful. But his two children were supportive and he says they remain his best friends. Janoff recently remarried – to a career ad man like himself. The reception took place at a beach house along Lake Michigan, just across the border in Indiana. But Indiana didn’t yet recognise gay marriage so the actual ceremony occurred back at their apartment in Chicago. “I love our Chicago neighbourhood,” Janoff says. “It’s so easy for us to have our lifestyle here. We think nothing about holding hands and walking down the street.”
Recent work by Rob Janoff.
Recently Janoff formed a new company with a partner in Australia: RobJanoff.com. As the executive creative director he now manages a staff to liven up the brands of a range of international clients: a cosmetics company in Rome; a real-estate developer who is terraforming a tourist city in a Jakarta bay; a Tokyo gaming media company. The chances of any of these businesses growing into the next Apple are pretty much zero but he’s working closely with the owners and doing creative work that he loves. “I am having the very best time of my life,” Janoff say. “The weirdest thing, it’s not supposed to be that way. I got here after being old.”
The Apple logo that is still opening doors for Janoff has gone through different iterations. No longer a vibrant rainbow, its “skin” is now a glossy chrome more befitting a corporate juggernaut. “It’s appropriate for the times,” Janoff says. “The stripes were where we were. It’s a whole different time of big business.” But the rest of the apple design remains intact. “It makes me happy,” Janoff notes. “It’s like a love note every time I see it.”
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