BY Jennifer Kabat in Interviews | 07 MAY 08

Different Thinking

An interview with Rob Janoff, designer of the Apple logo

BY Jennifer Kabat in Interviews | 07 MAY 08

Earlier this year, two academics from Duke University published a paper on the power of logos. During the course of their research they had subliminally flashed the Apple and IBM logos at students, and asked them to perform a ‘visual acuity test’ in which they had to list all of the possible uses for a brick beyond building a wall. While the students never knew they’d even seen a logo, the answers given after seeing the Apple were judged to be far more creative than those given after Paul Rand’s striped IBM logotype was flashed. Now that Apple really does make you ‘think different’, it seemed a good time to ask the logo’s designer how he came up with it, and if he really thought it had that power.

Rob Janoff designed the logo in 1976 when he was all of 28. Originally meant to adorn the Apple II, Janoff’s logo is actually the company’s second; the first looked a bit like a bad Dürer etching with a figure – Newton, one might guess – sitting under a tree and presumably discovering gravity. That original logo might encourage one to think though perhaps not so differently – all it says to me is don’t sit under apple trees in autumn.

Jennifer Kabat: So Rob, how did you get the job of designing the logo?

Rob Janoff: It was a low or no-pay account and the agency wanted one of the cheaper guys. And I guess that was me.

JK: What was your brief?

RJ: It was pretty casual. Here was this new thing – a home/personal computer and people were going to be able to have this thing in the kitchen and be able to retrieve recipes and use it to do their bills. That was stretching reality though. I had one, and my son Daniel played Pong on it. The end. You certainly couldn’t do a layout on it. But our task was to introduce this to the public and make them not afraid of having a computer. We needed to make it friendly so you’d want to welcome it into your home.


An original Apple II computer

JK: And then there was the name – that must have helped.

RJ: The easy part of it was that it was called Apple. You had a complicated machine named for a fruit, so it’s clear what you’re going to do as far as the logo goes. It’s got to look like an apple. Only my boss at the time didn’t want me designing an icon. He was content to have it be a logotype. And I said, gee, with a name like that you have to do an icon.

JK: And how did you make it look so apple-y?

RJ: It was like ninth grade art class where I had to render a bell pepper over and over. I bought a bunch of apples and put them in a bowl and took out my drawing board. I tried to get a generic apple shape going on and figured out what made an apple an apple. There’s the shape to it, and the stem and the leaf, which apples don’t have but people imagine they do. I stylized them, and to make sure people knew it was an apple and not something like a tomato or a cherry, I gave it a bite.

JK: Which was not even a byte – like a computer byte.

RJ: That was an accident though, after my copywriter said, ‘You know a byte is a computer thing.’ There have been many rumours about it since.

JK: So what’s the best one you hard about your design?

RJ: One of my very favorites was that it was an homage to the early computer scientist named Alan Turing who was gay and who was suspected of committing suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple, so that was my motivation for the bite and the stripes since they represented the gay flag. The truth is the Apple logo was designed a year before the gay flag came out.

JK: So, the rainbow wasn’t a sly reference to your sexuality, then?

RJ: No, it was really a response to the fact that the Apple II was the only computer that could show images in colour. At the time it was only, like, eight colours, and there were colour bars on the monitor so the stripes came from that. It was also a way of making it friendly, especially for kids and schools. There was this idea that if you get a brand into a school, the kids are yours for life. The stripes are also like rainbows – which of course seem happy and fun. I mean, I was always influenced design-wise by a lot of the stuff going on ten years earlier with the hippies.

JK: So what happened when you showed Steve Jobs the logo?

RJ: I showed him the stripes, and I showed him a one-colour version, but I didn’t give Steve a lot of choices. I said, ‘Here’s the shape,’ though I had a hard time getting it out of the agency. They were recommending this little company [Apple] that you don’t want a seven-colour logo – you’ll go broke. But Steve wanted it to be really top-notch and didn’t care about the expense.

JK: Do you guys still talk? Are you still friends?

RJ: Actually we’re not, and I hadn’t talked to him in like 30 years though he recently called me.

JK: So what did he say?

RJ: We talked about being old for a minute because the last time we saw each other we were both in our twenties, and it was before he was a gazillionaire. After all that happened, he needed to change his life and friends and went through an obvious evolution of his own personality. He was always out there in not caring what people thought. The more powerful he got, I think, the more that came out. It intimidated a lot of people. I know he intimidated me.

JK: So what do you think about how the logo’s changed?

RJ: The first change was in the early ‘80s. Steve had Landor Associates do a redo. They paid a ton of dough and changed it slightly. In retrospect I think they did a great service by making those changes. I wish I had thought of them. It’s like, look how nice and trim that shape is next to mine. I think mine was more natural and theirs more geometric.

JK: What about the move to white?

RJ: The stripes had served their purpose, and when Steve came back he wanted to make the logo more serious and neutral. Now the logo integrates much better into their designs.

JK: Did you hear how the Apple logo was supposed to make people more creative – not even the computer itself but the very logo when people were flashed a subliminal image of it?

RJ: That’s just amazing. I mean I’ve never heard of that phenomenon happening with anything else really. I know Apple attracts a certain kind of person, but it would be great to see if people could do more than move bricks around in a more creative way.


JK: And what about that GreeNYC logo – the line-drawing of an apple that Apple is challenging? What next, the apples at the store?

RJ: Yeah I saw it and it’s a pretty nice logo, but Apple’s got to be kidding. They don’t look alike at all. In New York there are apples everywhere; it’s the Big Apple and you’ve got the Apple Bank and the Red Apple supermarket, and of course they all have apple in their name and logo.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.