An interview with Rob Janoff, designer of the Apple logo

Earlier today, someone pointed me at the Daily Mail’s article How Britain drove its greatest genius Alan Turing to suicide… just for being gay, which includes the following quote:

[…] just two weeks before his 42nd birthday, the softly-spoken genius killed himself by taking a bite out of an apple that he had dipped in cyanide.

Some believe his bizarre death is commemorated to this day in the logo used by Apple on its electronic goods—so significant was his contribution to the genesis of the computer.

Over the years, this and many other myths have sprung up about Apple’s logo, but by writers who presumably can’t be bothered to ask its designer, Rob Janoff, what his thinking was behind the iconic design. As it turns out, aesthetics were Janoff’s only real concern, as I discovered when interviewing him for MacFormat a couple of years ago.

Below is the full transcript of the interview (lacking the brutal edit that was required for print), which explains how one of the world’s most famous logos came to be, and also delves a little more into Janoff’s (then) use of the Mac.

Rob Janoff

What do you use Macs for, and how do they help you work?

I use Macs for graphic design projects, internet communications, presentations and the daily business of life… from calendars to cooking! What’s very weird is that back in 1977, when I was introduced to the concept of a ‘home’ or personal computer, I thought it was kind of b.s. that anyone would actually do the applications we were promoting in the advertising and literature. But that was the Apple II and this is a Mac. You really had to be into computing to do your household finances or keep track of recipes on an Apple II. The Mac is so much more intuitive. It’s like apples and oranges—pardon the pun! Now I can’t imagine my life without my Mac. This hit me yesterday as I was cooking dinner, leaning over the counter, reading a recipe on the screen.

What software and hardware do you favour and why?

I just completely use a laptop now. Portability is the thing for me. I split my week between country and city, so if I have design work or life work I carry it with me. The software I use is not all that exotic: InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Office.

What’s your approach to design?

I guess the most important thing a good design has to do is communicate. I don’t think people should have to work very hard to get what you are trying to say visually. How simple can you make it?

Do you have any golden rules?

“When in doubt, leave it out!”

How did you approach designing the Apple logo?

It was very simple really. I just bought a bunch of apples, put them in a bowl, and drew them for a week or so to simplify the shape.

What was the thinking behind the colour order of the stripes, and the ‘bite’?

There wasn’t a whole lot of hidden meaning behind the colours. The logo predates the gay-pride flag by about a year, so that wasn’t it—and there also goes the whole Alan Turing myth! The religious myths are just that too—there’s no ‘Eve and Garden of Eden’ and ‘bite from the fruit of knowledge’ symbolism!

I didn’t have much of a formal brief on the logo assignment, other than “don’t make it cute”. But I did know the selling points of the Apple Computer, and one of the biggest was colour capability. To me, that looked like colour bars on a monitor, which became the stripes in the logo. The order of the stripes, I’m sorry to say, had no particular grand plan other than I liked them that way. And, of course, the green stripe would be at the top where the leaf is.

The bite is really about scale and the common experience of biting into an apple. It was a happy accident that ‘byte’ is a computer term.

Apple’s logo is considered truly iconic, alongside logos like Nike’s. How does it feel to have been responsible for such a versatile, recognisable and long-lasting design?

Nobody’s ever asked me that before. It’s almost an out-of-body experience when the logo pops into my field of vision unexpectedly. I’ve felt the same way when I see a print ad or a TV spot I did when I’m not expecting it. But they only live for a week or two. And although the logo has changed over the years, it’s still the same basic shape and concept I designed over 30 years ago. I feel incredibly lucky to have crossed paths with Steve Jobs when I did. It’s kind of like watching your kids grow up and do really well. I’m incredibly proud of my kids—and the logo too.

What do you think about Apple’s more recent changes to the Apple logo, such as its move to a single colour, often with 3D effects?

Hey, it’s all about growing up. Everything goes through changes as it ages. I’m glad the logo has been able to keep up with the times. Logos often need to say different things as they age. I’m just glad it’s in such capable hands.

Are there any jobs you’ve worked on that particularly stand out for you?

One of the down sides of doing your most memorable piece of work so early in your career is that it’s hard to beat. Most of my career has not been about being a designer—it’s been about being an advertising art director. So I don’t really have a job that compares to the Apple logo. I would say coming up with an idea for a TV spot and watching it grow from concept to finished product was great most of the time, but most advertising isn’t as enduring.

February 23, 2011. Read more in: Apple, Design, Interviews


Why iPhone and iPod touch won’t get Flash

On the 5th, Network World ran the article Three Reasons Why iPhone Won’t Get Adobe Flash. The reasons were: Apple doesn’t want Flash on the iPhone, the iPhone is created so it won’t support Flash (the article cites Apple not allowing plug-ins for mobile Safari), and Apple is betting on a different standard (HTML 5).

Funny that they missed out the most likely reason: Flash on the Mac—specifically the Flash plug-in—sucks.

On Leopard, the Flash plug-in is so unstable that Apple sandboxed browser plug-ins in Snow Leopard’s Safari. Interestingly, I’ve had one Safari crash since upgrading to Snow Leopard, compared to at least one per hour on Leopard. The Flash plug-in process, however, keels over with alarming regularity.

Also, put a PC next to a Mac and run some complex Flash content. Watch in horror as a knackered old PC outperforms a shiny new Mac—something that just doesn’t happen elsewhere.

Apple might be a huge control freak, but it’s proved plenty of times in the past that it will let other companies into its play-pen. However, said companies have to prove themselves worthy. I have no doubt that if the Flash plug-in was an amazing piece of Mac engineering, Apple would—at least now the App Store is hugely successful—allow Adobe to create the equivalent for iPhone and iPod touch. But since the Mac version of the plug-in is such a buggy, sluggish pile of garbage, why would Apple let the Flash plug-in anywhere near the mobile version of Safari, where it could at a stroke create the impression that Apple’s handheld platform and browser are slow, bug-ridden and unstable?

October 6, 2009. Read more in: Apple, Interviews, Opinions, Technology, Web design

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From the archives: an interview with Kyle Cooper

Lights! Camera! Titles!

From mid-2007 until the end of last year, I regularly wrote for 4Talent, but Channel 4 radically rebooted the website this year, removing the interview archive. Although many of the interviews I did for 4Talent were off their time, about specific projects or competitions, some don’t warrant vanishing forever, and so here’s the first ‘resurrected’ piece.

This an interview I did in the summer of 2007 with Kyle Cooper, the designer who revolutionised the movie title-sequence industry with Se7en, and who remains one of its leading lights today

Kyle Cooper

“To be honest, I always wanted to be a film director,” begins Kyle Cooper, when we ask what first appealed to him about title design. It’s a surprising revelation from someone considered among the elite of title designers, but a logical one. “I thought by getting into film titles, I could find a way into the film industry itself,” he explains. Despite Kyle’s solitary director credit (2001’s New Port South), one can easily argue he’s more than achieved his goal—but instead of helming films, he’s been responsible for dozens of stunning title sequences, including those for Spider-Man, Wimbledon, Dawn of the Dead, and Se7en.

Kyle continues: “I’ve always been interested in film and editing—more specifically, the juxtaposition of images in film or on a single page. However, I felt it more comprehensive to tell stories over time. Print design can provide great single moments, but I wanted to work with a sequence that had a beginning, middle and end.” This passion, which began in childhood, continued through Kyle’s education at Yale School of Art, and into initial roles in the creative industry. “I got a job at R/Greenberg Associates in New York, who were known for opening titles at the time,” says Kyle. “The first main title I was allowed to pitch for was Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons. I won, and was promoted to managing the design department.”


Start with the prologue

In time, Kyle moved on to even bigger and better things, eventually founding the company he runs today, Prologue. With an initial aim to “do main titles and motion graphics as progressive as what was happening in print and other areas of graphic design,” Kyle has made good on this promise, creating visually exciting titles with impact. Partly, this is down to his philosophy that titles are far more than a list of credits: “Titles must be born out of the content of the film itself—they’re in service of the film’s story, and even if they’re visually interesting, they should have a deeper meaning and connect with the movie’s characters.” Many factors must be taken into account, including the director’s wishes. “A director is the gatekeeper to what the final film will be,” notes Kyle, “and so it’s my job to service those needs and make something that dovetails perfectly with the director’s point of view”.

Studios can also affect title sequences, as Kyle explains: “What’s interesting about the way I’m currently working—and, coincidentally, the reason for naming my company Prologue—is that studios are screening films to test audiences and realising something else is needed after principal photography has been shot. The audience may have missed something about the plot, and I’m asked to use the title sequence to help tell the story. Many sequences I’ve done as Prologue have become the film’s prologue: the main titles of Se7en and Dawn of the Dead became the first scene in each movie. If those sequences weren’t at the beginning, the overall impression and understanding of the films would have been different.”

These things, according to Kyle, highlight an important aspect of title design: “When collaborating with other people, you cannot always have the definitive answer—you have to allow ideas to evolve, and that comes from listening and talking things out.” Because title design involves working on varied projects—each production typically taking just a few months—it’s also important to tailor the visual design to each specific movie. “I try not to let one project influence the next, and don’t bring a ‘style’ to each movie,” says Kyle. “New ideas result from keeping my work informed by each film’s content, context and voice. Because each film is a different problem to solve, each solution is different. The process of researching, experimenting and exploring fitting ideas for each film leads to unforeseen and unexpected answers. The opportunity to be innovative comes by immersing oneself in a film and being true to the work.”


Old versus new

Perhaps surprisingly, given the dynamic, cutting-edge nature of many of Kyle’s projects (think of the movement in the webs, text and imagery in the Spider-Man titles), he considers technology something of a double-edged sword, and favours old techniques: “I try to do as much as possible in the camera, or with my hands, although that’s increasingly hard to do today”. At Prologue, technology inevitably gained a foothold, but Kyle stresses that “tools do not dictate the direction of ideas,” and warns: “While technology enables certain modes of production, it does not provide a good story nor clear communication nor a beautiful image!”

What technology does provide is a means for Kyle to improve his exacting attention to detail: “I like designing in the edit room, because it gives me an opportunity to see every frame that has been designed and animated, and manipulate those images accordingly. I review composition on a frame-by-frame basis, which I realise is unusual in this field, but not in respect to the framework of my graphic design background and training. I truly want every frame in the sequence to be a beautiful, perfect composition.”

For the industry’s future, Kyle thinks a mix of new technology and traditional ideas will lead to many more classic title sequences. Technical innovations bring the potential for increasingly complex films, and few limits exist regarding what can be done. Kyle reckons advances in CGI and motion-capture are leading to a point where viewers won’t be able to distinguish something photographed from computer generated imagery, and so main titles will “become anything that can be imagined”. Ultimately, though, Kyle thinks the keys to successful titles sequences remain timeless: “They should make you feel something emotionally, and make you thrilled to be in a particular cinema at a particular moment, getting ready to see a particular movie. We strive to make everything else in the world go away except the curiosity, excitement, and feeling of anticipation for the film you’re about to see. If you’re already immersed in the emotional tone of the film or have insights into the main character’s thought process before the film begins, we have achieved what we strive for, and I hope the work we create continues to emotionally engage people in this way.”

Dawn of the Dead

March 26, 2009. Read more in: Film, From the archives, Interviews

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In the (Battle)zone

Late last year, I had the good fortune to interview Ed Rotberg, creator, among other things, of the groundbreaking Battlezone. This vector graphics tank simulator was the first truly immersive 3D environment in videogames, and probably the first 3D update of a 2D classic, what with it being heavily based on Kee/Atari’s various overhead Tank games.

The current issue of Retro Gamer, 59, includes portions of the interview in ‘The Making of Battlezone’, and the game is featured on the cover as a beautifully rendered faux-vector scene.

This seems to have been good timing by Retro Gamer, since all kinds of Battlezone-related things seem to be cropping up right now. First, there’s Vector Tanks, a heavily Battlezone-inspired blaster for iPhone, written by the supremely talented Peter Hirschberg. Secondly, Wade Shooter’s video for Fujiya & Miyagi’s Sore Thumb dresses the band and instruments in vector ekoskeletons, occasionally cutting to scenes of vector tank warfare.

Battlezone video

The kind of band Red Dwarf’s Kryten no doubt dreams of.

January 27, 2009. Read more in: Arcade, Gaming, Interviews, Magazines, Retro Gamer, Retro gaming

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An interview with Mike Mignola, part six

Darkness calls

In a sense, you’re becoming a director for Hellboy, rather than having your finger in every single pie. How are you dealing with going from being in control of everything to being a scriptwriter?
Well, on one hand it’s great because you’re exposing Hellboy to a much wider audience—it’s the flip-side of this whole thing. More people are going to know the movie than are going to know the comic, but some of the people who see the movie will come and discover the comic. That’s one side of it—the great side. The other side is that a lot of those people are never gonna see what you do.

But at least you made up something that got out to the world—that’s pretty cool. And I’m one of those guys who erases ten lines for every line they draw, so for a while there, not drawing this stuff was actually kind of a relief… But what you start to miss is getting your hands in there, into everything. The thing that I’m constantly fighting against—right now fighting a losing battle, although hopefully I’m going to win it in the next year—is that you end up spending so much time overseeing so many different things that you don’t get any time to really focus on any one thing.

I’m writing Hellboy comics, co-writing a couple of other Hellboy-related things. I’ve worked on the animated films, and I was working on the live-action film. So I was spread pretty thin. I keep saying I’m gonna back off—I would love to get back to just going down every morning to the studio and writing and drawing something. But at the same time, I’ve kind of created this monster and have to keep feeding it. And if you have people saying they want the creator’s input, how can you say no?

Then you’ve got no real comeback if things don’t turn out the way you want.
The downside of that—and this is where I fully understand Alan Moore’s point of view—is that they say they want your input, but at the end of the day it’s their movie. So you might sleep a lot better saying “You want my input, but at the end of the day, you’ll change it, so why am I bothering?”

Fortunately, everything that’s been done with Hellboy has benefited from my input, because, in every case, a lot of people have listened to what I was saying. It wasn’t just that they wanted me as a marketing tool, to say the writer endorsed the property. But that’s because I’m working with creative people that respect what I do.

Where there’s another thing of mine that’s floating around in Hollywood right now, and if that lands with a director who I have no Del Toro-like connection with, I would probably do the same thing that Alan Moore does, although without saying to take my name off it. I’d say “Fine, it’s your thing. I did my version of it—the real version of it—and you’re going to go and make a film. It might be different to what I would have done, but go and do it. Give me the money and go and do it.”

The alternative is that you don’t let anybody play with your toys, you don’t let anyone have your property. But there’s always that chance of what if it works? What if they make a really great film?

Is it more important for you to just go for something, then, rather than perhaps regretting not doing so later? If something doesn’t turn out too well, I guess can always move on to the next thing, but without trying, you never know.
Well, as soon as Hellboy was optioned for a film, the first thing I did was go home and make up another character. This character was similar enough to Hellboy that if the film was so horrendous and people hated it so much that I could never go back to something called Hellboy—kind of like after Howard the Duck came out and it was like, “Oh no, you’ve poisoned this thing forever!”—I’d have had something to fall back on.

I had all these stories I wanted to do, and I needed a character where I could roll all those characters and stories over to this other character. But some mystery writer is credited with saying this thing about Hollywood where a reporter said “How do you feel that every time Hollywood makes a film out of one of your books, they ruin it?” and he replies “No, they didn’t—the books are just fine”. That’s the thing you cling to—the book’s on the shelf, and I’m looking at it right now.

This is why I can’t imagine just writing a screenplay and turning it over to Hollywood, because then no-one will know what you really wrote. Once it goes through the process, chances are it’s gonna change. I mean, a buddy of mine is just going through this in animation. He spent a year creating something for animation and it stalled someplace and it’s not being made. And I said to him, why don’t you do it as a comic first? You’re an animation guy, you can draw fast. Take a couple of months, draw a graphic novel or a couple of comics, and have them published. If the animation either doesn’t work out very well or it doesn’t happen at all, at least you’ve got something out there where you can show people something you made up. But making something up and being completely at the mercy of Hollywood—either to put it in a drawer or turn it into something else—is horrifying to me.

So what’s the future for Hellboy and for Mike Mignola?
Theoretically, what I keep saying is that next year I’m gonna get back to drawing some of my own stuff. And what I will keep doing is writing the Hellboy comic. Hopefully, I’ll be able to step in every once in a while and do five pages, but I’ve got my own stuff right now that I want to draw, a vague idea of what I want to draw and make myself.

I co-wrote and illustrated a novel [Baltimore: Or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire], and that worked out well, and so a couple of these other things I’ve made up along the line—things that would be a 200-page graphic-novel that I’m just not in a position to sit down and do—I like the idea of writing them up, handing them over to Christopher Golden and collaborating on more novels that I’d illustrate. And, yeah, I’d like to be able to focus my energy a little bit more and show people some new work that’s entirely by me.

Hellboy has a future. I’ve plotted it out to more or less the end of the series—or what could be the end of the series. My entire goal with Hellboy is to get to do the whole story. I’m not getting any younger! If I was trying to draw this thing myself, we’d never see the end of this story! Hopefully, I can get Duncan Fegredo to stick around to the bitter end of this thing. God knows if he’ll do it, but I’m really happy with the collaboration I’m having with him on the Hellboy stuff. So, yeah, I just want to finish that story.

That’ll be a somewhat rare thing to see in the world of comics: a lengthy story with a beginning, middle and end.
It’s one of the problems you run into in a mainstream comic—lots of them have the illusion of change, but because all these are huge properties owned by giant companies, they’re never really gonna let you keep a Superman dead, never gonna let you cut a Batman in half and keep half of him alive. But because I own Hellboy and control Hellboy—at least the comic-book version—I can make definite changes with that character, and they’re happening right now.

It’s actually very strange. After ten years of fumbling round in that Hellboy world, it’s now set on a certain course, and I’m starting to turn corners where once I’ve done that, I can’t go back. So it’s exciting—the story is going someplace. But it’s a little daunting when you go OK, we’re not going back there anymore!

The weird thing will be if Del Toro does a third Hellboy film, which would probably be the end of that film cycle. He would be doing the end of Hellboy ten years before I get to the end of Hellboy. The one thing I’ve got to be real careful of is that I don’t tell him how I plan to end the comic, because I sure as hell don’t want him to put it on film!

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at

Hellboy week navigation:
Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6


August 17, 2008. Read more in: Graphic novels, Interviews

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