Meet Rob Janoff: the man who put the byte in the Apple logo
"Just don't make it cute." This was the vague brief that Steve Jobs gave Rob Janoff when he tasked him with the job of delivering a logo for his Silicon Valley startup - Apple. 43 years on, little could he have imagined how ubiquitous the logo would become…
Emerging from within West Coast counterculture, when the first home Apple Computer went on sale in 1976, the team at Apple needed a logo that injected their hippie ideals into the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley.
Since its inception, for a logo that is arguably quite self-evident, Apple heads have been eager to layer it with deeper meaning. Does the bite mark symbolise original sin, by alluding to Adam and Eve’s downfall? Was it designed with a nod to the godfather of modern computing, Alan Turing, who was found dead with a suspiciously half-eaten apple beside his bed?
It’s by virtue of its simplicity that the logo can be read in so many ways, and it’s these whispers of intrigue that have helped it become so symbolic. However, the real reason for the bitemark was actually far more practical.
"It wasn’t Adam and Eve, a lot of people thought that it was but my inspiration was the name Apple," Janoff explains to The Drum. "It was a no brainer. And the bite was necessary to ensure the fruit was easily identifiable.”
Although the bite mark was a purely functional modification, it’s the culture behind its creation that gives it its edge.
What is it about the iconic logo that still manages to draw people in, 43 years since it was first etched in Janoff’s sketchbook?
Rebel at heart
Apple’s co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs met in the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley – not the typical playing ground for free spirit bohemians.
Inspired by the counterculture aspects of their hippie lifestyles, the pair wanted to find a way to exercise the technical capabilities of emerging East coast tech as a device for escapism and self-sufficiency.
Everything about Apple was different. Jobs came up with the name after he visited an apple orchard commune, as it sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.” It was the only computer that could be used at home, and when the Apple II came out, it was the only computer with colour graphics.
Even the design was different. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of simple modern homes for the American “everyman,” the two-Steves took note and endeavoured to apply a similar mindset to their product design.
The first logo was designed by Ronald Wayne and it showed Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree, surrounded by the words “Newton… A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought… alone.” Although a poignant thought, the image was archaic, complicated and didn’t reflect the free-spirited nature of the startup.
It instead needed a logo that would reflect its singularity. It also had to help make the complex idea of a home computer seem friendly and approachable for sceptical families.
Janoff once described his relationship with Jobs as a marriage of mindsets.
"Steve was a freethinking hippie like me,” Janoff recalls. “He had a spiritual craft; he was most unusual. We loved being different from all the suits. We wore our long-hair like a badge like people wear tattoos today.”
And that was their style: the hippie misfit. Rivals Windows and IBM were the corporate, suited and booted, types.
The two met while Janoff (pictured above, right) was making high-tech IBM ads for the agency Regis McKenna, who also held the Apple account.
“My brief was really a non-brief. It was so airy-fairy at the time,” Janoff laughs. “Jobs’ only direction was ‘don’t make it cute.’”
Janoff was fascinated by the supposed dichotomy between an apple and a computer, but also that the name married both tech and the counterculture that Apple became known for.
“I knew it would get a lot of attention, so it had to be an iconic apple,” says Janoff, who spent hours drawing apples to find the right shape.
He said he took graphic inspiration from Yellow Submarine – a 1968 British animated musical fantasy film inspired by the music of The Beatles, which he “must have seen about 10 times, in all different forms of consciousness.”
But, in order to ensure people didn’t assume the logo was a cherry or a peach (or indeed any other variation of round fruit) Janoff took out a bite out of it to ensure the logo would be easily read as an Apple.
“I was never really a techie, I never really touched a computer until the Mac came out,” Janoff admits. However, he thinks this worked in his favour.
“If I understood it, then anybody else would understand it,” he continues.
And then came the colour: “Colours demonstrated its capabilities. There wasn’t a lot of colour being used in high-tech at the time. Everything else at the time was blue."
The most unique thing about the Apple II was it was the only computer that you could see images in colour because people didn’t need a monitor. And although Janoff didn’t necessarily understand the ins and outs of tech, he knew that by filling in his apple logo with TV colour it would demonstrate its superior-tech capabilities in a simplistic way.
The finished result, Janoff describes in three words: "colour, form and simplicity."
Would it be different if it was designed today?
The world of design now is a far cry from when Janoff designed the Apple logo. While the creative didn’t touch a computer until the Mac came out in 1984, those interested in the practice now have access to tools like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator. But Janoff says this is a double-edged sword.
“Design nowadays is much more democratic. Sort of anybody can do it and that’s a problem as everyone thinks they are a designer, and they’re probably not,” he says.
“When I started, it was much craftier and a lot about handwork. You now rely on the computer and people use it instead of coming up with ideas because it’s so easy to make cool designs. It’s got a good side and a bad side.”
It would take less than one minute for most urban dwellers to find a version of the Apple logo. Stamped on the back of every iPhone or lit up on the lid of a MacBook, it is one of the most ubiquitous logos in the history of branding.
Janoff says whenever someone asks him what he does at a party, he pulls out his phone and points to the logo on the back. It’s a bizarre reality for him, that his work is with him wherever he goes, and one that he could never have imagined when he agreed to design the logo.
“If you told me at the time, I would be freaked out. I’d be too nervous to do a very good job,” he adds. "Apple was a startup, I had no idea. They didn’t have any idea.”
Where is Janoff now?
"I was only involved in Apple for about four years," Janoff says. After that, he did his rounds of various agencies in the heart of New York.
"For a while, I had my own clients and I had my own local thing out of my house," Janoff recalls. "But then the crash happened and I lost all my clients and I just thought what do I do now?"
Six years ago, Janoff met an Australian called Joel Bohn, who became his business partner on a joint digital agency venture. "He was a great salesman and promoter, and I was never one," Janoff explains "so he said let's do a job together."
He has also collaborated with Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services.
"I think the concept of having a supermarket of graphics at your disposal is great, but at the time I was looking for something a bit more than a price tag on the work I did," Janoff says of his experience with the platform. "I got a lot of exposure, but people started thinking I did logos for $500."