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We take a bite out of the Apple, in conversation with legendary designer, Rob Janoff

Brand is a face; a face that you remember. Your logo is successful if people recognise you — just like a friend, you recognise the face.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yet amidst the myriad bi-monthly Apple iOS updates, one piece of essential software remains constant. Designed by graphic designer Rob Janoff, the Apple logo exists in amongst a unique lexicon of branded symbolism culturally identifiable from the moon, interwoven into the fabric of your life like a college friendship.

The arc of a forty-eight-year career spanning advertising, design and brand consultancy has been defined by a singular point of trajectory when Rob Janoff presented Steve Jobs with ‘Plan A’ to create a logo for the Apple II 8-bit home computer in 1977.

Decision-making requires single-mindedness. Bravery even. Which is why being in the right place at the right time with the right idea is a skill. With the import of this lesson fresh in our minds, we arrived early for an interview with Rob at D&AD recent #dandad ‘19 festival in east London, where we took a bite into the life and times of true design icon.

Rob: “Where do you want me to look? I’ll try not to make slurping noises.”

How are you Rob?

“I’m great! I’m having a great time today.”

Q) Could you tell us about your pathway into Design. How did you become a designer?

Good question I come from a really artistic family. Everybody kind of wound up in the Arts. I had an Uncle who was an Art Director; another Uncle who as a Photographer. I have cousins who are painters and potters, so it was always kind of a part of my life. My Dad was really concerned that I was gonna be an artist. He was really concerned that he was going to be supporting me for the rest of his life, so he helped me get through school, then said: “Rob: this is it! Bye, get a job.”

Because my art class got me through school, I wound up getting a job in design—in art. And I always found it really fascinating; especially with graphic design, because it was kind of an art form that wasn’t elitist at all — very democratic. And everybody could have.

What a great thing to be able to do something visual that talked to people, regardless of what language they speak.”

Q) In terms of your first job in Silicon Valley. this place which experimental in itself because it’s *tech*. How did you find yourself there?

“I went to school at San Jose State, which is in the middle of Silicon Valley. I didn’t live there originally. I went to school there and it became my home. And the jobs around the area—around Silicon Valley—were involved in some way or another about tech. I wasn’t really interested in being a techie; I just sort of wound up in a few jobs—very small agencies—and I finally hit on one at Palo Alto that had a good reputation. I got the job there and I was delighted. It was in the 70s…77!

I was so delighted. I was making twenty-one thousand dollars a year. Oh my god!

Dad was happy?!!?

Dad was really happy! So that was that, and I just kept at it. It was a small agency called Regis & Kenneth in Palo Alto. It was really fun. That was where I met Steve Jobs, ’cause he just asked around and he was talking to some friends who started Intel Corporation, and they asked “well who’s your agency?” and they said “Regis” and I happened to be working on that account at the time. And because I was working on that account. And because I didn’t really understand tech — and didn’t want to — and the clients were all sort of widgets and things, I would find out what was good about it, what was better than the last one, or better than the competition, and put it in terms that I could understand. And that usually meant something visual, and that usually meant something ‘non-tech’. That’s how that started.

And because I worked with Steve, and he liked the logo. I mean he wasn’t over the moon, but he liked it because it was different. Then there was one Apple job after another, and it was great fun because there was so much freedom. There was not a lot of briefs; not a lot of people involved. I could just have an idea for an ad, do up a layout, go to Cupertino and say “Hey Steve, look at this,” so very very easy.

[Me and Steve Jobs] were both sort of hippies. He had big hair, I had big hair and a moustache. I think that there’s a certain amount of trust involved in that — especially in business, where people are in suits and it’s all about money.

Q) You mentioned previously, that the two of you had a marriage of mindsets — that you were similar types of people.

I think so. A lot of it had to with [the fact that] we were both sort of hippies. He had big hair, I had big hair and a moustache, and I think that there’s a certain amount of trust involved in that — especially in business, where people are in suits and it’s all about money. Fortunately, I’ve always worked in agencies as opposed to [just working] for my myself, because I didn’t like the business part, and I wasn’t very good at that. It wasn’t interesting [to me].

I liked being able to get a paycheque and not have to go around scrounging for work, and that mushroomed into going to New York. [name here] bought the agency, and I always wanted to work in New York and they didn’t want to piss Steve off by firing me (they fired everybody else), so that’s where I went.

When you’re acquired as opposed to being hired it’s a more tenuous situation: you don’t have somebody who loves you a lot. So that job lasted about 9-months. And I could tell why: I wasn’t really one of them; I wasn’t really on their kind of level, so I was let go after a while, but I was in Manhattan! That [involved] being very brave, walking around Manhattan / Madison Avenue with my portfolio — because then it wasn’t digital — you showed your book. So I got my own job. That lasted quite a while. But being in NY and being exposed to all of that was a big part of it. Bing in a centre where creativity and business are really important had a lot to do with it.

Because you were in the middle of culture…

…And opportunity!

Q) There’s the change of culture: going from one space where you were there was a freedom and trust in your ideas, then a slight change of pace in terms of cultural fit.

A big change. Because looking at the original logo and seeing where you took it meant a massive transformation — a huge leap. We know what clients can be like when you’re taking them on this journey.

Q) What made you so confident in that concept? How did you go about communicating it to say ‘This is the one’?

Well I didn’t know any better.

I liked it a lot and I knew it was the solution, even though it wasn’t what Steve wanted — or asked for.

Naivety?

I was really naive. I think I had that job after maybe six years of working, and Steve really was [relatively new to] being a president of a company, and knowing all about design, logos and stuff. He loved *design* — we shared that.

I’ve never had such a clear picture of what the solution was in my head. I think a lot that comes from the fact that it was a new job, a new place, and I think your creativity sort of spurts. In creative jobs, you can get really stale really quickly because of your working on the same things, the same tricks. You know what’s gonna work, what’s not gonna work, and after a while, it got a little dull, but I had a young family so I wasn’t going to just bail. I had kids, a mortgage — stuff like that – which for a lot of people can be a real tie-down, and keep your life really dull.

I think I must have been replying to an ad or something — because that’s how you got jobs. There weren’t headhunters. I didn’t have a headhunter.

It was a combination of a real clear vision and naiveté: I liked it a lot and I knew it was the solution, even though it wasn’t what Steve wanted — or asked for. It wasn’t what my boss wanted, but I liked it a lot. I was really clear about. I didn’t want him to [use] another kind of logo so I didn’t have anything else in the back pocket. There were no choices.

The presentation was: show him how cool the stripes were; I showed all these different solid colour logos out of those same colours. I showed him how versatile that could be, and Steve went for it. I think he trusted it.

I don’t think there was any magic *thing* other than I would never ever do that again.

Q) You’ve spoken previously about the dichotomy between the machine — the hard-edged electronic product — and the apple, the organic food source, and how they married to create this concept. How important has it been to find that dichotomy within the work that you do / your working process?

I was really lucky with the Apple product. Here was a cold piece of machinery named after a natural piece of fruit, so I knew there was a hook right off the bat. It was a wonderful product name to work with — especially for a tech product. Tech is complicated and an apple is so simple. That told me that even if I didn’t have the luck of the dichotomy going on [I could still] dig deeper and figure out what is that would make that different, or what it would mean to make someone want that product over another product.

Q) With your wealth of experience, and the success of Apple has brought your concept to life. That marriage has become this ubiquitous brand. What is your definition of brand?

Brand is a face; a face that you remember. Your logo is successful if people recognise you — just like a friend, you recognise the face.

That’s a very simple way of thinking about it. Very non-technical.

Human centred…

Right. And who are we selling to?

That’s the most common sense approach, yet something that we forget about.

Right. What I always do is I try to put myself in the targets point of view: ‘Would I like that? Would I care about that? Would I grab that one? Or what would make me want it?

Graphic Design is a way you can do art that’s for everybody. It’s very democratic.

Q) You studied design. You come from a creative family and were exposed to a lot of creative influences. What does ‘graphic design’ mean to you?

Graphic Design is a way you can do art that’s for everybody. It’s very democratic. It’s not elitist at all. There’s nothing wrong with painting — I have painters in the family; my son-in-law’s a fabulous painter — but that just wasn’t me. I mean I did painting at school, but what I really got off on is just playing with words and pictures. And it wound up being more advertising.

Actually, I had a whole career in advertising — way more advertising than design. Because that was where the work was — easier for me to get — and it was kind of a lot more fun I thought. Working in advertising, more time than not, you had a chance to work with people who [worked] in other fabulous crafts. Musicians and actors and set designers for TV, or illustrators for print, so I could share my idea or my concept with other really talented people, and really was the fun for me.

I love to cook. I love to eat. When I don’t have a project to think about, I think about what I’m going to cook.

Q) As you just mentioned, you got to work with many different types of people. What other disciples or subjects inspire you in your work? Also, what other things interest you outside of design?

I love to cook. I love to eat. When I don’t have a project to think about, I think about what’ I’m going to cook. I just like to play with food. I enjoy looking at cookbooks and stuff. I’ve gotten so busy in the last few years that I haven’t had the time to devote to that. I could spend a whole day on something, but now it’s whatever I can throw together for us to eat.

Q) You’ve recently published a book…

“Taking a Bite out of the Apple.” We did a logo for a woman who was a partner in a small publishing company here in the UK, and she needed a logo for her series for young people. She was so enamoured with the process of designing her logo that she said “Rob: you have to do a book about the Apple logo and how you got to that. Since it’s for young people, I’d like you to talk about your field because I’m sure there are a lot of people that want to get into it, and I know of many places where they can find out about it.

So [there] was a dual [motivation], to talk about ‘the apple’ and how that happened, but also to talk about what it’s like to be a designer, my career and how that’s gone. I didn’t like Design as much as advertising in the beginning, [which is why] I spent a whole lot of time in advertising because I thought it was more fun, more social, more things to do, it got me on trips shooting commercials. But that gets old too.

It’s only been the last ten years or so that it’s almost exclusively Design work, and I’m having a wonderful time because it’s all international. I paired up with a guy who has become a really good friend in Australia and we worked almost exclusively for international companies. When we started together he said: “people really love Apple stuff and American stuff, so I betcha we could sell some stuff.”

So I said “Ok,” because I wasn’t working at the time — probably doing more home cooking than work, because I think it’s really important to have something creative to be working one. At least it is for me.

A good designer will give you want, and give you what you should have. And I think you’ll see the difference right away.

Q) Business itself has changed so much, even Silicone Valley, and you worked with Apple at a critical stage for the business. What do you thin for start-ups are the important tenants that they may need to become a successful business?

A lot of people get into business because they like all the aspect of the business. They usually have one specific area that they’re especially good in, but they want to mess with everything. Everybody isn’t a good designer — especially people that own businesses. Mostly because they’re so in touch with their business that it’s almost impossible for them to narrow it down to something that anybody else could understand.

It’s always important for business people to have an open mind. A lot of business people have an idea of what their logo should be. Please, be open to something else, because a good designer will give you want, and give you what you should have. And I think you’ll see the difference right away.

Q) What advice would you give to young designers entering the world of business and creativity now?

I would say, no job is too small for you. Take every opportunity you can take because when you’re starting out you’ve got to be exposed to a lot of people and a lot of things. I’ve found that part of the luck of having success and finding your ‘Steve Jobs’ is taking advantage of everything that comes your way because you really never know when something is gonna click. No job’s too small.

And always give it your absolute all.

For business owners, it’s been open to other people’s ideas.

Q) You’ve spoken on the importance you place on finding that one important thing to focus on when working on a project. Is that a skill that comes naturally or something that has been honed over time?

I think it comes from experience — not necessarily as much experience as I have — just the experience of getting involved. Of doing work.

There’s nothing like the practical experience. That’s where you really learn it. And where you also meet people who are doing things and who you want to emulate or who can use your services.

Going for it as Steve did. He was a perfectionist, which can also be frustrating, but by cutting it off arbitrarily stopping, the chances are that you can do better or go further.

Another thing that I think is really important when you’re working on your own stuff is [to] have someone who you really trust look at it because four eyes are way better than two eyes. And two brains are much better than one brain, so I think it’s a good rule to follow.

I’m very fortunate that I married a guy who’s also a designer and we do that all the time.

Q) Lastly: Throughout your career, what was your most rewarding job, and what was your most challenging job?

That is such a good and hard question. I don’t any job could be as rewarding as Apple has been for me. It opened so many doors and those doors have led to my work now. It’s international, in many cultures, many languages. I can’t tell you how enriching it’s been to be a worldly person.

We all need to be talking to each other so much more, but we’re all into our own stuff. And our stuff is not so hot.

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Interview by Stephanie McLaren-Neckles / Ansel Neckles.

Big thanks to Ann Amarawansa from Common Industry for organising the interview.

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