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Steve Jobs and the Evolution of the Apple Logo: "Don't Make it Cute"

Posted by Abe Sauer on October 9, 2011 12:02 PM

One constant of the outpouring of grief over the death of Steve Jobs has been modified Apple logos, including creative use of apples in front of Apple stores. What few realize is that this capacity to fiddle with Apple's most recognizable bit of brand identity, and at the same time not lose any of that identity, speaks to the power of even the simplest element of what the Apple brand is.

But it wasn't always this way. The history of Apple's logo mirrors that of a brand that started off with promise, faltered at times, and went back to core principles to achieve global iconic status.

If you ever wondered why Apple chose an apple to represent the company, the first logo offers some answers.

The simple fruit logo with the bite taken out is the only Apple logo most know. But there was another. Illustrated in 1976 by Apple's third founder, Ronald Wayne, the logo depicts Isaac Newton sitting under a tree with the famous fruit about to fall and "invent" gravity. Wayne, Apple's "fifth Beatle," worked with Jobs at Atari and sold his shares in Apple just weeks after helping found it. He walked away with just $2,300. Today, Wayne's share would be worth about $35 billion.

Nearly two decades later, Apple would go back to draw on this connection with the release of the commercially-doomed PDA "Newton."

About the outer edges of Apple's first logo, it reads, "Newton… A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought … Alone.” That perfectly captures the sentiment of the early Apple years, when Steve Jobs saw himself a renegade. Ironically, the man who would be criticized years later by property rights advocates for tweaking his products to fight piracy, used to fly the skull and crossbones Jolly Roger pirate flag outside Apple's corporate offices in those first, moody years. (True story.)

The logo most recognize as Apple first, the one in which its current incarnation has its roots, was designed by Rob Janoff just a year later in 1977. The logo was absurdly simple — a rainbow-striped apple with a bite missing — yet ineffably compelling. Impossible to forget once seen, the former head of Macintosh development Jean-Louis Gassée said of the logo: "One of the deep mysteries to me is our logo, the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn't dream of a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy." (IBM would later hire Janoff, perpetually trying to get some of that Apple magic.)

For his part, Janoff has said that the only direction he got from Jobs on the logo design was "don't make it cute."

Impossible to imagine as it's not there now, the rainbow gave the company some noticeable pop. In ads for Apple's first machines, the logo grabbed eyeballs, and instantly branded a line of products seen at the time as cold, calculating, impersonal and robotic. By comparison, Apple's logo was scholastic, happy and warm.

Apple's first fruit logo was so popular that by 1982 it was retaining the services of attorneys in numerous Asian cities to crack down on impostors. A March 1982 report in the Los Angeles Times quoted Apple's general counsel pointing specifically to an imitator named "Apollo" that had "employed a rainbow colored logo like Apple's." History often repeats, and just this year Apple was faced with dozens of counterfeit Apple Stores in China.

Of course, the most famous connection of the Apple logo was its link to Jobs' beloved Beatles and their Apple Corps label, with its iconic green apple logo. Jobs won a trademark dispute with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison in 2008. Last November, Jobs scored one of his biggest coups: bringing the Beatles catalog to iTunes.

In the early days, Apple played fast and loose with its name and logo. In some instances, Apple even used its name in messaging, a general branding no-no and unthinkable from today's Apple brand.

One bit of word trivia involving the Apple logo that many report as fact is that the "bite" out of the apple was meant to be a play the computing term "byte." For example, social Q&A platform Quora repeats this legend in an answer to the question, "What does the Apple logo symbolize?"

This "bytes" theory was debunked, however, by the designer in a 2009 interview with CreativeBits. Of the rumor, Janoff said:

"I'm afraid it didn't have a thing to do with it. From a designer's point of view and you probably experienced this, one of the big phenomena is having the experience of designing a logo for whatever reasons you design it, and years later you find out supposedly why you did certain things. And, they are all BS. It's a wonderful urban legend. Somebody starts it and then people go 'oh yeah, that must be it'."

And what of Apple's one-time biblical ad messaging? For the logo's design, Janoff said, "Adam and Eve didn't have anything to do with it."

The rainbow bars were meant to evoke several things, including hippie culture, which a young Jobs was into. But more importantly, the colors said something unique about the product. The Apple II had been the first home computer capable of displaying colors onscreen. The rainbow logo was also placed on the computers themselves — in a dynamic stark contrast to the pale cases — to communicate this advantage.

In that interview, Janoff also said that two versions of the rainbow were presented to Jobs and Co., one with and one without the bite. And suggesting things to come, Janoff revealed that one of the non-rainbow versions was solid metallic.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, things had to change. Apple was flailing, a once-great tech company that had become a bit of a joke. In this situation, many struggling brands feel the need to make a complete break from their failing elements, and in many cases this includes the logos, no matter how iconic. Apple could easily have fallen into this trap.

That Apple's logo had been personally selected by Jobs almost certainly meant the returning leader had a close connection with it. Yet, something had to be done.

Jobs opted for the perfect solution. Apple dropped the dippy rainbow treatment and instead went for a monochrome look. This accomplished two things.

First, the solid logo brought apple into the modern era and signified a break with the brand's past. By dropping the rainbow, the brand also suggested that it was getting serious. Second, by maintaining the logo's well-known frame, Apple kept a connection with its innovative past, the one many early computer users knew and loved.

In the coming years, Apple modified the solid logo to a glass treatment and later, the one used today, a liquid mercury version.

Apple's change to the shiny metallic logo coincided with a style shift in US culture. The quality products of good living, the new yuppie lifestyle, took on the look of brushed stainless steel. Silvered luxury cars from Audi filled the roads. The shiny metals of Viking were the new must have kitchen appliances.

Today, Apple commonly uses a simple white logo, both in its minimalist stores and glowing on the back of MacBooks everywhere. The clean, sterile white perfectly matches an Apple brand that is crisp, nearly clinical about quality and perfection.

The Apple brand and what it represents are so well known, that there is no longer any need for the logo to communicate anything more.

Yet, many Apple fans will not forget the connection the brand has with its past. Apple's brand guidelines aside, some choose to mod their machines with the old rainbow standard, in the process suggesting an alternative branding universe.

Apple's logo now belongs to the global community, a mix of cultures that may not speak the same language, but all understand the Apple logo to mean the exact same thing. That emotional, somber Jobs silhouette Apple logo making the rounds of the Internet (top)? It was designed by a 19-year-old kid in Hong Kong.

Apple ads via Flickr and oldcomputers.net and Cold Fusion Guy. Rainbow notebook via. Apple Store via Wikipedia.


Rob Miller United States says:

Steve Jobs wanted to be the fifth Beatle; in a way, he was.

October 10, 2011 12:48 AM #

Professor Edward de Bono United Kingdom says:

Actually the Apple logo has a much deeper and more meaningful connection, and has been argued to be a respectful tribute from the founders of Apple to Alan Mathison Turing, the mathematical and computing genius (think breaking the Enigma Code and the creation of the first stored programme computer: ACE, amongst many other achievements) who died by his own hand following an aggressive homophobic campaign against him by the British legal system (at the time homosexuality was against the law). Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology in 2009 for the way Turing was treated after the war. The method by which Turing took his own life?  An apple injected with cyanide, which was found beside his body on June 8, 1954.  
Professor Edward de Bono, London

October 10, 2011 10:44 AM #

S. Brady (Brandchannel) United States says:

Dr. de Bono, having verified this indeed comes from you, thank you for taking time to post your thoughts! Your quote, no doubt, would have resonated with Jobs: "If you wait for opportunities to occur, you will be one of the crowd." best, Shirley Brady (editor, brandchannel)

October 10, 2011 03:37 PM #

Comments are closed

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