Rob Janoff

May 29th, 2013 Features, M2 Magazine

What have you done in your creative career that’ll outlive you? Drew Turney found a designer with a story to tell like no other.

It happens to all of us. The boss comes to us and says ‘I have this friend who needs a…’ We roll our eyes, look at the pile of work in our in tray and wonder how out of hand it’s going to get after the no-doubt ridiculously low price it was promised for.

Next time it happens, be mindful. This time that job might be end up being one of the most famous company logos in the history of trade and commerce.

But even after the logo was done and the account was ongoing at the agency that employed designer Rob Janoff in 1976, many saw it as a lost cause. “I’d go to photographers doing ads for us and they’d say ‘you know you’re wasting your time, this isn’t going to last very long’,” he remembers.

You be the judge. The agency was Regis McKenna, the Silicon Valley-based marketing agency run by the man of the same name whom many consider to be the godfather of technology marketing today. A friend in the industry named Mike Markkula approached McKenna asking for some initial marketing for a start-up he was working on in the nascent home computer industry. It was a user-friendly desktop computer system invented by two shaggy young guys named Steve, and they were calling it Apple.

So, amid the usual blur of other projects, Janoff conceived and drew the second iteration of the Apple Computer logo with the familiar bite and rainbow colouring. In tracking down the Los Angeles, Chicago-based native to ask if he was happy to talk about his history with Apple, we felt some trepidation. We asked the typographer who designed the original ‘city name’ fonts for the Apple Mac system for an interview for this story and was told by her press representative that ‘she is not inclined to work with you on this project’.

We thought Janoff might suffer from a similar case of Star Wars Syndrome, the name given to Alec Guinness’ hatred of being recognised for playing Ben Kenobi, much preferring his work in the films of David Lean. Instead, he’s only too happy to still be identified with the 35-year-old Apple logo design. He even has a page on his website at robjanoff.com all about it.

“A lot of people ask me what it’s like seeing your logo every time you turn around,” the now-64-year old says. “It’s a fabulous experience and it’s rare one. I don’t think a lot of people get that opportunity. Watching these things that I created in the 70s go through changes is kind of like having kids and watching them grow up. I’m terribly proud of my kids and I’m terribly proud of the logo as well.”

Still, we can’t help but wonder if the Apple logo is a double-edged sword. Widely known figures from Pontius Pilate to Big Brother contestants undoubtedly had lives as deep and rich as any of us, but we only know them for the single infamous thing that defines them in the public consciousness forever. Isn’t Janoff sick of being the Apple logo guy, even if it’s when he’s trying to convince clients he can do other stuff?

“It’s not that I’ve had a hard time convincing people,” he says, “but there’s a whole lot of people who really love the Apple logo a lot and want to have a touch of that. They think having their logo done by the same guy who did the Apple thing would work for them regardless of what else I’ve done.”

The getting of wisdom

Janoff started in industrial design but soon realised it wasn’t going to be his first love. In fact, he took the course at college because of a misunderstanding of what it meant. “It wasn’t very much fun. I knew I liked graphic design but I thought packaging was part of that, but it was actually handled at the time in industrial design. When I got there I realised it was more doing charcoal sketches and pastel renderings of toasters and cars. It seemed like all the fun was happening across the quad in the art department where people were freakier, so that’s where I belonged.”

After all this time Janoff thinks there’s still a disconnect in design education, and somewhat ironically there’s a Promethean element at play. After doing his part in popularising the Apple computer, it turned out to be the device most responsible for convincing people they’re designers just because they have one on their desk.

“I’ve done some teaching and I find younger designers are great at knowing the tools and knowing how to create images that don’t come real easy to me. But a lot of what I think is lacking is good creative thinking in idea generation. So many designers today believe it’s all on the surface – how you manipulate type or a transparent shape or pattern. I like to think graphics should tell a story.

“So I find there’s still room for somebody who’s been in the business a long time to hone those skills, to teach by creating – which I don’t think people get in school. A lot of people fancy themselves as designers because they’re pulling down filters off menus and having something look cool and for a lot of people that’s fine. It passes. They can even sell stuff that way, but it’s just not all that satisfying for me.”

The sum of all knowledge

Most of what people know about Mike Markkula, Apple’s second CEO, is from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. He was bought in to move Apple from a garage partnership to a business (‘wrangling’ the two Steves, is how Janoff puts it). Markkula was actually introduced to Jobs and Wozniak by his friend Regis McKenna, Janoff’s boss. So the agency never pitched for the business, it merely found a home because of Silicon Valley business networks, and Janoff was the natural choice to work on it.

In perhaps another irony, it was because Janoff wasn’t that knowledgeable about computers that he was able to capture something that didn’t look like technology. It’s a quality that’s helped make hundreds of millions comfortable approaching Apple products in the years since.

“The creative director thought I had a good way of simplifying and visualising difficult electronic concepts,” he says. “I knew all the tech kind of stuff went on in Silicon Valley but I was never enough of a computer geek to really understand how it worked.”

The Regis McKenna team came up not only came up with the distinctive logo but all the early marketing assets, including the ubiquitous Apple Garamond font that was synonymous with the brand until 2002. Janoff himself worked on the account exclusively for a handful of years, a process he describes as very much ‘seat of pants’ before McKenna sold his company to advertising mogul Jay Chiat to focus on public relations. Janoff, most of the advertising staff and the Apple account went with it.

Janoff is entirely too modest about his contribution not just to the field of marketing but of popular culture. After the very first ‘Isaac Newton’ logo drawn by artist Ron Wayne, the basic Apple shape with a bite taken out is still intact, having evolved from the rainbow stripes to monochromatic and metallic iterations. But he admits it’s only in the later stages of his career he’s learned to love the story. “For the longest time I felt uncomfortable talking about the logo because I thought people’s image of somebody who did something so famous would be very rich and part of a huge design firm. And I never was, I was always in advertising agencies or working for myself.”

But today Janoff is happy, enjoying the collaboration of working at the digital agency that bears his name. After close to 15 years working as a free agent, he finally found a home thanks to a connection down under.

“I got a call from this guy in Australia who was very straightforward and said I wasn’t doing a very good job promoting myself. I knew he was right because my business has tapered off a lot, so I jumped at the opportunity to get affiliated with this guy because the position meant I could be creative director of a group.”

An entirely new company called Robjannof.com was born, one very much of the 21st century with Janoff art directing from his Chicago home, managed by his Australian business partner and with a designer in Jakarta and programmers in India and China. Janoff comes to life when talking about doing his workday on projects, going to sleep and having the next part done by a colleague somewhere across the world, ready for him the next morning.

“It’s the first time I’ve been in a design group for a long time and I’ve really missed it. I get to work with some very talented people. When it was just me I didn’t have the access I really wanted to, good back end people for social media work and all that kind of stuff.”

Of course, brand associating is a powerful thing – just ask Hollywood about all the prequels, sequels and movies based on existing properties like comic books – and Janoff finally feels like he’s putting his history with Apple to the best possible use. “Whenever I’ve told the Apple story in places like Australia, Indonesia and South Africa there’s been a ton of interest, so by calling it robjanoff.com we’re not only saying it’s an online agency but my name is associated with Apple. I’m using all that stuff in a much more intelligent way than I have in the past.”

Jobs

As he became one of the richest, most famous technologists on the planet, everybody wanted to know who Steve Jobs was. Until his death in 2011, he tightly controlled the message (just like he obsessively controlled every aspect of his company) thanks to his best-selling biography.

But Janoff was among the few who knew Jobs when nobody else cared. “My first impression was ‘Really? He’s the president of a company?'” he says. “It’s more commonplace now, but back in the mid 70s heads of companies did not look like Steve. He had long stringy hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a while, frayed jeans and sandals.”

But Janoff says he recognised the same man in videos introducing the iPod, iPhone and iPad years later. “Steve loved to blow people’s minds, both with how he looked back then and years later with the hidden glee he’d have introducing the latest shiny, game changing thing from Apple.”

As Apple moved on from Regis McKenna, Jobs became too rich, powerful and busy running a company to stay in touch. Until a phone call a couple of years ago, Janoff hadn’t seen the enigmatic Chairman and CEO since the early days.

Isaacson’s book was almost gleeful talking about Jobs’ legendary temper tantrums at his staff, and Janoff considers himself lucky not to have seen one. “I heard later about Steve’s tirades. I never experienced his wrath, but I was afraid I’d get it some day. When I wonder why, my guess is I was the only hippy freak at the agency back then, so he must have trusted me.”

But he’s in agreement about the universal praise heaped on Jobs’ vision, saying “It seems like Steve was always ahead of the curve and I don’t know how many people are like that.”

Conspiracies

Let something foment in the collective consciousness of pop culture long enough and wild stories will eventually circulate. There’s a persistent urban legend that you can see the ghost of a young boy who haunts an apartment in the 1987 film Three Men and a Baby, even though everyone involved has said it was just a cardboard cut-out in the background of a tracking shot.

Just as persistent are the rumours surrounding the subtext Janoff ascribed the Apple logo with. Because the Regis McKenna home of Silicon Valley is close to San Francisco – gay capital of the US – some say Janoff coloured the logo with rainbow stripes in solidarity with the gay community or to secretly reference Alan Turing, the father of the modern computing device who was ostracised for being gay.

Other stories claim the bite from the Apple signifies the Biblical tree of knowledge, a nod to Apple’s theme of rebellion that was galvanised in Ridley Scott’s famous ‘1984’ commercial during the 1984 US Superbowl.

Unfortunately, Janoff confirms none of them are true. “It’s really fun designing something and then having somebody who wasn’t there telling me why I did it,” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t until way after I designed the logo that people started coming out with reasons for the bite and the colours. But my design selections and reasons for doing stuff were pretty mundane by comparison.”

In fact even one of the more mundane urban legends about the job – that it was pro bono as a favour to Markkula – is false. A comment from Janoff that he didn’t get royalties from the logo took on a life of its own, but in fact he was paid his salary just like every week.


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