A Tribute to a Great Artist: Steve Jobs

Through mastering calligraphy in college, Jobs learned to think like an artist

When designing the first Macintosh computer, Steve Jobs remembered his calligraphy course at Reed College and built it all into the Mac. "It was the first computer with beautiful typography," said Jobs. (Apic / Getty Images)

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“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. … I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

From this statement, it’s clear that the stylish graphics we now take for granted on computers might never have taken hold without the calligraphy class. Indeed, Jobs made comments about this many times. For some reason, it’s a thing in which he took particular pride. But I’d like to propose that what Jobs learned from studying calligraphy went deeper than nice typography.

Typography is a peculiar art, which operates with unusually tight restraints, but is also amazingly free. The basic forms of the letters have stayed pretty much the same for centuries, and the order in which they go is generally fixed by the text. But within those seemingly rigid parameters there’s room for seemingly endless variations of shape and spacing, of shifts from delicate to bold, and of many other things. Seemingly modest changes can completely change the overall effect for good or ill, and can make the letters trigger entirely different emotions. There’s even a bit of time travel involved, since different letter forms evoke different historical periods. Most of all a great piece of typography needs to work as an ensemble. One wrong mark can throw off the entire effect. And a little accent can sometimes lift something that’s harmonious but dull to the level of a masterpiece.

Visual thinking has properties that are a little different from thinking in language. One of its most attractive qualities is that it encourages us to move out of a strictly linear sequence and to take in many variables at once, including variables that are mobile and that exist in shifting configurations. By developing mastery of typography, Jobs developed mastery of design: the ability to think about how hundreds of different variables can coalesce to create a harmonious effect that seems “perfect.” This is the skill that he practiced at Apple, transposing it from the realm of letter forms to that of product design. Jobs explained in an interview with Businessweek in 2004: “Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe.”

What pulls it all together, of course, is art. As the great architect Alvar Aalto once stated: “Nearly every design task involves tens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of different contradictory elements, which are forced into a functional harmony only by man’s will. This harmony cannot be achieved by any other means than those of art.”

Significantly, Jobs always thought of himself not as a manager but as a leader—an artistic visionary. After the fashion of a great artist, Jobs ultimately based his decisions not on the recommendations of committees or focus groups but on his own intuition—often on factors not easily expressed or analyzed in words. Perhaps most important, at some level, his mastery of visual skills was transposed to another level as well. Visual harmony became a sort of metaphor for what happens when everything works well together: when at a glance we can instantly understand a large field of variables, and see that everything coordinates with everything else and they all work together with a unified purpose.

In short, through mastering calligraphy, Jobs learned to think like an artist. It became the skill that separated him from other computer geniuses and business leaders. It enabled him to move out ahead of the pack, to build out of almost nothing one of the world’s largest corporations and to revolutionize modern life. We usually think of art as essentially a recreational activity: as something that stands apart from the serious business of life. But art does matter. When all is said and done, it’s the thing that makes it possible to have a world that holds together and is beautiful and makes sense.

Genius can never be reduced to a single trick. But let’s take note of the fact that one of the keys to Jobs’ success, to all that he achieved, is that, years ago, at the outset of his amazing career, he took a controversial and inspiring art class.

(Editor's Note, October 7, 2011: We have changed this article from its original version to clarify two errors in the description of Reynolds' and Palladino's careers at Reed College.)

About Henry Adams
Henry Adams

Henry Adams is a contributor to Smithsonian magazine and a Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University.

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