You are here

How Steve Jobs became the Gutenberg of our times


e has been called a genius, a cold and calculating businessman, an insatiable man, an innovator, an idea’s thief, a master of aesthetic design and technology, and a talented man - only with ambiguous skills. It turns out he was a fine marketing and communications professional, the one who created the actual need to possess something that would make you a certified member of the Apple community. He was also a perfectionist: a true visionary who breathed new life into the digital platform, the very moment he decided that the sleep indicator light on MacBook laptops would have to glow at the pace of a breathing adult. Above everything else though, he was excessively meticulous, born to discover the charm of typography.

While still a young man, he discovered calligraphy by chance when he attended a Reed College class. Although he chose not to deposit all of his parents’ savings there (Reed is an expensive college) and dropped out, he developed a new understanding of aesthetics. He discovered the beauty of communication, he made the right spacing between letters a priority, in fact he became quite obsessed with space between different letter combinations, whereas with the 1984 Macintosh, he tried to democratize digital life.

He achieved that.

Figure 1. Portrait of Steve Jobs using 2 early Macintosh typefaces Chicago and Monaco. View the full size poster here

“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-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.”

“I learned about serif and sans-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”

With these words from his widely popular commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs explained how he got passionate about design. “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 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.”

Just like a Gutenberg of his era, Steve Jobs offered us a variety of typefaces to digitally write our thoughts and memories with clarity, honesty and elegance. All of those characteristics were vital to any product Jobs gave his blessing to, in one of his famous turtlenecks, in front of a projector screen that showed the future he, himself had designed for the world.    

Typography was the raw material for Jobs to create good, user friendly design, therefore he decided to invest in it. He was aware – in contrast with other leaders of the digital era – that typefaces are the necessary building materials, not just to create sentences, but to structure the digital communications frame with the human element, making it unique. He managed to do that, four and a half centuries after Gutenberg’s first carved letters in 1440s.

“Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphied”. Jobs was surprised the same way any computer user was surprised when his first Mac was shipped to him with something amazingly different, amazingly simple. A wide choice of fonts in a range of styles and sizes. He created the ideal communication circumstances and he commissioned designer Susan Kare to create new bitmap type designs named after his dream cities. He was ready to conquer the world and he had no reason to be secretive about it.

Figure 2. Portrait of Steve Jobs using 3 early Macintosh typefaces ChicagoMonaco and Geneva. View the full size poster here

Therefore, the old-fashioned serif blackletter feel of London was introduced to the aspiring Poes of the world, the newspaper inspired San Francisco font was perfect for the headlines that Apple would be featured in, Geneva was exactly how Geneva is - with a crisp Swiss sans-serif look, and then he gave us Toronto. And Venice. And Los Angeles. He was generous. By this simple idea embodied in the core of his machine, Steve Jobs innovated our world. He put the technicality of fonts in the vocabulary of everyday life and he gave us the digital alphabet the modern world deserved. Everyone is thankful for that.

Our good friend, award-winning visual designer Charis Tsevis, created exclusively for Typeroom’s special feature on Steve Jobs, four portraits which are inspired by the renowned South African rock-star photographer Norman Seeff. They are reminiscent of the early days of Macintosh and its iconic typefaces. These portraits of Steve Jobs and Susan Kare are 1-bit images just like the ones made by the first digital art programs such as MacPaint. In fact, all levels of grey are made out of only black and white. Charis used 6 of these early typefaces for his illustrations. In the first Jobs’ poster he used Chicago and Monaco. In the second and third Chicago, Monaco and Geneva. In Susan Kare’s portrait he used all six i.e. Chicago, Monaco, Geneva, New York, Athens and San Fransisco. Use the provided links to view these portraits in full size and zoom in and out to the max and see every single detail. More portraits of Steve Jobs by the same artist here.

Finally, despite the fact that many have questioned Steve Jobs’ choice of Helvetica as the default font of iOS, his idea of introducing fonts to the average user of technology had an immeasurable impact on the design community. The same way Gutenberg’s printing press gave rise to literacy in the late Renaissance era, Steve Jobs’ digital typefaces gave rise to design as something that is as important as the idea of creating. Everything.

By Loukas Karnis

Figure 3. Portrait of Steve Jobs using 3 early Macintosh typefaces ChicagoMonaco and Geneva. View the full size poster here

Figure 3. Portrait of Susan Kare using 6 early Macintosh typefaces. View the full size poster here