Co.Design

The Mac Inventor's Gift Before Dying: An Immortal Design Lesson for His Son

The man who created the Mac interface gives his son Aza Raskin a final gift that testifies to the beauty and power of simplicity.

Twenty-five days before my father Jef died, on my birthday exactly six years ago, he gave me a present. He had the sparkle back in his eye — the one that had been reduced by pancreatic cancer to an ashen ember — when he gave it to me. It was a small package, rectangular in shape, in crisp brown-paper wrapping. Twine neatly wrapped around the corners, crisscrossing back and forth arriving at a bow crafted by the sure hands of a man who built his first model airplane at age seven.

This small brown package was to be the final gift my father ever gave me.

My family does gifts strangely. For instance, we have our own mangled interpretation of Hanukkah, where each person of the family has a night to give out presents. If we have five people home for Hanukkah, we celebrate only five of the eight nights. The joy of gifts are in the giving, not receiving, so before opening your present you must first guess what's inside. This tradition is "plenty questions," a more forgiving version than the standard twenty questions.

"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" I ask.

I stare at the package. In it is my father. The man who invented the Mac.

We are in it for the game of teasing the gift out of the gifter. It's like extracting a ball of yarn from a kitten. The tugs, pulls, and misdirections are the fun. The question must answerable by a simple yes or no. Naturally, the later into the questions we get, the more liberal this rule becomes. We don't break the rule exactly, but answers become a series of not-exactly's and yes-but's. In past years, the givers have often spent hours creating elaborate disguises for the gifts. I've shaped styrofoam into a fantastic reptilian shape to disguise a pair of earrings for my mother. She guessed them perfectly anyway. There may be collusion going on.

"Mineral," my father says.

We often waste questions on silly asides. We ask about refrigerators and ostrich eggs when the gift is clearly book shaped. But my father is sick. Where there was once the thought that a cure might be found, only fleeting misplaced hope remains like a high school summer fling dissipating in the face of college. We know there isn't much time. Still I ask.

I stare at the package in my hands. In it is my father. The man who invented the Macintosh and misnamed what should be "typefaces" as the "fonts" menu. He never forgave himself for his incorrect usage of English. He groomed me to use language exactingly and considered that mistake a failure of being young and reckless with semantics. The man who invented click-and-drag was now the man who could hardly keep his gaze focused on his son. The box is, of course, smaller than a bread box. It's a question we always ask. My family smiles only out of habit.

"No," my father says. A long pause. "No," he says again, "it is smaller than a bread box. Smaller and sharper." He speeds the guessing game along. Time.

The gift was a message about an entire way of thought.

"Sharper?" I ask. A knife? The box is too small for a typical kitchen knife. It could be a Swiss Army knife. Jef always carries one. The big blade is for food, the little blade for everything else. He gets a bit indignant if you borrow it and use the wrong blade. I have a Swiss Army knife, but I haven't carried it since airport security theater ramped up after 9/11. It probably isn't a knife. Maybe a razor? One can't just ask outright, that doesn't give enough information when you are wrong. Something sharp could be many things. Seeking something more strategic I ask, "Can it be found in a bathroom?"

Long pause.

"Yes."

Three days before he passed, Jef had an accident. He needed to use the restroom, so — stooped under his arm — I supported his weight as he hobbled to his business. There was something quietly unsettling about escorting my father to a toilet that had been taller than me when we first moved into the house twenty years earlier. I sat him down, walked out, and closed the door. Moments later, a crash jolted the house. I slammed the door open. The metallic smell of water fresh from a pipe whipped my nose and water flooded the floor. The toilet was dislocated from its base like an arm from its socket, and lodged between the toilet and the wall was my father. Despite his size, he looked small and meager. He stared up at me with eyes full of innocent surprise. Why am I on the floor? they asked. Why am I wet? The shocked curiosity in his wide-open eyes is the single most haunting image I have of my father. In the dark space between closing my eyes and falling asleep, that image sometimes steals in and taints me. When it does, there is no help for it. I have to get out of bed and go for a run. Otherwise, sleep will be overshadowed by those confused, guileless eyes.

"It must be a razor?" I ask. He nods his assent with a satisfied smile. He gestures for me to open it. Carefully undoing the knot, the twine, and the paper reveals a cardboard box on which he has written "For Pogonotomy." Of course there is a word for beard trimming, and of course my father knows and uses it. In high school, I played a trick on my teachers: in every essay I used my own made-up word. I used "indelic" to mean something between "endemic" and "inextricably entwined." No matter how many times I trotted it out, not one of my teachers caught me. I used it once in passing with my father and he immediately but gently pointed it out as a non-word. Some men spend time meticulously trimming their beard. My father trimmed his vocabulary. Language is communication, and my father was fastidious about it. Often when we got into particularly deep conversations, he'd pause and continue the rest of the discussion in written form where he could distill his thoughts into a sharp crystalline relief.

The razor itself was a vintage safety razor. Looking at it, I understood the allure. It is an inventive and simple design. The razor takes a flat blade and arches it under a metal shield, giving the blade both greater mechanical strength as well as a protective sheath that keeps you safe. It's the kind of clear insight for which all designers and inventors strive: beauty in turning constraints into advantages.

That razor is a message, rendered in steel and wood, about an incorporeal way of thought. That was my father's final gift to me: A way of looking at the world through the lens of playful questioning, which reveals more than just an answer. Twenty five days later, the razor remained, but my father did not.

Jef, I miss you.

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23 Comments

  • Kelly

    Simplistically wonderful. This has many small lessons wrapped into one large job that we all have: life. It has been a while since I have thoroughly enjoyed a piece like this one. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and heartfelt memory.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for writing this. Amazing to see evidence of the sort of lesson a father can teach and impression he can leave with a simple, well thought-through action.

    Reminds me that I need to go call my dad now. And while I'm thinking about it, maybe I'll leave the office to pick up my son a little early today too.

  • Nancy Fernandes

    Your Dad was a  wonderful man, thanks for sharing your memories with us.  I had a wonderful dad too, know how much you  must miss him...
    Wishing the very best for you, am sure you  do your dad proud...Nancy fernandes

  • Linda

    Thank you for sharing this memory of your lovely Dad - he sounds like a wonderful man and great Dad to you.  Never knew until now why typefaces changed their name to fonts ! I always loved the word typefaces and miss it ! 

  • C Noruzi

    A very moving essay. I lost my father almost 25 years ago when I was 16, and yes, the feeling of loss lessens with time, but never really goes away. He gave me many gifts, his death being the foremost hardest, yet the most necessary life lesson—that we all die someday. Many gifts followed after that, revealing themselves the older I became. Beautiful how he continues to give.

  • Paulmnich

    This has great resonance. When someone close to you knows their time is short, and still has the clarity of mind to devote those precious moments to add meaning to the lives of those they leave behind, you know a little more about love.

  • Visualkitsune

    Wow, love this article...I couldn't breath for a moment while reading it...

  • Djgarbis

    It's always touching to share an experience reflecting on dying (not death). Especially at my age - 80!

  • Greg English

    Just found this site by chance and as I "flipped" through it I came across this page. My own father is now 90 and nearing the end of his life. I am working hard to remember all the things he taugh me over the years. Your story brought back fond memories of many Christmas' past. Thank you.

  • Paul Weber

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story, Aza.
    Something inside tells me that you surely inherited many of your dad's precious traits.
    Just out of curiosity: did he design the Mac icon (the one that depicts the Man/Machine "interface") itself?

    Paul
    Switzerland

  • Jorge Mare

    I recently lost my wife and companion of 33 years, so this article was very touching. Thank you for sharing.

  • matt hollingsworth

    This piece is as beautiful and functional as the razor it describes. Thank you so much for writing this, and sharing this gift with us. I loved it.