In a world in which music videos can be shot on an iPhone, and more design is seemingly done on screen than off, the idea that computers can shape how artists and designers create things seems obvious. But there was a time when computers and art seemed unbridgeable chasms apart. For most people, the Apple Macintosh—which launched 30 years ago this month—helped cross that gap, and made the design world all the better for it. What follows are five ways that Apple’s desktop computer helped change creativity forever.
Just a few decades before the Macintosh, computers filled entire rooms, weighed 50 tons, and came without monitors. After the Macintosh, computers were opened up to group of people—among them writers, artists, musicians and designers—who had previously had no use for them.
"We were trying to make a machine that a person with an artist’s or a musician’s sensibilities would want to use," says Bill Atkinson, a computer engineer who worked on the Mac and an accomplished nature photographer. "It’s not a matter of could they use it; we wanted to create something they would enjoy using."
Atkinson’s chief contribution to the Macintosh was the creation of MacPaint, the world’s first widely available freeform bitmap painting program. "Nobody signed me up to create [it]," he says, speaking with Co.Design. "I did it because I wanted to."
Even as MacPaint’s creator, Atkinson says that he was astonished by the pieces of work people made using it. "Some of these things were amazing," he continues. "One of the most spectacular things I saw were some comic books created by Mike Saenz that were just incredible. I thought, ‘wow—we’ve liberated the ability to create on a computer.'"
MacPaint laid out many of the innovations that today form the basis of programs such as Photoshop (which also, incidentally, started life on the Mac).
"I view tools like Photoshop as repayment in kind for what I did at Apple," Atkinson says. "While I was working on the Mac my aim was to create tools that would empower creative people. And now Photoshop empowers me in working on my photographs and make my fine art prints, without me having to have written it myself."
MacPaint might have hinted at the world-changing promises of the Macintosh as a haven for creatives, but it was far from an isolated example.
For artists, the Mac’s big innovation was its WYSIWYG (pronounced Whizzy-Wig) feature: essentially meaning that whatever people saw on their computer monitor resembled how a page would look in print. For the first time, instead of going to a professional printer, Mac innovations such as desktop publishing tool PageMaker meant that anyone could design and print high-quality materials from the comfort of his or her home studio.
Add to that MIDI sequencing programs (which allowed the creation of electronic music at home) and tools like QuickTime (whose 1991 arrival placed high-quality video on the Mac’s screen), and the Macintosh represented a democratization of technology in which anyone was invited to pick up tools and have a go.
The 20th century was all about breaking down the divisions between previously separate artistic disciplines—and the Mac epitomized this transition: with the computer standing in as a multi-purpose canvas for everything from illustration to composition, often inside the same multimedia document.
Today, it is difficult to appreciate the qualitative change that the Mac’s graphical user interface represented. It wasn’t just that it made computers look more attractive to use, but that it shifted the entire central metaphor away from the logical world of engineers and handed it over to creatives used to thinking in abstractions. MIT psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle has referred to this as the transition from a modernist culture of calculation to a postmodernist one of simulation.
"[The Mac] appealed to people who didn’t necessarily like computers," says Simon Garfield, the New York Times bestselling author of 2010’s Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, who has written every one of his books since 1990 on a Macintosh. "There was this sense that you could make interesting stuff without having any idea of how it worked at all. It was so intuitive that you didn’t have to worry about complex commands or anything that came close to resembling code. I think if you were a creative person of any sort, the idea was that it didn’t just help you do your work—it also didn’t interfere with what you were trying to do."
As Bill Atkinson says: "One of the fundamental things that happened with the graphical user interface is the shift from the computer driving the user, to the user using the computer as a tool."
While the artistic possibilities offered by the graphical user interface had been the subject of discussion before—perhaps the topic of a late night chat at Xerox PARC—it took the arrival of a real artist from the design world, Susan Kare, to transform icons as an artistic form in their own right, and for the outside world to begin to sit up and notice.
"I can't really comment on the industry in general, but when I was hired, I was the only graphic designer in the Macintosh software group," says Kare. Working within a set grid of 32 pixels x 32 pixels for her icons—which she drew out by hand on graph paper before converting to the screen—Kare not only had to select the perfect iconic metaphor for a computer’s behavior (a bomb, for example, would signal a computer crash), but also had to dispel any potential ambiguity by distilling each design down to its most essential elements.
Her designs were inspired by classic American iconography, such as the simple chalk-on-stone "hobo signals" she found in books like Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook, but were equally their own thing: a visual representation of the Mac’s sense of fun, and modern American mosaics, whose bitmapped qualities would inspire a generation of artists.
Today, Kare uses a Mac for her digital projects at Susan Kare Design. "One recent project involved developing a set of fonts and icons for Metawatch," she says. "I love new design challenges, particularly those with small screen constraints. I would love, for example, to work on digital displays in cars."
"In a way, I liken [the Mac] to music," says Simon Garfield. "I was 17 when the whole punk music scene really happened, and I felt like it was speaking directly to me. The Mac was the same. Somehow [you got the impression that] it was being made just for you. Nowadays it’s impossible to think that—despite the fact that the focus is far more on the computer being tailored to you. Despite this, you know that there are billions of these things being churned out. But in the 1980s, when I got my first Mac, you felt like you were the only person the adverts were addressing. And that was really the best marketing they could have had."
Garfield’s punk analogy works on another level since, like the sometimes suspect craftsmanship of many punk records, in its early days the Mac was a machine based less on short-term perfection than on a longer term utopian vision.
"[The Mac] had its technical shortcomings, and really wasn't perfected as a piece of hardware until several generations later… but the ideas were hugely contagious," says Leander Kahney, editor of the Cult of Mac website and author of the acclaimed biography, Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products.
"What I (and I think everyone who bought [the Macintosh] in the early days) fell in love with was not the machine itself, which was ridiculously slow and underpowered, but a romantic idea of the machine," agreed science-fiction writer Douglas Adams—an early Apple convert. "And that romantic idea has to sustain me through the realities of actually working on the 128K Mac."
Thirty years on, the technical realities of working on a Mac have greatly improved. Some of the exclusivity Garfield talks about may no longer be present, but the image of Apple as a company built by creatives, for creatives still persists.
Here’s to another 30 years.
[Image: Mac Paint via Flickr user Daniel Rehn]