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3 Essential Branding Lessons From A Rare Steve Jobs Interview

Jobs’s work with legendary designer Paul Rand taught him lessons that any designer, client, or entrepreneur should take to heart.

3 Essential Branding Lessons From A Rare Steve Jobs Interview
[Photo: Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images]

The year is 1986. Steve Jobs meets Paul Rand, the genius responsible for branding IBM, UPS, and Westinghouse. Having just been ousted from Apple, Steve asks Rand to create a logo for his new company, Next Inc. Rand accepts the job. Over the following months–and years–Jobs would learn from Rand, who came of age in a very different era of company-building. Those lessons would include how to brand a startup, but also what a logo can–and can not–do for a company. In this 1993 interview, Jobs talks about the experience.

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Jobs recounts that he didn’t know much about Rand himself but was struck by his work, especially his “extremely powerful and emotional” Eye-Bee-M logo. But after reading a few books about his creation, he decided not to approach any other designer about the possibility of branding the new company–he only wanted Rand.

He knew that the legendary modernist designer didn’t work for startups, only with well-established corporations, like IBM or Ford. Jobs knew it wasn’t a matter of money; he could easily afford Rand’s $100,000 price tag, almost a quarter million in 2017’s dollars. It was about Rand’s first principle of design: “A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.” In other words, Rand believed that a logo could only be as good as the company it represents. It’s like a band’s name–if the Rolling Stones had sucked, we would all be laughing at their stupid moniker. But since they rocked, the name and iconic tongue symbol are remembered as awesome.

Rand made this variation of his famous striped IBM logo in 1981 as a graphic for the company’s Think campaign. Steve Jobs found it powerful, emotional, and just simply delightful. [Image: IBM]
Nevertheless, Rand accepted, perhaps due to Steve’s so-called Reality Distortion Field–his infamous talent for convincing you of anything he wanted. “He said he’d love to do it,” as Jobs explains in the interview. After accepting, Rand made many visits to Next’s offices, full of ex-Apple employees who followed their beloved captain (they actually called themselves a band of pirates back then) from Apple’s Macintosh division to this new adventure.

Jobs says that Rand soon understood their predicament. Next didn’t want just a logotype, like any other company. It wanted a symbol, too, a “sort of a jewel” as he calls it–what designers call a logomark. Steve got what he wanted and, in the process, learned a few crucial lessons about branding that would influence his later work.

[Image: Wiki Commons]

Avoiding The “A Decade And $100 Million” Problem

The problem with logomarks is that it requires lots of money to associate one with a brand name. Any company that wants to have a symbol, Jobs says, will have to “spend 10 years and $100 million” to make the association between the symbol and the company name in the consumer’s mind–like Nike’s swoosh.

Perhaps Jobs and his gang’s obsession with having a strong symbol came from their past in Cupertino. Apple’s logomark was a powerful, unmistakable symbol, something that embodied their work and pride. Jobs says that Apple’s symbol represents the name of the company itself, so it was easy for the public to make the connection without spending so much money and time associating them. This thought was echoed by Apple’s trademark designer, Rob Janoff, who says that Steve didn’t give him any brief except the name itself. Janoff designed the Apple outline and added the bite for scale–so people couldn’t confuse it with a cherry. (The notion that it came from Alan Turing’s cyanide-loaded suicide apple is a legend.)

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Rand–who Jobs describes as a curmudgeon with a bright intellect and a heart of gold–listened to their collective wish, and, as a result, Jobs believed that Rand approached the project “as a problem that had to be solved, not as an artistic challenge for its own sake.” He found the solution to this dilemma by incorporating the logotype into a black cube that was angled at 28 degrees, successfully accomplishing his own second rule of design at the same time: “The only mandate in logo design is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.”

Rand delivered a 100-page brand standards book in which he developed the brand identity and created a mythos for it (“Presentation is key” was his third rule of design). He changed the spelling of the company to NeXT, giving the lowercase “e” new meaning: excellence, expertise, exceptional, or excitement. Even education, its target market. By chance, since there was no NeXT hardware when Rand created it, the symbol itself became a representation of NeXT’s first workstation, a black magnesium cube that debuted two years later for $6,500, or $13,400 in 2017 dollars. (Below you can see Rand handing the books over to Next employees–including Jobs, who was excited even though he’d already seen the logo.)

The lesson? Great logos aren’t made overnight–and marks that contain a company’s name, like NeXT or ABC, or fully represent it in a graphical way, like Apple, offer a shortcut. Avoid logomarks if you can. Otherwise, be prepared to spend a decade and $100 million marketing it.

The Designer Is There To Solve A Problem, Not Suggest “Options”

After so many decades of work, Rand had developed very clear “conclusions” on how the relationship between the designer and the client should be conducted. Jobs recalls:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, “No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution! If you want options, go talk to other people! But I will solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you, you are the client. But you pay me.”

Jobs says that Rand’s process had a “clarity that was refreshing.” It’s something that every entrepreneur would do well to remember: Don’t ask for options. You’re hiring someone who knows how to solve these problems better than you–just like you’d hire an accountant or a marketing specialist.

[Photo: Rama & Musée Bolo/Wiki Commons]

Brands Don’t Make Companies

Thanks to this process–and Rand’s genius–the NeXT logo is indeed a brilliant piece of design. It exemplifies all of Rand’s four rules of design–including the last one: “Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.”

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But in the end, the brand didn’t make the company. For Jobs, Rand’s first rule of design–remember the Rolling Stones?–was playing out in dramatic fashion when he gave this interview. His company was on the ropes, forced to abandon the hardware business entirely–a process that his biographers say crushed his soul. And thus, the cool logo Rand had created became a synonym with the fall of a founder and the failure of the overpriced, underpowered computers he tried to sell to universities all over the world. Sure, Apple bought NeXT and its software became the heart of every Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, but the company failed as such.

The logo, archived at MoMA, was beautiful and striking. But ultimately useless. That’s perhaps the third and most important takeaway from this interview: Don’t expect your brand design to make your company or product better. It won’t, so don’t obsess over it. Sure, it’s important to put serious thought into it, and for it to feel right. But if your company fails, it won’t matter. And if it does succeed, you can use your billions of dollars to perfect it down to the last pixel.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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