I’m writing this on a shiny, smart, cool new Macbook, which means it’s almost certainly going to be several times more clever and creative than the previous bits I’ve written, which were (and I hope you can find it within yourself to forgive me, because I’m quite ashamed to admit this) all done on a very ordinary, very cheap, very plastic-encased PC. I know. I’m really sorry.
Obviously, anything created on an Apple Mac is better, in the same way a Mont Blanc fountain pen will, obviously, always produce better writing than a slightly-chewed Bic Biro. We know people who use Macs are smart and cool and clever and creative, because we’ve seen smart, cool people casually using them in Starbucks, or in smart and cool adverts, or in films, being smart and cool like people in films often are. You’re probably overwhelmed by the smart coolness of these Mac-typed letters oozing out of your screen right now, like expensive and delicious oil oozing out of a truffle (I think truffles ooze expensive and delicious oil, I think I saw it in an advert once).
As I stood in the Apple Store and handed over (a lot of) money to a smart, cool chap wearing a bright blue T shirt and sporting A Haircut, I thought back on the past three years I spent using a PC. Admittedly, it worked perfectly well, and I did all the same designing and writing on it that I would have done on a smarter, cooler computer, and it was a lot cheaper to buy, and has basically done the jobs I’ve given it to do, but it’s been an ordeal. Do I mean ordeal? Well it wasn’t a Mac, was it, so yes, actually, that’s right, it was an ordeal. I wasn’t a PC user, I was a refugee, a Mac user in exile.
Is there a reason that Apple computers are seen as the natural choice for designers? Unsurprisingly, I think there is, and I think it all comes back to typography.
While at college Steve Jobs started dropping into calligraphy classes simply because he had a passing interest in typography; “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great… 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.”
The woman who had the task of putting typography into the heart of the Mac was Susan Kare. In 1983, a year before it first went on sale, she started work on a series of digital fonts, carefully drawing each letter pixel by pixel. These fonts were the first typefaces designed for use on a computer that used something called proportional spacing – rather than having an unnatural uniform monospaced width, like on a typewriter, letters could occupy just the right space they needed to look like the typography that existed in the print world.
The first font Susan Kare designed was bold, subtly curved, with contrasting stroke widths, which made it easy to read on small computer screens. It had personality; it felt friendly and reassuring. The font was Chicago (it was briefly and awfully called Elefont, the bad pun stemming from the soft curves and boldness that gave it a sort of cartoony pachyderm quality), and it became an integral part of the early Apple Mac experience, used in every menu, button, label and system message.
In addition to Chicago, Kare also designed New York, a Roman serif font; Geneva, a Swiss-style sans serif; Athens, a solid slab serif; Los Angeles, a script face which had the appearance of handwriting; and San Francisco, a font made from a jumble of stylized characters, giving a sort of ransom-note feel. In a technological, typographical way, this was like jazz – free expression, without the restrictions and rigidities of the earlier age, was suddenly possible on a computer. Type foundries began making their own fonts available digitally, and designers began to see that the computer – crucially, the Apple Mac – could be used in a way that replicated the freedoms of traditional printing.
Designers had picked their side in the conflict with the PC. The initial allure of good typography was the call to arms, the battle lines were drawn, and the industry standard has been in the Apple camp ever since. Yes, today a designer could easily use a PC instead, but thanks in part to Jobs’ vision for a computer that could do beautiful typography, 30 years after the creation of Chicago most designers are still loyal to Apple.
And the smart, cool shininess probably helps too.
(Original Macintosh control panel image from the Susan Kare’s website www.kare.com)