The Simplicity of Apple's Advertising : 1977-1997

by Linus Edwards

Apple has always been known for its beautiful minimalist design. Products like the original Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone all follow that guiding line of simplicity. Apple tends to winnow out any superfluous design accents that don't fit within the overall oneness of a product. This obsession with minimalist design also extends out to other areas of the company, including their advertising.

I've collected print ads from Apple, from their earliest days in the late 1970s to the present, which illuminate their continued focus on simplicity in design. In the first part of this two part series, I’ll look at Apple’s first twenty years of advertising.

Apple came right out of the gate with their vision of simplicity fully formed. This “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” ad was one of the first produced by the company and eschewed most staples of advertising. No long winded ad copy, no technical specs, not even a picture of the actual computer. It was simply a “mission statement” as to how Apple wanted the world to think about their philosophy. In some ways it's a bit pretentious, but I think Steve Jobs wanted to emphasize how Apple was different from its competitors. This ad made that abundantly clear.

Apple initially continued with extremely simple ads for the Apple II, this one being a great example. While obviously the kitchen and outfits are very dated, the composition of the ad is classic. A single photograph of a scene of people using a computer with the words "Introducing Apple II" overlaid. Apple wasn’t using gimmicks to sell the computer, but simply showed the product and the name.

Sampling of Apple ads from the late 70s and early 80s.

However, this wave of initial simplicity in Apple’s ads took a turn rather quickly in the late 70s and early 80s and entered a dark period for a number of years afterwards. Apple began to rely on the typical computer ads of the day, including ones that had actors dressed as historical figures and other very cluttered ads that looked ugly and lacked any semblance of minimalism. I can only imagine Jobs was focused on other things at the time for some of these to be approved.

By the early 80s Apple once again seemed to get its footing back in its advertising and came back to focusing on simplicity.

This is the original ad for the Apple Lisa, which was Apple’s first attempt at a GUI based computer. I would bet money Jobs personally approved this ad, because it seems to have his handwriting all over it. It consists of only a beautiful picture of the computer, and a simple phrase, "Apple invents the personal computer. Again." No specs, no long winded ad copy, not even an Apple logo. It's pure simplicity and yet is very powerful. Unfortunately, despite this beautiful ad, the Apple Lisa didn't make it in the marketplace.

Apple eventually moved beyond the Lisa and produced the landmark Macintosh computer, which used simplicity as its biggest revolutionary feature. That was reflected in the advertising for the original Mac.

Here's the cover of an advertising pamphlet for the original Macintosh. Again, it follows a similar pattern to the Apple Lisa ad - simple text on top of a photograph.

When you turn the page over, there's a two page spread showing the Mac in its full glory, stating simply, "Introducing Macintosh. For the rest of us." It does add a bit of clutter with its extra paragraphs of text and a photo of the Mac team, but overall it's firmly in the minimalist Apple ideal of advertising.

Apple later that year had an interesting experiment in buying out every ad slot in an issue of Newsweek magazine. While this could have led to a major overload of advertising, they thought out each page as part of a greater whole and made great use of minimalism in the ads.

You can see the first two pages combine to form a picture of the Mac. No title, no words, nothing besides a simple picture. While the later pages in the ad contain words and descriptions, having the section begin with a bare picture of your product is a bold move. Apple had the faith that they designed the Mac so well that it could look good without any adornment.

These two pages from the Newsweek ads are clearly the heart and soul of Apple advertising. Of course it has the simple picture with a sentence overlaid. But, the way it’s framed gets to why the Mac is revolutionary – because you can control it with a mouse. The simplicity is not just a gimmick, it emphasizes what’s truly important about the product. A person doesn’t get lost in ad copy looking at this, but sees a hand touching a mouse and knows that’s the focus of the Mac.

This is the back cover of the Newsweek, with one of my favorite Apple ads of all-time. Apple was so confident in how good the Mac looked, it didn’t mind using the back of it in a full page ad on the back cover of a major magazine. Nothing else, just the back of the Mac and an Apple logo. So simple, yet more effective at getting your attention than almost anything else they could have put on the back cover.

After the release of the Mac, Apple had more mixed results in their advertising although had sparks of beautiful simplicity. The ad campaign for the Apple IIGS was rather brilliant and used all the hallmarks of great Apple ads.

This might be Apple’s simplest ad ever for one of their products. It removes even pictures and is simply black text on a white background. It invokes the creativity of historical figures in a similar vein to their later “Think Different” campaign. The utter starkness of the ad actually makes it stand out more than a colorful ad full of pictures that would blend into the background noise of most advertising.

This “ear” ad for the IIGS consist of a simple picture, a short catchy sentence, and a small picture of the actual computer. It uses the simplicity of an ear to emphasize that the IIGS would have sound be one of the main features. The IIGS was Apple’s most advanced computer in terms of sound and music at the time. Instead of simply stating that through specs and long winded explanation, this ad conveys it in a simpler but more memorable way.

Sampling of Apple ads from the early to mid 90s.

By the early to mid 90s, Apple’s ads still contained kernels of the former emphasis on simplicity from earlier years, yet, they started to lose their way. Ads began to cram more and more information into them, and became more similar to the competition. There are no clear examples of a truly minimalist ad in this time period that was on par with some of the earlier examples. Apple lost its way both in terms of computers and advertising during the 90s.

However, by 1997, Steve Jobs made his famous return to Apple, rejuvenating not only the product line, but also bringing back, in full force, their emphasis on simplicity in advertising.

Continue reading Part 2 of this series exploring Apple’s advertising from 1997 to the present.

The Podcasters : Brad Fortin

by Linus Edwards

This is a continuing series in which I interview great podcasters to learn about their podcasting setups. While the content is always the most important aspect of a podcast, the technical craft in bringing that content to the listeners also deserves attention. I hope this series will illuminate that critical piece of the puzzle.

Brad Fortin is a Canadian podcaster (our third Canadian in this series) who is currently focussed on growing his own independent podcasting network.

What podcasts do you host?

My forray into podcasting began with my friend Tal. For a long time we floated around the idea of a podcast and finally got into it toward the end of 2012 with The Distraction. It started off as a tech site and podcast and slowly evolved into an interview show. We had quite a few good shows over its run but due to time constraints we weren't able to keep a regular schedule and eventually decided to put the show on indefinite hiatus.

Then, toward the end of 2013 I decided to start my own podcast, with BlackJack, and hookers. Alright, no BlackJack, nor hookers, but I did start podcasting again. I actually started a few podcasts in the hopes of eventually creating a small network of podcasts, under the Two Mono Channels network. The name is a play on words from when Tal and I were chatting with Dan Benjamin of 5by5. We were discussing editing and quality, there was a bit of confusion about mixing, and the Two Mono Channels name was born from the confusion.

I'm still not quite sure which direction I'm taking with the network. In terms of content it's all over the place with about a dozen ideas for podcasts, and a few episode ideas per podcast. In terms of scheduling I'm aiming for at least 1 new episode per month from the network. Eventually, if I get all my podcast ideas off the ground, I hope to have 1 episode of each podcast out per month. With up to a dozen podcasts that should work out to 2 or 3 episodes per week, which I think is manageable but might be a bit much if I'm trying to balance that with a full-time job. My current focus is on The Metacast, a podcast about podcasts and podcasting, and Handsome Bearded Gentlemen, a discussion show where beards and manners are optional but handsomeness is always assured.

The problem with podcasting is that there isn't a very good way to make money from it. More than anything it's a hobby for me right now. If I ever monetize Two Mono Channels I don't want it to be through ads because I hate ads. I've had a few ideas for monetization but until I try them I won't know how effective they are. I look forward to trying them out later this year.

What's your physical rig? (Computer, Mic, headphones, other accessories.)

I use my iMac as my recording machine. It's a late-2009, 27" (2560x1440), 2.8 GHz Intel quad-core i7-860 (the only iMac at the time with Hyper-Threading), with 12 GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 4850 with 512 MB of VRAM, a 180 GB SSD as my OS X Mavericks drive, and a 120 GB SSD as my Boot Camp drive.

On the OS X side I have HiDPI mode enabled so that the screen behaves like a giant 1280x720 display, similar to how the MacBook Pro with Retina Display works. I also run most of my apps in Full Screen mode. I'm a monster. I keep Boot Camp for gaming despite the fact that the ATI 4850 can barely handle any new games unless I set the resolution to 720p.

I use a Shure PG27-USB as my recording microphone, which I got cheaply from a co-worker who didn't need it. The only thing keeping me from "eating the mic", as it's commonly called, is a pop filter. Most of the time I have a pair of Apple EarBuds plugged into the mic as a secondary output for my Mac, but when I record I use my Bose QC-20s.

What type of room do you record in?

I record in my bedroom, of all places. Until I get my own place this is the best I can do and it's worked well enough for me so far. It can get a little loud once in a while because my room is next to the kitchen, to the back door to the house, and to the bathroom. I try to schedule my recording away from those busy times, but once in a while you can hear someone doing dishes or running water in the background. I don't mind it all that much.

Ideally I'd record from an office or recording studio (dreaming big!).

What software do you use for recording and editing?

I typically use Skype for the calls, Call Recorder for Skype to record the audio, and then GarageBand for editing. I don't have very much experience with editing and GarageBand already has more tools than I know how to use so I don't see myself upgrading my editing software until I have greater needs or a piece of software comes out that makes it easier and faster.

I've been told I should invest in a program like Logic or Hindenburg but that's more than I'm willing to spend on a hobby that's not making any money at the moment, especially when GarageBand already meets or exceeds my needs.

What do you use to host your podcasts online?

I currently use Squarespace (the all-in-one platform that makes it easy to create your own website, blog, or portfolio...) to host my podcasts, although I've also considered Simplecast for its simplicity, or Libsyn for its versatility and robustness.

What's your basic workflow for recording a podcast and taking it to the published stage?

The first step to recording any podcast is to create the universe.

When recording a podcast I like to start with some good show notes, or at least a good idea of what I want to record. It sometimes takes days, even weeks to come up with just the right set of show notes or show ideas. If there's a guest I'll get a hold of them and see how much information they need, such as the show notes, and schedule a recording time.

Once the show is recorded I split the tracks if I need to, then I meticulously arrange the audio files in a series of folders, backup folders, and Dropbox folders. Just in case.

After that's taken care of I open an existing template for one of my podcasts or start a new one, drag the files in, and begin stripping the audio of all the parts I don't want. It's like taking a piece of wood, ice, or aluminium and carving it into a work of art. It takes lots of work, lots of time, and lots of patience. It also requires that I listen to the show multiple times, and parts of the show dozens or hundreds of times until it's been put together correctly.

Then I export the audio, create a new post on Squarespace, upload the audio, fill out the metadata, and schedule the post for publishing.

Would you like to change anything about your current podcasting setup?

The most important thing I'd like to change is portability.

Right now my life is split between living at home during the week (before and after work), and staying with my fiancé during the weekend. My biggest problem with this is that I can only go through most of my recording workflow when I'm at home during the week, either before or after work. The rest of the time I'm without my tools. Being able to bring them with me would give me a bit more versatility.

The alternative would be having my own place. My fiancé and I have been house hunting for over 2 years but still haven't found a place that we like. Once we have our own place I won't need my tools to be portable and I'll be able to record in a better environment.

Neither of those would make my shows any better, but they would at least make the workflow easier for me.

I'd also consider getting a new Mac soon. My iMac is getting close to 5 years old, it's running faster than ever thanks to my recent RAM and SSD upgrades, but the i7-860 and ATI (now AMD, that's how long it's been) 4850 can barely keep up with Mavericks. I'd like to upgrade to a 13" MacBook Pro with Retina Display, but only if it gets a better GPU like Intel's Iris Pro graphics or the dedicated graphics that the 15" model can get. When I upgrade I want a machine that's better than my current machine in every way, even if I'm going from a desktop to a laptop.

Also, if I could make enough money from this to hire someone to take care of all the booking, recording, editing, mixing, and publishing, that would be great.

The Simplified Complexity of Apps

by Linus Edwards

On a recent episode of CMD+Space, Russell Ivanovic, one of the creators of Pocket Casts, discussed the competition that has grown around his app:

I think the downside though of us kind of being one of the bigger players is that a lot of these new apps that are coming out, their selling point is that they’re super simple. We started with that concept originally. In fact there's an app that came out recently, Castro, and the way that app is laid out, obviously not the way it looks, but the way it's laid out is very, very similar to version 1 or version 2 of Pocket Casts, even down to the podcast and episode toggle thing at the top. I'm not saying they copied us, I don't think they would have ever seen those versions of Pocket Casts. But more that a lot of the ideas these guys are having are ideas we've had originally, and we've kind of refined those ideas and changed them over time. But the benefit they have is they can come into the market and they can say - here's something super simple, way simpler than Pocket Casts, and so much easier to understand, and not many features and nothing to get sort of tripped over by. Where as we can't really do that.

Once you have a customer base and once you're supporting all of them and once they come to love all the different features that you have, it's never easy to try and pare that stuff back. But I mean on the flip side of that is I see a lot of those apps that launch and people are like "I love his app, it's so awesome, so simple." And then they'll request every single feature that they have in Downcast or Pocket Casts or Instacast or whatever podcasting app they use. It’s interesting to see what those guys do with that then. Do they keep their app simple or do they start slowly adding those features in?

CMD+Space “87: Developing a Podcast App, with Russell Ivanovic” 1:03:00

For years I've noticed that most applications slowly evolve from simple to complex. In some ways it’s just the natural order of the universe, that things will always evolve over time and become more complicated. However, the rapid pace of technology seems to push apps extremely quickly in this direction. Something like a stapler can pretty much remain in its original form for decades. However, a word processing application can't remain the same for even a year or two without people complaining and wanting updates and new features and more functionality.

Therein lies the difficulty in making an app with the intention of having it be simple - can you keep that up indefinitely? Say you want to make a simple, elegantly designed photo editing app. You release it and it's popular and widely praised for its simplicity. Then what do you do? Can you just decide you've achieved your vision and leave it in the app store, untouched, for the next five years?

Past history seems to give a resounding "no" to that question. Apps that aren't updated or changed are seen as languishing or even dead. Users usually quickly flee and something almost always steps in to corner the market. So app developers are always under this constant pressure to iterate and improve an app - the biggest way being to add more features and complexity. Yet, that then quickly takes away the minimalistic aesthetic that made the app so appealing in the first place.

The quote about Pocket Casts shows the churn that this type of app development causes. You first have the super simple and elegant app that becomes a hit in version 1.0. However, as the versions continue, features are added, the interface is overhauled, more settings are added, more options, more of everything. At a certain point, a competitor usually tries to swoop in with a "simple" alternative and many flock to that. However, that simple competitor than will undergo the same evolution as the original hit app, and the cycle continues.

This isn't exclusive to apps either. A great example of this churn can be seen in the evolution of Apple's operating systems. Look all the way back to the early 80s and Apple had the rather complex and hard to use Apple II system in place. However, it ditched that for the Macintosh, a much simpler, easier to use OS. But the Mac OS followed the usual pattern of gaining more and more complexity over the years.

So what eventually happened? The churn continued when Apple introduced the super simplified iPhone, a complete break from all the complex baggage of the Mac. Version 1.0 of iOS (then simply called iPhone OS) didn't have apps, multitasking, or even copy and paste. Yet, seven years later, iOS is tremendously more complex compared to the original 1.0 release. Yet, users wanted that, they cried out for features every year, and Apple added them back in every year.

I don't see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can't keep both sides happy. You can initially satisfy the simple side, but soon users shift their focus and clamor for complexity. It's contradictory behavior, as is much of human nature. It becomes a game of tug of war - the developer pulling on one side to keep his or her app's ideal minimalist vision, and the users pulling on the other side by requesting more and more functionality. There doesn't seem to be a clear cut answer to this issue, and instead we are left with the ever present churning of simple to complex, simple to complex...

We're All Going to Die Someday

by Linus Edwards

I was listening to the latest episode of Cultivate recently and was struck by this little tangent Ben Alexander went on:

So when I get frustrated at something like Twitter, it’s not about Twitter. It’s not about I got into this conversation, I don’t like where’s it’s going and now I want out of it. It’s not that I don’t want to have the conversation, it’s I don’t want to have the conversation in a completely uncontrolled environment, with people that may or may not care what we’re talking about, that may or may not be trolling, that may or may not have anything valuable to add… and I’m going to die someday.

Cultivate “Maybe They Both Can Be True” 1:13.00

This is a thought I've had many times in my life. I'll be in a situation and get caught up in some argument or drama about something and then after awhile step back and realize how utterly meaningless it all is. Why am I spending the precious time in my life arguing with a stranger on the internet about whether Apple should release a watch, or whether someone's tweet was actually offensive or not? These issues are so pointless compared to wars and family and the real things in life that matter. In the end, we all will die someday. On our deathbed will we regret not arguing enough on the internet?

However, as my brain pushes off in that direction, I also realize I might be overthinking things. Sid O'Neil wrote a great article discussing this:

The fallacious idea that there is something wrong with complaining about something that isn't the MAXIMUM WORST THING EVER. How dare you complain about your day when there are people dying somewhere in the world?


If you follow the logic here it ends up that the only thing anyone should ever complain about is genocide.

I see his point, if you worry all the time about whether you actually are talking about or doing important things, you'd end up only talking about genocide and joining the Peace Corps. While some people actually do that, I'm not sure it's healthy to take things to that extreme all the time. Sometimes you just need a little fun in your life, some release from reality. You can't completely give yourself over to the most important things every waking moment of your life or else you will burn out very quickly.

That's where I'm conflicted and wonder how one balances those two things? How much time should you spend playing video games or debating someone on Twitter or watching bad television? I'd tend to think at this point people do it far too often than they should. That's where Ben's quote about how we all will die someday strikes a chord with me. I see that way of thinking as a tool. If you are engaged in something that is rather meaningless, step back and think that to yourself, "I will die someday, is this really worth continuing?"

It puts everything in a much clearer perspective. You might realize that you should just close your computer at that point and play with your children. Basically, everyone should strive for some type of balance in their life. You can't completely become a perfect individual who never does anything that isn't truly meaningful, but you can't waste large chunks of your existence on this earth in meaningless pursuits. You need to pick your battles and always keep the fact that time is short in the back of your mind.

I'll leave you with this Steve Jobs quote which I realize has become very clichéd, but many times something becomes a cliché because it contains some truth:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.