The visual complexities behind a tribute to Steve Jobs

Jonathan Mak's version,

This reinterpretation of the Apple logo, with its visual tribute to Steve Jobs, deserves a closer look.

It’s an image by 19-year-old Jonathan Mak, and it spread quickly online last week after Jobs’ death. The Sunday business section of The New York Times used the image to accompany Steve Lohr’s analysis of Jobs’ career, and the Times has since written about the controversy the image has created.

The image has drawn much praise, scrutiny and even accusations that it was copied from another artist, Chris Thornley, who works under the moniker Raid71. The images are indeed similar, and Mak has posted a response on his blog.  

I have no interest in wading into that fray. Rather than scrutinize the origins, I’d rather tease apart the elements that make the image so appealing. I’ll focus on Mak’s version because I think it’s better.

Here’s why I think it works:

1. Visual repartee. The design takes the familiar Apple logo and adds a twist, creating the visual equivalent of wordplay and forcing us to look at it anew.

2. Cultural symbolism. The missing piece of the Apple logo takes on added significance with Jobs’ death. The profile silhouette symbolizes a hole left in Apple the company after Jobs’ death. Or, as my students said in class this week, it symbolizes Jobs as the face of Apple. The abundance of black also symbolizes mourning.

Chris Thornley's version,

3. Stark contrast. The black and white image pulls the eye to the center of the apple, directly to the image of Jobs, and forces the viewer to confront the alterations to the familiar.

4. Simplicity. The design eliminates any distractions, making its subtlety all the more jolting. Jobs’ profile is not as widely recognizable as Apple’s logo, but it is nearly impossible to mistake when paired with the logo.

5. Storytelling. All of those elements create a visual scaffolding that allows viewers to fill in details and create their own stories about Jobs, Apple and technology. The image speaks to us because we speak to it.

I’ll add one more intangible element: emotion. One reason Mak’s design went viral is that it provided an instant visual remembrance of a man who helped shape the technology of the 21st century. Artists have incorporated emotional appeal into their work for centuries, and Mak’s image offers a reminder of why they do.

Mak’s design has created much discussion about artistic integrity, viral media, and the role of the Internet in spreading culture and challenging creative motives. Those are important discussions. Yet so is the reason they arose: the power of creative visual design.

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