How a Calligraphy Pen Rewrote Steve Jobs' Life

Steve Jobs Illustration - P 2011

Steve Jobs Illustration - P 2011

Steve Jobs' ex-Trappist monk calligraphy teacher put him on the spiritual path to changing the world.

I know where Steve Jobs' inspiration came from, because I walked into the same place three months after he'd left in 1974: the calligraphy building at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. "My first impression was that all the other students really liked him," says Jobs' first calligraphy professor (and mine), Robert Palladino. "That surprised me, because there were all these geniuses floating around, and Steve was a dropout. But they detected greatness even then."

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Jobs was a genius dropout with drive, so after his one 1972 semester as a paying student, he hung out at Reed for 18 months more, studying calligraphy as single-mindedly as a monk. Later, Jobs joined a Reed friend (and future Apple employee) to study like a monk in the Himalayas, barefoot, with shaved head and robes. But his first monastery was Reed's calligraphy room, run by Palladino, who'd been a Trappist monk for 18 years.

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Silicon Valley's future most famous screamer studied with a monk who spent years taking a vow of silence. "Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country," Jobs said when he gave Stanford's 2005 graduation speech. "Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed…I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture." Calligraphing like a monk gave Jobs an esthetic sense most math-nerd tech giants (like Bill Gates) lack.

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"About two years later Steve came back to Reed to tell me he was working on computers out of his parents' garage," says Palladino, now a retired priest doing masses in English and Latin in Oregon. "He wanted  to consult with me about my Greek letters." As Jobs told Stanford's graduates, "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. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them."

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It wasn't just a calligraphic skill Jobs picked up at Reed. It was a mindset. At orientation, freshmen were told, "You're here to measure your mind against the person sitting next to you, and the greatest minds who ever lived." Reed's dropout, suicide, and grad-school admissions rates were sky-high. Social skills and gradepoint averages were low. At Stanford, any grade below a C was erased from students' records. At Reed, there was no gentleman's C, and you were expected to be too pure to even ask what your grades were. Your goal was perfection. It was all about questing individualism, original thinking, ruthless meritocracy. The school mascot was an image of burning ambition: a griffin blazing like the sun.

"Steve had a flamethrower mind," says Tim Girvin, a calligrapher who started out on the Reed scene and went on to design logos for 400 films, from Apocalypse Now to The Adventures of Tintin, and also for Jobs, who invited him to work on a mouse-activated computer -- a "M.A.C." "Steve said, 'You have to come down to Apple, I have something I've got to show you.' I was amazed to be flown down to work on experiments in type design for this technology still wrapped in secrecy. I came in from the outside to work for him as a renegade, to think differently about how to approach that design.

"The mouse, the cursor device, was contained in some kind of cardboard with wire coming out the end. 'Could you draw a logo for the Mac computer by hand with this cursor, on the computer itself?' he asked. I couldn't. The screen was tiny, the pixels large. So instead, by hand, I made drawings for the logo and of the computer, all done with a calligraphic brush tool."

Jobs loved the result. Good thing he liked it. "If you were on his good side, it was always, what is the next tier of perfection? What's the next thing you could do that would be better? And if you were on the bad side, then you were gone. Steve had a real temper. There was yelling -- not tied with me. There was furniture kind of tossed around a room. He had a real focus, a path he was on, and you were either on the path and going there or you were not. People write about being terrorized by Steve Jobs, and I think it was because of that crazy passion and fire he had. He was wildly passionate about doing new amazing things."

"Ethically, Steve was as nice a guy as you could meet," says Palladino, who never saw Jobs in his chair-throwing days. "A real nice fellow." Palladino's attempts to get back in touch with Jobs after fame struck were rebuffed by Apple, whose office responded with a silence stonier than any Trappist's. Since Jobs' death, Palladino has gotten calls from as far away as China, asking for insights into where Jobs' talent came from. Asked which actors should play Jobs and himself in the potential Sony movie adaptation of Walter Isaacson's Jobs bio (published Oct. 24), Palladino says, "I don't see many movies. I never saw a TV until I got out of the cloister."

Jobs hired Girvin to do more designs many times over the years. "When he started NeXT [the computer company Jobs launched in 1985], he said, 'Can you brew up some kind of visual expression for how we tell the story of NeXT?' He said that brand was so corporate and disciplined, he needed to add some magical expressive power to that." To Steve Jobs, calligraphy was the magic that enlivens science. "Almost all of my correspondence with him was handwritten. That was part of our connection, the return to the hand." Girvin says the last time they were in contact, seven or eight years ago, Jobs was a changed man. "He became much more calm. In the beginning, he was so young, so passionate, so crazy, and so direct, it was a different kind of energy. I think he just became more serene in his character."

"The day of Steve's death, I took my iPad and started drawing sketches about the Mac, starting exactly where I was with Steve 30 years ago," says Girvin. This time, he didn't need a calligraphy pen -- and the iPad is actually cheaper than the Pelikan pen that Palladino uses. "Now the iPad gives you the ability to take pictures and notes and drawings and ideas, and converge them in one space, seamlessly." At last, Girvin can do what Jobs asked him to do way back when (see drawing above). "It goes right back to the initial computer dream," says Girvin.

"You can’t connect the dots looking forward," Jobs told the Stanford grads. "You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."