Think Retro: A love letter to the Apple logo

apple logo 5

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Welcome to Think Retro, a new weekly column which is unashamedly in love with yesterday’s Apple. Over the next few weeks you’ll see a mix of practical advice, hidden histories and wildly nostalgic love letters to beautiful old pieces of hardware and software—but we start with the Apple logo. More specifically, we start with the classic, rainbow Apple logo—the real Apple logo, I’m sure you’ll agree. Like a lot of us, I miss it hugely.

Actually, what I miss even more than the abstract idea of the rainbow Apple logo are the little badges that used to be affixed onto Apple hardware, stuck into a perfect, slight recess in the plastic. Here’s what I’m talking about, and in this case, it’s emblazoned on the very last Apple product ever to sport it. (Bonus points to you if you can name which product that was before I tell you at the end!)

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There’s something intensely pleasing, isn’t there, about how it’s glossy and smooth, nestled in that sea of roughly textured black plastic—a wave-polished pebble on a sandy beach. Of course, for most of its life, following its introduction on the Apple II in 1977, it adorned not black computers but beige, as on my Macintosh Classic II here.

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I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over the childlike excitement I get from seeing that logo, that badge, on a computer. It speaks to me of delight and quality and, frankly a kind of exclusivity and unattainability; we had Amstrad PCWs at home in Scotland when I was a kid because there was no way we could afford a Mac. This is a big part of the reason I have a terrible weakness for buying vintage Apple stuff on eBay now – it’s because for a few bucks I can actually own the things that I yearned impotently for when I was a youngster.

Michael Scott (Apple’s first CEO in this context, not a regional manager for Dunder Mifflin) called it “the most expensive bloody logo ever designed”, partly because color reproduction used to be vastly more expensive than black and white 30-some years ago. From the very beginning, though, its designer, Rob Janoff, presented monochrome and metallic versions alongside the rainbow one, a necessity since full-color reproduction everywhere was impractical. So you could say that ditching the colored stripes was at least as much a retro move as keeping them!

I think I love it so much to this day, though, because it so obviously is an expensive badge to add to a computer; it’s not just something silk-screened on as they roll off the assembly line.

When Apple jettisoned the rainbow Apple logo, the company said, “We’ve reduced some of the clutter in the original design […] Instead of rainbow stripes, solid colors. Instead of just one solid color, a palette of logo colors to suit a variety of uses. Solid colors emphasize the timeless shape of the Apple logo.”

And I guess they’re right—the current, clean logo, which these days you usually see as a simple silhouette or lit up on a laptop lid, certainly doesn’t seem retro like the rainbow one. But for me at least, it’s just not as exciting. There’s something wildly satisfying and compelling about these old badges—the promise, always delivered-on, of an experience like no other available at the time.

The writing was on the wall, of course. On the last Mac ever to sport the rainbow badge (it was a PowerBook G3, of course, in the picture at the top; specifically, 1998’s Wallstreet II), the lit-up logo on the back was pure white:

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And no, we haven’t put that picture in upside down. In those days, the Apple logo was the right way up as the laptop faced you when you opened it, but this meant that when it was open, the logo appeared upside down. Why? Because Steve Jobs put the user’s needs first. But as Ken Segall recounts in his book Insanely Simple, “Look around today and the answer is pretty obvious. Every laptop on earth has a logo that’s right-side-up when the machine is opened. Back then, it wasn’t so obvious, probably because laptops were not yet ubiquitous.”

Mind you, those glowing logos were white presumably as much for dull practical reasons as for any strategic branding ones; the way they work is by essentially cutting a hole in the lid to allow the backlight that makes your screen glow to leak out the back, and making them multicolored would have added complexity.

That didn’t stop me, though, making the Apple logo on my old iBook G4 glow in rainbow colors in tribute; I was delighted to discover that an original (pre-Garamond!) Apple logo sticker I bought on eBay fitted over it perfectly:

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Am I a sentimental old fool for loving the old Apple logo so much? Will the simple, plain silhouette mean as much to the next generation? Do you miss it as I do?

Christopher Phin has been writing about Apple for more than 12 years in the UK, working on MacUser, MacFormat, and Mac|Life, and he launched Tap! The iPhone and iPad magazine. He loves all Apple stuff but has a special fondness for anything made last century. Follow him at @chrisphin.

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