Worth a thousand words

How a six-colored logo sparked my courage & changed my fate

Apple’s iconic logo has long weighed in as one of the most recognized identities in the world. Its impact signals the power of intentional design and emotional resonance in branding. The logo is more than globally recognized. It’s a favorite form of self-expression (who hasn’t seen Apple stickers on laptops, suitcases, or cars?), even in a lifelong way. People connect with that logo. It says something and inspires us to say something back.

Some have said the logo, evoking the rebellious bite taken in the Garden of Eden, subliminally signals the ability to defy God. “The symbol of lust and knowledge,” former Apple executive Jean Louis Gassee famously said. “bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order….lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy.” It’s has been scrupulously analyzed for its geometry, analyzed as an homage to a fallen computer pioneer, lovingly commemorated by its original creator, and subtly reimagined (once Apple’s identity centered on the “apple” motif) over the company’s nearly forty years.

But this is a personal story — one of a recent college graduate and how a colorful logo attracted her to an opportunity that would shape her history, maybe even catalyzing a bit of impact in return. It’s my story, actually — one that tells how that logo first drew me to Apple.

I spent the summer of 1981 on my parents’ sofa in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood, bored, disillusioned, and growing more worried about my future with each passing day. This wasn’t what I’d planned. A one-way ticket to São Paolo, Brazil sat stacked with other papers — final projects, a work visa, and a freshly minted college diploma — in a cardboard box in my folks’ hall closet. Everything in that box felt useless to me now.

A few weeks after graduation and four days before flying to South America for what I thought would be my first post-college job, fate had collided with me in the form of a vintage limousine. It rolled out of a La Jolla driveway en route to an automotive show as I pedaled my 1977 purple Peugeot PX10 down a familiar route for one final farewell ride.

The driver said he never saw me; I say he never looked. But the facts show that he exited his driveway onto Torrey Pines Boulevard at 9:10am, hitting a young woman on a purple bike as she rolled by on a sunny Sunday morning.

Things could have been worse, but they were bad enough to ground me. Damage to my left leg, doctors said, would take several months to heal.

My spirits were shattered. For the final months of my senior year I’d carefully orchestrated a dream job: one that took me to abroad to launch my sought-after career in international marketing. I’d landed an internship in Brazil and lined up living arrangements, scraped together money and bought a one-way ticket south. Returning to my parents home — incapacitated, needing crutches and careful movement simply to make my way to the bathroom — was not what I’d had in mind.

I held on to that ticket, stubbornly denying the increasing evidence I wouldn’t be able to use it: I was broke, my job in Brazil had gone to a runner-up when I couldn’t take it, and I had no idea what I wanted to do next.

Confined to my parents’ family room, unable to even get upstairs, I wondered how I’d get back on path. Stubbornly, I denied the setback. I wrote back to the other companies I’d approached in Brazil, hoping for an offer. By August I was moving around again. By September fully healed. But by October I still hadn’t figured out my next steps, and the situation, for all involved, was not getting better.

“Forget about Brazil,” my father told me one morning. He hadn’t liked the idea in the first place. It was more than an accident, he’d said, that kept me from going there. “Divine intervention,” I think, was the phrase he’d used.

“Get a job here,” he told me, tossing me the San Jose Mercury News. “These computer companies are popping up everywhere. Look at the classifieds. Send them your resume. One of these companies will have something for someone like you.”

It sucks when you know your parents are right.

I thumbed halfheartedly through the ads, scanning the lackluster descriptions of entry-level jobs offered by various technology companies. I’d taken a computer class in college, one where we used punch cards to get a computer to type our names or solve simple math problems. 2 + 2 = 4, I made one tell me. It took hours of programming to conjure things I could have calculated myself in an instant.

I didn’t see the point. And “Entry level technical writer” or “Customer support representative?” I could neither comprehend such a role nor conjure how I would manage to do it for some company that made those big pointless things called computers. Their nondescript names — all of those “info” and “cogni” and “sys” syllables, the boring descriptions: what could they offer someone like me, a person who dreamed of traveling and creating and somehow using her love of art and language and new ideas to start a satisfying, adventurous career journey?

But then there was reality. I wanted to off of my parents’s sofa and on with my life, and I needed a job to make that happen.

I sent out nearly 100 resumes in September and October 1981 and felt like I received 200 rejection letters in return. “Not a fit for your qualifications at this time,” they all said, curt words typed on dull-logoed letterhead bearing indistinguishable meaningless names. “We will contact you if an opportunity meeting your abilities becomes available in the future.”

My daily walk to my parents’ mailbox grew steadier, but my steps had no spring. I dreaded collecting the stack of rejection letters that awaited me each morning, five or six each day. As October wound down I felt drained and defeated. I considered a restaurant job, or maybe taking my mother’s advice: learn to type and apply for something secretarial. I researched the Peace Corps. Wrote to a company that placed English teachers in Japan.

Then…something happened. An unusual envelope in one morning’s delivery caught my eye. In the upper corner, six bright colors formed the shape of an apple, a rounded bite chomped out of the juiciest part. A friendly font declared the name “Apple,” so different than the “tyc” and “syn” and “ian” non-words labeling the colorless envelopes that were the norm.

I tore it open, hoping.

Alas: I read the same script I’d read in all of the other letters: no current fit. They would let me know if an opportunity meeting my abilities became available in the future.

But that letter! It wasn’t typed like the other ones; it was printed smoothly on velvety white-white paper and it had that rainbow-striped Apple in the corner, the one that had been deliciously chomped.

It also included the name of the human resources specialist who had sent it, and a phone number I still remember by heart: 408–996–1010.

I dialed it.

Apple was the only company whose rejection I challenged, which is what I did when that HR specialist picked up the phone. I told her that I’d received her letter but felt she’d made a mistake. I enumerated my skills and qualifications and resonance with that beautiful logo in a stream of consciousness that could have left her feeling confronted, might have left her amused, but, lucky me, somehow left her listening.

At the end of the call she told me that she had one idea she would look into, and by the next day I had an interview scheduled on Bandley Drive. A week later I started at Apple, staring wide-eyed at the camera as it snapped the picture that would grace my laminated badge: Ellen Petry, Communications Specialist, Employee #3039. Hire date: November 10, 1981.

That experience taught me a lesson in persistence, but it also taught me a lesson in brand. That rainbow Apple aligned somehow with something that mattered to me: friendliness, playfulness, perhaps; confidence and charm. It spoke to me. “I’m different,” it said, in a way that made me want to be different too.

Steve knew that. He had championed the early logo and the colors that enlivened it. He knew it was a symbol of his company but also a representation of its values, its vision — and it helped Apple stand out among the rest to many others besides me.

What do the “symbols” that represent your company communicate to the people who experience them? What is the vision or value you’ve charged those symbols with communicating? What’s the emotion you want your company to inspire? Does the story behind your logo illuminate the intention of your company? If not, is there a way for it to evolve?

Do it. It’s worth the thought, the vision, the effort to get it right. Maybe you’ll change the destiny of your company…or at least of the people who join it.