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How a Portland Calligraphy Class Inspired Steve Jobs

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There’s a connection between Portland, calligraphy, and Steve Jobs that often goes unnoticed. It dates back to 1972 when Jobs audited a calligraphy class at Reed College. It happened to be taught by Robert Palladino, a world-renowned calligrapher and Roman Catholic priest who introduced university students to the elegance of the handwritten word from 1969 to 1984 (following in the footsteps of legendary calligrapher Lloyd J. Reynolds).

It stuck with Jobs and he attributed an appreciation for letterforms and the beauty they possess to these classes. Margalit Fox detailed the story of Palladino and Jobs in her beautifully crafted New York Times article, Rev. Robert Palladino, Scribe Who Shaped Apple’s Fonts, Dies at 83. Here’s a bit of the story:

The college’s calligraphy program, which flourished from 1938 until Father Palladino’s retirement, was widely regarded as the foremost in the country, training many respected artists, typographers and graphic designers. For decades, nearly every sign and poster on campus was the graceful fruit of its labor.

“‘I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,’ Mr. Jobs said in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford. ‘It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.’ He continued:

‘Ten years later, 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.’”

Little did I know that when I signed up for an elective calligraphy class on a whim my senior year of college, it would be taught by none other than Robert Palladino. He was dedicated to the craft of calligraphy—pensive, honest, and absolutely aghast if his immaculate penmanship was ever mistaken for a font. He used to tell the story of writing a check at Home Depot and having an employee say that it was so perfect, it looked computerized. Palladino was mortified.

Palladino’s life was devoted to the beauty and artistry of the handwritten word, and he shared this passion with his students. He has quite the legacy to show for it. Though writing by hand is becoming less prevalent or necessary in our increasingly digital world, I owe my own love of calligraphy to this first class—and it’s also why I teach. Whether or not we need to write, it is worthwhile.

I’ll leave you with these final words from Margalit Fox:

Though Father Palladino demonstrably influenced Mr. Jobs, the converse cannot be said. To the end of his life, Father Palladino never owned, or even once used, a computer.

“I have my hand,” he would say, “and I have my pen. That’s it.”