Picasso’s Drawings of Bulls Inspired Apple’s Famously Simple Designs
“It takes a lot of hard work,” Steve Jobs once said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”
He was referring, of course, to Apple and its notoriously rigorous design process. But he could just as easily have been describing a series of 11 lithographs created by Pablo Picasso between 1945 and ’46, collectively titled “The Bull.” Beginning with an artfully shaded, realistically rendered bull, and ending with a handful of lines that evoke the animal in the simplest possible terms, the series is a step-by-step example of how to break an image down into its most indispensable visual components.
iMac PowerMac G4 800Mhz 2002 Mouse. Image by Carl Berkeley via Flickr.
These days, Apple incorporates Picasso’s bulls into its internal training program. It’s become a sort of emblem for product designers in their quest for pared-down designs in the face of evermore complex devices. But what message did the artist originally intend to convey with this series, more than half a century before the invention of the iPod?
The story of Picasso and his bulls began on November 2, 1945, when the Spanish painter strode into printmaker Fernand Mourlot’s workshop off the Rue de Chabrol in Paris. Picasso had experimented with lithographs before, during the 1920s, but only briefly and rather half-heartedly. That would change over the next four months, during which time he regularly worked 12-hour days and produced four distinct series of prints: two focusing on female heads, one on a pair of nudes, and the last on a bull.
Picasso began working on the now-iconic bulls on December 12th. The first print was “a superb, well-rounded bull,” Mourlot noted. “I thought to myself that that was that. But not at all.” Picasso began creating subsequent lithographs, each one more pared down than the last. “He could see that we were puzzled,” Mourlot continued. “He made a joke, he went on working, and then he produced another bull. And each time less and less of the bull remained. He used to look at me and laugh. ‘Look…’ he would say, ‘we ought to give this bit to the butcher.’”
Picasso’s process was unorthodox for another reason: He used the same stone for each print, reworking it again and again. “As lithographers, we were astounded by him,” Jean Célestin, Mourlot’s fellow printmaker, explained. Although lithographs are easier to alter than etchings or engravings, making too many corrections usually muddied the image. Picasso “would scrape and add ink and crayon and change everything,” Célestin explained. “After this sort of treatment the design generally becomes indecipherable and is destroyed. But, with him! Each time it would turn out very well. Why? That’s a mystery.”
Picasso approached the new medium much as he had with painting—by bucking conventions. “A printer would introduce him to a new technique, and he would say, ‘Well, I’ll do something different,’” explained Deborah Wye, former prints curator for the Museum of Modern Art. “It was a challenge, a catalyst for him, being with a printer who had a little knowledge he didn’t have, because he enjoyed proving he could do what printers told him he couldn’t do.”
He was also grappling with the abstract, and what it meant to reduce something to its most essential graphical elements. “Two holes—that’s the symbol for the face, enough to evoke it without representing it,” Picasso mused. “But isn’t it strange that it can be done through such simple means?…Whatever is most abstract may perhaps be the summit of reality.”
The final lithograph of the series appears to be composed of just 12 lines—yet it is still, unmistakably, a bull. “I still remembered the first bull and I said to myself: What I don’t understand is that he has ended up where really he should have started,” Mourlot said. “And when you look at that line, you cannot imagine how much work it involved.” Sometimes, Célestin noted, the printers would leave at 8 p.m. at night and return at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, only to find Picasso still working (not entirely unusual behavior for the artist, who was an inveterate night owl). When the studio closed for a Christmas break, the artist took his work home with him.
Like the lithographs, Apple’s sleek products bely the intense manpower required to design them. Jonathan Ive, head of design under Jobs, recalled the process of creating one of Apple’s Power Macs: “We wanted to get rid of anything other than what was absolutely essential,” he said. “We kept going back to the beginning, again and again. Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of the other four parts?”
Apple's Magic Mouse. Image by Carl Berkeley via Flickr.
“You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential,” he went on.
The conceptual relationship between these creators was apparent, even then. But the connection between Picasso and Apple was made explicit to the public in 2014, when the New York Times managed to get a look inside the company’s highly secretive employee training program.
One course offered by Apple University—“Communicating at Apple,” taught by Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University—focused on all levels of communication, ranging from intuitive product design to successful marketing. One of Nelson’s slides featured all 11 versions of “The Bull”—the point being, according to one attendee, that “you go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do.”
During another of Nelson’s classes, “What Makes Apple, Apple,” he compared a Google television remote to one of Apple’s. Google’s had 78 buttons; Apple’s had three. Apple’s version of the computer mouse is perhaps the most extreme example of this concept, eliminating buttons altogether with the Magic Mouse in 2009.
So, yes, computers—and, for that matter, bulls—are extremely complex. But that wasn’t the point for Jobs or for Picasso. As the former Apple CEO explained: “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”