As I work from “home” here in Singapore, I often have the television on so I can hear the world news. There’s an ad for Apple that comes on every so often, with a man talking about technology and a simple piano playing in the background. Something about this ad makes me stop and think about Steve Jobs every single time I hear it. It’s partly because of the piano that, by itself, sounds like the show is over, it’s late at night and a lonely man sits in the dark playing an old tune. It’s partly because of the male voice-over that has just the slightest hint of melancholy, as if maybe it was recorded after October 5th.
I recently watched Steve Jobs’ commencement address to the Stanford graduating class of 2005. In this he talks about connecting the dots in your life and how they never make sense going forward, only looking back. He took a calligraphy class when he was in college, which taught him everything he needed to know about fonts, letters, spacing and the beauty of typography. He had no idea how important that class would be until years later when he was creating digital fonts for the computer with perfect shapes, kerning and ligatures.
I found a tiny example of this in my own life that relates to my experience abroad. When I was in college I began looking for freelance design jobs so I could get some experience to eventually land a full-time job. I met a woman named Carol who was teaching classes to Americans about doing business in foreign countries. She needed some fun illustrations for a handbook she was creating so I sketched a few examples and she hired me, even though I’m not much of an illustrator. At the time, I had no idea how those little illustrations would all come back to me 20+ years later. Now, I can connect the dots.
What I learned while drawing those little illustrations was to always present and receive business cards with both hands in Asia, which I’ve done time and time again since I arrived here in Singapore and have been meeting shop owners and estate agents. There’s always a little spark in their eye when they see I understand and uphold a tiny but important bit of etiquette that still exists in this culture. I learned to never touch a person’s head, not even a child’s, because it’s a sacred part of the body in many Asian cultures. I learned to never make a circle with your thumb and forefinger in an A-OK sign when communicating with people of Arab cultures (hey, asshole!). I learned to never show the bottom of your foot, and understood why people were recently hitting Muammar Gaddafi in the head with their shoes — the ultimate insult in his part of the world. And if I ever have a business meeting in Japan and it seems like everyone is sleeping with their heads tilted back, I’ll know I have their full attention.
Thank you Carol, for teaching me something over 20 years ago that just became useful to me in this city full of blending cultures. Thank you Steve Jobs for taking that calligraphy class — digital typography is my favorite part of working as a designer.