The untold story behind Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign

It was inspired by Rene Magritte’s seminal surrealist work, 'Ceci n’est pas une pipe'

Legend has it that way back when the PC dinosaurs still walked the Earth, returning company co-founder Steve Jobs sought a mantra to show Apple was back in business, and the acclaimed ‘Think Different’ campaign was born.

ali Apple

Think Different with Muhammed Ali.

Sketch different

You could argue the huge success of the campaign is a key reason that Apple and Steve Jobs remain so deeply recognizable. I thought some readers would be interested in something new I've learned about the genesis of the campaign, which turns out (or so it is claimed) to be the brainchild of Chiat\Day art director, Craig Tanimoto. 

Here’s what happened, according to Jonathan Littman, who spent two days with Tanimoto researching his next book:

“Apple was in trouble, big time. They had only 90 days of money left,” said Tanimoto. “Steve was back at the helm, but the big question was, were they going to survive?”

In 1997, the agency needed a big idea for a big problem. Tanimoto opened his sketchbook and began playing with ideas.

edison Drawings Courtesy of Craig Tanimoto

Among the earliest sketches, Tanimote dreamed up an image of Edison holding a light bulb with 'think different' as slogan. 

Magritte, Edison, and the Apple lightbulb moment

“He doodled some Apple logos, shooting off radiant power lines. Tanimoto drew further inspiration from Rene Magritte’s seminal surrealist work, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.


Out popped Tanimoto’s first big concept, a huge billboard featuring a boxy Mac, and a slogan you can see as inspired by Magritte, “This is not a box,” author and former Macweek news editor, Jonathan Littman reports.

What would become ‘Think Different’ was gestating, but hadn’t quite been born. Tanimoto began drawing cartoon characters, reflecting on “how some are unique and some are social outcasts”.

He put a slogan on the sketches.

That slogan was “Think Different”, and the slogan stuck.

He created a sketch of Edison clutching a light bulb with the slogan.

He sketched Ghandi, with that slogan.

“At that point I thought ‘this is a big idea,” he told Littman.

einstein Drawings Courtesy of Craig Tanimoto

As you can see from Craig Tanimoto's original sketch, Einstein was in the frame.


He did not share the idea with anyone until TBWA staff got together to discuss their ideas one day before presenting them to Jobs. “Ideas are so fragile,” he said.

Acclaimed ad designer Lee Clow marched through a room full of ideas from some of the best minds in ads before stopping at Tanimoto’s.

“Should it be, ‘Think Differently?’” he asked.

“No,” said Tanimoto.

“You’re right,” agreed Clow, before saying, “This is the campaign, everyone is working on this one.”

And the campaign began, a campaign that still resonates decades later and that arguably put Apple back on the map and laid the seeds for its future fortune.

think snail

The little remembered Think Different snail

Crazy to change

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do,” is the short version of the text written by creative directors Rob Siltanen and Ken Segall.

Think Different became TV, posters, advertising. In various incarnations it featured the likes of Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Richard Branson, Muhammed Ali, Ted Turner, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso and Kermit the Frog (with Jim Henson).

bus shelter Apple

Think Different in outer space. On a bus shelter.

Littman spends his time chasing the evolution of ideas, working to understand and foster the spread of innovation and ideas, so it seems inevitable he’d ask Tanimoto how his idea happened.

Thing is, Tanimoto doesn’t know: “It’s about being open to everything,” he said. “Good ideas just sneak up on you.”

Think Different.

More here.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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