Looking at things from a distance

When 19 year-old Jonathan Mak Long from Hong Kong posted his design that incorporated Steve Jobs’ silhouette into the Apple logo, little did he know that this simple act of tribute would attract worldwide attention.

The design inserted Jobs’ profile in place of the “bite” out of the Apple logo. Mak had posted the design on his blog earlier when Jobs announced his retirement as chief executive of Apple, but it attracted little attention then.

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Mak's design, which incorporates the silhouette of Steve Jobs, drew immense attention when Jobs passed away on 5th October, 2011. (photo courtesy of Mak)

When Jobs died in October of 2011, however, Mak reposted the design, and it took the world by storm. People shared his design on Facebook, some reposted it on their blogs, some, including actor Ashton Kutcher, tweeted about it.

Suddenly, Mak found himself in the limelight – phone calls, interviews, photographs, press conferences. He says the turn of events took him completely surprise.

“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” he says.

Mak cannot deny his growing excitement, but he attempts to detach himself emotionally. He is witty, yet highly aware of his own emotions regarding the sudden attention he is receiving.

“I’m that kind of person who gets happy easily and also gets sad easily,” Mak says. “Like initially I was happy, that’s normal, but then I still had to face the reality of homework, deadlines, as well as interviews. It gets rather annoying, so you don’t feel that bad when everything comes to an end.”

Then he adds with a mischievous smile, “You could say I had a safe landing.”

Upon first impression, Mak looks like the kind of quiet person who would bury himself in books. Square-rimmed glasses, blue checkered shirt, cream-coloured trousers and white sneakers.

But looks can deceive. As he whizzes through the maze-like School of Design at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong like a hurricane, Mak never ceases to make jokes, describing his box of USBs as his “hard disk”, and the school being “a place where there is neither light nor day”. Mak describes himself as a “human musical instrument”, because he occasionally beatboxes to himself.

“I can still afford to be silly now. Why waste that opportunity when you’re already at a place where people can tolerate your craziness?” he says, laughing.

Family and inspiration

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Mak says his parents influenced him in choosing design by simply allowing him to do whatever he wanted. The fact that his parents were both talented in languages also fostered his love for books and communicating. This encouraged him to have the “eagerness to take in knowledge through reading and to express it visually”.

Mak has enjoyed drawing since young, but he says only during his final years in secondary school did he actually experiment with design.

He says frankly that he does not have any idols, because he considers the term “too general”. However, if Mak had to “trace back to one person concerning the design (of the logo)”, he says it would be American designer Olly Moss.

Moss has a project called ‘Make Something Cool Everyday,’ and Mak mimics the designer in terms of attitude – “make something good every now and then”. He laughs, because for him, it is near impossible to create something for enjoyment everyday.

Still, “I was just being creative and carefree,” Mak says, referring to how he arrived at the design. “It was something I did for fun. And personal, because I wanted to pay tribute to Steve Jobs. If I hadn’t been experimenting freely, non-related to homework, I wouldn’t have come up with this design.”

While he never expected his design to create a snowball effect, Mak focuses more on the meaning of the response to the event, instead of personal gain.

“Just the fact that my design reached 200,000 people tells me something about the power of the visual medium, instead of my designing ability,” he says, amazed. “The design simply struck a chord with so many people.”

Plagiarism controversy

However, with fame comes a price. The wife of British designer Chris Thornley tweeted about Mak’s design not being original, for Thornley had posted a similar design earlier in the year. This stirred up attention. Some people described Mak’s design as a “rip-off”. Mak describes this entire experience as “rather interesting”.

“What was really interesting was how traditional media, like Reuters, who did interview me about the plagiarism issue ultimately went completely out of context,” says Mak. “But there was this small design blog (The Daily Dot) who didn’t interview me about this, but managed to explain the whole situation objectively just by reading my response on my blog.”

He had to phone Reuters to request them to rewrite the original title of its article, “HK design student says Jobs tribute logo not original”. It now reads: “HK Student says Jobs tribute logo not copied”.

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Jonathan Mak Long (photo courtesy of Mak)

“I think it’s already beyond the level of spreading news quickly and flexibly with social media, but rather the fact that the social media can get very close to the subject matter. At least it (The Daily Dot) was able to explain clearly that my explanation was accepted, that’s very important!” Mak exclaims.

He does not look unhappy as he describes his experience. He leans back against his chair casually with crossed legs; he looks comfortable. As his response says, “I will not apologise for ‘ripping off’ Mr. Thornley’s work… because… I have arrived at this design on my own.”

At the moment, Mak is not making any money off his design. Instead, he encourages others to make donations to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital Charity, the hospital where Thornley is receiving cancer treatment.

Despite the confusion stirred up, “particularly by local media”, Mak shares a text message from a Sing Tao reporter, who advises him not to be too stressed out by all the pressure stemming from the plagiarism issue and from requests for interviews.

“I was very surprised actually when I saw the message. It was rather touching to know that a reporter actually sympathized with me,” Mak says.

As Mak updates on his blog, “last week has changed me” because of the sudden overwhelming response and attention to his design. However, Mak remains humble, saying that the turn of events was “simply by accident and the right timing”. He has received job offers and partnerships because of the overnight sensation. While to many, it seems like a clear bright future awaits him, Mak thinks otherwise, revealing again his carefree attitude.

“One year really makes a difference. A year ago, it was only the university’s registration day for me. Last summer, I was working on a travel guidebook for Poly U, but somehow I ended up having to present the idea to a top CEO at the Hong Kong Design Centre. And now, there’s this Apple controversy,” he says, shaking his head and smiling.

“I guess I’ve already given up on thinking what my future will be like.”