Resident Artistry

Keith Olhfs sits in his office overlooking the Redwood City Marina and doodles. These aren't just any doodles, though: they're carefully crafted on a 2-bit-deep grid of 48 by 48 pixels. They're NeXTstep icons.

Ohlfs is NeXT's interface specialist. As resident artist, he's drawn practically all of the icons that NeXT uses. He's also responsible for a large part of the computer's distinctive look, from NeXTstep's three-dimensional controls to the anti-aliased icons that seem to have more resolution than the screen should permit. He's also worked with NeXT's designers in developing key aspects of the NeXTdimension. And now, he's working on an exciting new crop of NeXT graphics processors.

Ohlfs first knew he was an artist back in elementary school, he says, when he won second place in a haunted house poster contest. He started playing with computer art in high school, designing the graphics for an Apple II adventure game called Super Hero.

While he was earning a B.A. in illustration at San Jose State University, one of his teachers introducedhim to some people at Adobe Systems who were designing an program called Illustrator. Ohlfs joined thedevelopment team, creating images and debugging the program.

WhenSusan Kare, then NeXT's creative director, noticed Ohlfs's work in Adobe's advertisements, she asked him if he would like to draw some things for NeXT.

"One thing led to another and in the spring of '87 I graduated and took a full-time position doing illustration and design for NeXT's software group," recalls Ohlfs.

Once at NeXT, though, Ohlfs began to program. It started with a small program designed to show off some of the features of Display PostScript. Soon the program grew into a full application – Icon, shipped as a demo program with NeXT's system software.

"Icon was very buggy," says Ohlfs. "It crashed if you pushed the wrong button at the wrong time. It was also very unintuitive.  

 Resident Artistry Ironically, I paid little attention to the user interface, and it shows." Buggy as it was, though, Icon was the program Steve Jobs used to wow journalists with the NeXT's color capabilities at the introduction of the '040 machines.

Ohlfs has since rewritten Icon and given it a new name: Image, which NeXT licensed to be released by Appsoft in the first quarter of 1992. Appsoft Image is a full- featured pixel editor, with retouching and blending capabilities. Its Composite Lab lets the user combine TIFF images in a compositing window, taking advantage of the NeXT's alpha channel (which can be used to assign degrees of transparency to pixels) for realistic effects. (Ohlfs used an early version of the program to combine the images on the "Plunging into Color" cover for the Fall 1991 issue of NeXTWORLD.)

Ohlfs has also written an animation program for the NeXT that is similar to MacroMind's Director on the Macintosh, but with extra punch. Among its features is an in-betweening function that automatically generates intermediate frames between two defined drawings.

These days, Ohlfs jokes that he writes programs only as a hobby, in his spare time. "Programming is an addictive disease," he says. "It's nice to have so much control over the tools that you use day-to-day, and be able to design new ones fairly quickly. But sometimes you get caught up in the design of your tools and forget about actually using them to do creative work. I'm really not supposed to be getting paid for programming; I'm supposed to be designing."

by Simson L. Garfinkel