Picasso’s Bull and the MacBook Air


For a lesson in abstraction, check out Picasso’s lithograph series ‘the Bull.’ These eleven prints depict the entire progression from the busy detail of realism to the elegant bareness of abstraction. ‘The Bull’ has served as inspiration to the design team at Apple, whose team is required to study the series to learn the power of simplicity. 


‘To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with concrete reality … You must always start with something. Afterward, you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.’ 

Pablo Picasso


Look at the second and third bulls after starting from a realistic figure, Picasso exaggerates the animal’s features and actually adds detail and complexity. This may seem to run counter to the end goal of minimalism, but he’s looking for what makes a bull a bull. That way he knows what details he must keep. The second and third drawings show us the bull of myth.

Writers often fall into the trap of trying to start with minimalism. They pen tight first drafts with nice clean sentences and minimal descriptions only to find that they don’t have much to work with when it’s time to cut. ’The Bull’ contains another lesson, the value of the all-inclusive rough draft.

‘A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case, a picture is a sum of destructions.’

–Pablo Picasso


Once you have depicted the ‘idea of the object,’ you can start to cut away everything that isn’t that idea. By the time Picasso arrives at his final bull, we still know what we’re looking at. The series shows us the choices he makes to get to the simplest figure that still is obviously a bull.

This is the principal driving Apple’s pursuit of a sleeker monitor and simpler mouse.

Once the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky found the theme to the screenplay he was working on, he would write it on a strip of paper taped to his typewriter so that nothing that didn’t serve that theme would come out of the machine.


The meta-lesson of ‘The Bull’ is that abstraction is hard.

A too-easy criticism of modern art is, ‘that looks like something my kid could draw.’ But the final bull in this series isn’t just a stick figure that looks like a bull, it’s the end product of an exhaustive study of what a bull is and what it isn’t followed by deliberate choices to give us something that wouldn’t work if anything was added to it or taken away.

Anyone can (over) write reams of purple prose. Anyone can chop their sentences to bits like a bad Hemingway impression. Getting it just right is hard.   

Abraham Lincoln once closed a letter saying ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.’