Creativity Interview: Carl Philabaum, Software Designer

“Knowledge is that fascinating resource: you can give it away and you still have it!”

Carl lives in Tucson, Arizona. We met in his home office. Carl’s professional focus was the interface of creativity and machines, designing some of the early software that changed how humans interact with computers.

Carl in his home office

HW: You describe yourself as a “Digital Impresario”. Can you tell me more about your background, education, training, etc.?

CP:  I grew up in a little town: 1,200 people in rural Ohio. My father was the chief engineer of the local radio station. That was the biggest influence on my growing up, with interesting insights about life. He put responsibility on my shoulders at a very early age. He said, “You’re a smart kid, you are responsible for yourself.” And he left it at that.

In college at Ohio State I just wanted to be educated and took all sorts of things: Political Science, every art history course offered. French and German literature…and I took a Computer Science course. One of the few schools with a Computer Science Department, in 1969. Big computers with punch cards. Super nerdy. I kept going. I liked it.

I was introduced to another grad student named Mike Allen, who was trying to see if computers could be used to teach. I helped with the analysis. Some of our best projects were in Biology, Genetics, German Language, Psychology, Landscape Architecture, Philosophy. I was interested in how people who weren’t computer people might interface with these things. 

I saw: Here’s the machine, and over here is the person with the problem they want to solve. I wanted to move beyond programming to telling the machine to do things. Why can’t we move that closer to the human?

Preliminary landscape architecture sketch

We went around the country, talking to people. The chemist who tried to teach students how to use a distillation laboratory by building a simulation. Someone else did a game for children, some math problems. There weren’t too many things that were very exemplary. 

We studied: How do creative people work?

I had friends who were architects and I watched them work. The fascinating thing was they didn’t approach this by writing down their design document. Say they had a client wanting a house who was really into cooking. The architect would get out their “medium”-a piece of paper and a pencil- and immediately start to sketch. Get a lot of detail in the kitchen, without even knowing how many bedrooms there were going to be. They immediately got into their “medium”.

We went to a choreographer to study dance. They didn’t write down their ideas-the dancer got up and tried to move; a painter would start to put paint on a painting-then paint over it or rub it.

Preliminary painting study

So the interesting thing we found was that creative people tended to start without knowing all the details of where they were going to end up. And they start by getting into their “medium”.

We went back to develop a way for people to tell the computer what to do. So you think about your problem, not translating it to something the computer understands. Leaving much more mental energy to solve your problem!

We went off on our own in 1984. The Macintosh computer had just come out, we bought the first one in the state of Minnesota. Mike and I built a company to do this. I made some “drop dead” dates, if we didn’t have money by this date we’d have to stop. We didn’t make them, but we didn’t go broke, but damn near did!

We found a way to make a handful of symbols or icons, a graphics interface, that you could arrange, and you couldn’t arrange them in a way that didn’t work. When you did that you had a toolbox. You could draw, make images, move it around wherever you want. You are working in a medium

If you want to animate something you have an image on the screen and you run through animation, run the program and you just click, click, click and draw a path. Specify a time. Should it repeat? If you want to change it, there ‘s the animation path, you change it, delete it, whatever!

That was called “Authorware”, aimed at education and training. It was built to be interactive. We started to make it possible to do these things. We merged with an animation company out of Chicago and made a company: MacroMedia. A few years ago it was purchased by Adobe. MacroMedia was my format. Adobe purchased MacroMedia-it was a big purchase for them.

It was crazy: small town kid does ok! I stuck with it and it was totally fascinating to me. In the late ‘80’s I would go to conferences and people were using some of these tools you had made

HW: What were the biggest professional challenges, and how did you deal with them? 

CP: It was a tremendously hard and fun world to be in. There were maybe 50 people in the technology world making things happen. And you would talk to each other. You were competing, but not really. So it was a very different world, and I got to play in that world.

We presented our ideas in ’84-85, to every group that had money in Minneapolis, to try to get them to fund us. Asking for money. All these Venture firms. They would love it, but at the end they would say,  “But we don’t invest in Software companies”.

So we would leave, go home and try to work on our ideas. We had to solve this problem. You become your own cheerleader. You have to figure out how to get in there. I believe it is kind of believing in yourself, not stupidly, but realistically: Do you understand the problem you are trying to solve, and do you have some smart ways to try to tackle that? Realistically evaluating your skills, your value, and your potential, and then cheering yourself on. Because no one will do it for you. 

It took about 4-5 years. And that is really an important part: not to fool yourself, but to believe in the real strengths you have. And to try to always find new skills, and new things. 

Computer components at Carl’s house

HW: What personal qualities have helped you achieve your goals?

CP: I can work hard, and for a long time, on something. When you try to make big steps it takes a long time. It’s harder than you thought it would be. So there is always a point where you say, “Oh Shit, is this the right direction?” You might steer in a new direction, but you can keep your eye down and look forward to see something. I’m not bothered by that.  

I like to be able to go deep into things. I’ll get the problem in my head and that takes awhile, and once you get there then you can start to work. Solving really hard problems, you have to do the work. 

And I love those times; time disappears. I think that is one of the joys! To be able to really focus on things… You start to see constraints, see how something impacts, and affects, something else. You very quickly can see when some new thing pops up here, how that impacts and changes the overall.

It’s hard. It’s really hard! But it’s that that can drive some success in a project.

HW: What advice would you give young creative people?

CP: Part of my concern in technology: these things are really, really hard. I don’t know if anybody really understands these things we’ve built because they have only worked on a tiny piece of it. They don’t really understand the whole, and how things fit, and how they evolve. Sometimes the way things need to evolve is that whenever you want to add something new, you can’t just add it on without thinking of the whole picture. Try to come up with a way that might be even simpler than you had. And that is hard work. But I think that is the way you make real progress. 

2 thoughts on “Creativity Interview: Carl Philabaum, Software Designer

  1. Interesting article on a couple of levels. First, I like the discussion of creativity in different spheres of endeavor (software development; commercialization of technology; building a business). “Creativity” doesn’t spring to mind when I first think of these topics, but in fact developing software can be terrifically creative, as can monetizing products and building a business.
    Second, I used one of MacroMedia’s flagship products (Dreamweaver) for years. Like it’s name implies, it gave a non-technical person like me the ability to create visually interesting displays of information for distribution over the internet (in my case within company intranets). Not that I dreamed about that particular information, but at least I could dream about presenting relatively dull information creatively, even (gasp) aesthetically. I could envision, and then transform that vision into reality – at least digital reality – with Dreamweaver.


    1. Thank you. I found him a very creative guy, in multiple ways. And I too used his software after it was purchased by Adobe. I actively seek individuals in diverse creative pursuits because I think they have much to contribute to the conversation.


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