Adobe Turns 35 — And We’re Just Getting Started

Adobe founders John Warnock and Chuck Geschke and CEO Shantanu Narayen share their perspectives on Adobe innovation.

The 1980s. MTV was king and queen of cable, the Berlin Wall fell, and the first viable, permanent artificial heart was invented. The world wide web was still 10 years away and CDs revolutionized the music industry and the way we stored digital data. Hair was big and fashion was fluorescent, but there’s no denying innovation was at a fever pitch.

In December of 1982, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke combined their talents to start Adobe. They helped lay the foundation for the desktop publishing revolution with Adobe PostScript, providing a radical, new way to accurately print text and images on paper. Ever since, Adobe has been innovating to maintain its place at the forefront of digital communications and experiences.

In celebration of our 35th anniversary, we asked Adobe co-founders John and Chuck and CEO Shantanu Narayen to share their insights on what has made Adobe the company it is today, and their plans to continue leading at the intersection of art and science.

Chuck Geschke, Shantanu Narayen, and John Warnock.

What do you remember from the early days of Adobe as being especially significant in developing the company’s culture?

Chuck: I have one very special moment that meant a tremendous amount to me. Both my grandfather and my father were letterpress photoengravers — the people who made color plates to go into high-quality, high-volume publications such as Time magazine and all the other kinds of publishing that was done back then.

As we were trying to take that very mechanical chemical process and convert it into something digital, I would bring home samples of halftones and show them to my father. He’d say, “Hmm, let me look at that with my loupe,” because engravers always had loupes. He’d say, “You know, Charles, that doesn’t look very good.” Now, when my dad said, “Charles,” it was bad news.

About six months later, I brought him home something that I knew was spot on. All the rosettes were perfect. It was a gorgeous halftone. I showed it to my dad and he took his loupe out and he looked at it, and he smiled and said, “Charlie, you finally did it.” And, to me, that was probably one of the biggest high points of the early part of my career here. I think it helped set the standard for the quality of products we wanted to bring to market.

How has Adobe carried on this legacy of innovation and ushered in breakthroughs in print, illustration, imaging, web, and video? How did you foster this culture internally?

Chuck: When John and I started Adobe, we wanted to build a company where we’d like to work. Our main principle was to treat people the way we’d like to be treated. Since John and I worked for a variety of different companies and organizations before we started Adobe, we tried to borrow from the ones that had worked well and make them part of the fabric, philosophy, and core values of this company.

John: Innovation isn’t something you plan for. Instead, you have to build an environment that will promote it. You should have a free exchange of ideas. You have to reward people for new ideas and for following up on ideas and turning them into reality. So, it’s not like you’ll say, “We’ll have four new ideas this year.” You need to build an environment where it happens naturally, through the creative spirit of the employees.

Also, you can’t have a “following” attitude. You have to have a leading attitude. If you see something in the world you think you can do better, you do it.

Follow the journey of John Warnock and Chuck Geschke from their days as math students to their revolutionary work at Xerox PARC to their founding and leadership of Adobe.

Technology is always changing, but Adobe has managed to stay relevant. What are some of the ways you’ve helped the company continue to adapt to — and even lead out with — change?

Shantanu: Regardless of changes in technology, the mission of the company has remained the same — change the world through digital experiences. It comes down to recognizing what our customers need and not being afraid to change because — at the end of the day — preserving the status quo is not a business strategy.

A large part of what motivates people in the company is the impact we have. There isn’t a place in the world where someone isn’t affected by the reach of our products and the work we do. Imagine being on a plane and the person sitting next to you says, “PDF is the way I share all my information,” or “Photoshop has helped me be more creative.”

That’s what drives us. Being relevant is important, but I think having an impact is far more meaningful.

Some of Adobe’s biggest changes have come in the last several years with the move to the cloud. What opportunities do you see ahead?

Shantanu: Adobe has been at the forefront of creating markets since its inception. Whether you’re an educator, an enterprise trying to get its message out to customers, or an individual freelancer, we want to help you tell your story. With Creative Cloud, we want to empower more people to create and realize their vision at a faster pace. In Document Cloud, we see that paper-to-digital is a movement that’s going to continue. PDF as a platform on mobile devices has taken hold and we now have a great solution for digital signatures.

In many ways, the Experience Cloud is the largest new opportunity for us. Every single business on the planet is thinking about if digital is going to be a tailwind or if it’s going to be a headwind. When you think about transformation, every enterprise is saying, “How do I put the customer experience front and center?” We think the Experience Cloud dramatically expands the aspirations we have to help businesses transform. We put all that together, and we think the opportunity for Adobe is immense.

What do you see happening next with digital experiences? Give us a glimpse of future innovation.

Shantanu: We’re living in an incredible time. Art and science and humans and machines are coming together to fuel explosive growth and opportunity. You could call it a 21st-century Renaissance. In this new era we want to empower people to create in ways that have never been possible before and transform how companies compete.

On the creation side, digital media consumption and delivery has exploded, and not just on a computer. Now, augmented and virtual reality experiences appear in 3D, floating in front of you. We will be at the leading edge with tools to support content creation for new devices and forms of publishing as they emerge. There are exciting developments in voice, touch, and new collaborative mediums that will enable us to create when and where we want — and in a much more natural way.

And we view artificial intelligence — what we’re doing with Adobe Sensei — as a creative partner to help tackle time-consuming tasks that get in the way of creative vision. Let’s face it — no one ever wants to take three hours to do something if they can do it in three seconds.

From desktop to web to mobile devices and beyond, the last 35 years have seen major advances in publishing and Adobe innovations continue to move this process forward.

Aside from benefiting individual creators, how do you think these trends will play out in the business world?

Shantanu: We’re witnessing a sea change in how consumers are interacting with companies. They want to buy experiences, not just products. They want personal interactions. And our customers are relying on us to help them make this shift. We have all the tools to help companies compete for the hearts and minds of their customers at every interaction. We’re architecting the next generation of enterprise software, and integrating artificial intelligence into our products with Adobe Sensei to clear the way for action.

Over the last 35 years, why do you think Adobe has succeeded?

John: One of the great things about Adobe is that we get to deliver on our mission to change the world. We have products that inspire people around the globe and drive creativity, art, imagination, science, and innovation. When you bring all those elements together, you change the way people communicate with each other. Being part of that — no matter what the role — and doing that in a fun way, makes life great and innovation easy.

Chuck: When businesses consider the future, they might think about the amount of inventory they carry, and the manufacturing capacity they have, and the number of retail locations they occupy around the country or around the world. At Adobe, what matters at this company is the people who work here. They work together as a team to make sure we produce the products that make the future real. And that’s the biggest asset we have — people.

Shantanu: We’ve also been fortunate to serve and partner with so many incredible customers. Our customers have always pushed the boundaries for what’s possible and inspired us to do the same. Our customer’s success has truly been our success.

Read more stories of innovation from Adobe’s 35th anniversary series.