John Warnock John Warnock

John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, a key figure in the development of the PDF format, and creator of Adobe Illustrator, died on Saturday, August 19, aged 82. His passing was confirmed by Adobe on Sunday.

Warnock co-founded Adobe in 1982 with the late Charles Geschke, a colleague from his time at Xerox. Together, the duo developed Adobe Postscript, a groundbreaking programming language that was used to create Adobe illustrator, the graphic design software which was foundational in the rise of desktop publishing. The work of Warnock, Geschke, and the team they put together at Adobe established the company as a computing powerhouse fundamental to the rise of the digital age.

Born and raised near Salt Lake City, Utah on October 6, 1940, Warnock seemed unlikely to play such an important role in the future of computing after failing mathematics as a freshman in high school.

In fact, a 2013 University of Utah profile of Warnock said his high school counselor told him that he had zero chance of being a successful engineer because he didn’t have a head for math. However, a math teacher at the school was able to strike a chord with Warnock and inspired one of the most important minds of the computing era.

“I had an amazing teacher in high school who, essentially, completely turned me around,” Warnock said in the profile. “He was really good at getting you to love mathematics, and that’s when I got into it.”

Warnock graduated high school with straight A’s and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and philosophy, a Doctor of Philosophy degree in electrical engineering (computer science), and an honorary degree in science at the University of Utah. He also later received an honorary degree from the American Film Institute.

At the University of Utah, he invented the Warnock algorithm for his doctoral thesis. The algorithm renders complicated images by allowing simple scenes to be computed normally while more complicated scenes are divided into smaller parts which are tested for simplicity and either rendered or broken down into even smaller parts to be tested again. The process is then repeated until it’s finished.

Early in his career, Warnock held positions at Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation, Computer Sciences Corporation, and IBM. Before co-founding Adobe, he worked as a principal scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, alongside Adobe co-founder Geschke.

In a video put out by Adobe in 2014 about the history of Adobe Illustrator, Warnock explained the motivation to develop the Postscript language and the Illustrator software.

I joined Xerox in 1978, and their goal was to make the office of the future. We had text editors, email, networks, and laser printers. What they didn’t have was graphic engines that could make arbitrary graphics. They were computer scientists, and they were imagining what computer scientists wanted to do. They weren’t imagining what the world was trying to do from a creative point of view, and they were simply not making tools to address that community.

Warnock’s wife Marva was a graphic designer, which provided Warnock with that other point of view.

After founding Adobe in 1982, Warnock served as CEO until 2000 and continued as chairman of the board, a position shared with Geschke, until 2017. Until his death, Warnock remained a member of the company’s board of directors.

Warnock’s career accolades include the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented by then-President Barack Obama; the Computer Entrepreneur Award from the IEEE Computer Society; the American Electronics Association Medal of Achievement; and the Marconi Prize for contributions to information science and communications.

The impact that Warnock and his colleagues have had on the world of animation is hard to overstate. Adobe is the publisher of software including Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects, which are used in nearly every studio pipeline in the industry.

On the lasting impact of Adobe’s software, Warnock said:

The creativity is in the designer. The creativity is in the person who uses the tools. I think what we’ve been able to do is just release the creativity and allow them to think anything they want and be able to create it.

“John’s brilliance and technology innovations changed the world,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said in a letter to Adobe employees. “It is a sad day for the Adobe community and the industry for which he has been an inspiration for decades.”

Warnock is survived by his wife and three children.

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