Seeing a Mathematica Graphic
for the First Time
Volume 7, Issue 2
Director of Marketing and Creative Services, Wolfram Research, Inc.
In 1988 I was combing through a copy of Macworld when I saw an interesting
three-dimensional computer image unlike any I had ever seen.
The image was a sophisticated sloping surface made up of a mesh of lines. The colors
were so intense they seemed to vibrate. The product and the company had unique names: Mathematica
As I scanned the captions and paragraphs I noticed that the scruffy-looking
entrepreneur was some sort of famous scientist who had started a company in Champaign,
This was great! At that time I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois
(located in Champaign-Urbana) starting my second year in the graphic design program. I was
also extremely poor, carting my portfolio around town in search of freelance work to get
me through the summer.
Seizing on a potential business opportunity, I created a custom presentation with
brochures, ads, presskits and poster samples which I had done a few years earlier when
starting my career in New York City. I dropped off the portfolio at a small cramped office
in a cylindrical building of early 70s era. There was a small laser printed sign on the
door. It read "Wolfram Research, Inc." It must have been my lucky day because by
the time I got home I had a phone call from someone at Wolfram wanting me to come in
Although nothing ever came from that first contact I did get called again to meet some
people at Wolfram about doing a poster for a new platform version of Mathematica.
I was asked to stop by the office around 9 or 10 p.m. to meet with Stephen. The
company, located in a building that had been converted from a high-rise apartment, looked
like a dormitory for science nerds. I couldn't believe all of the people working in an
office this late at night. But it wasn't like "work" or an "office"
for that matter. Most all of the people looked like students -- which most were. Shorts,
T-shirts, Birkenstocks, and hiking boots were the attire. It looked as if some of the
employees were actually living in the office (ideal since there were full bathrooms in
just about every office) or at least were storing their futons, bikes, and stereo systems.
Computers were everywhere, with makeshift tables in every available closet and nook that
could be made into a workspace.
In short, it resembled planned chaos. This was totally foreign to me coming from a New
York City agency with all its glamour and posturing. It was intriguing and refreshing to
see something making news in the national media being so small and disorganized. I waited
for about an hour before Stephen came around to discuss this poster project. My first
impression of him was that of a mad professor. He looked as if he had not slept in days,
never bothered to look into a mirror, and had not seen daylight for months.
After a short, uncomfortable introduction we started to talk about graphic design and
approaches to some of the projects I did. He was interested in the explanation of the
design process. In starting his business he had to deal with creating all the visual and
communication elements of his corporate identity. He was trying to suck out all of the
information he could from me on all aspects of producing marketing materials, asking me to
critique his company's collateral. It was there that I got a taste of the immense pleasure
Stephen Wolfram has for breaking down a complex problem and analyzing its structure.
At a Silicon Graphics workstation, Stephen started up Mathematica 1.0 and typed
in a line of text. A star-shaped, three-dimensional graphic appeared quickly. This was
pretty neat, I thought. Then he typed in another line of text and the graphic started to
spin! He must have noticed my excitement because he struck an unusual smile and then typed
in yet another line of text. This time, the surface of the graphic changed to a shiny,
brassy metallic. And I was awstruck. This was something unlike anything I had ever seen.
And from the look on Stephen's face, not many others had seen it either.
I knew immediately that this was something big. It was a visual gold mine. And I had
the opportunity to be involved with a product, as I would later learn, that would make a
significant impact on science, technology, and education. Mathematica would also
find its way into unexpected fields such as textile design, architecture, graphic design,
sculpture, and printmaking.
As Mathematica approaches its tenth anniversary, the number of users has grown
to well over a million.
And the sophistication, quality, and creativity of the images created with Mathematica
have increased by the same factor.
There are two reasons for this phenomenon: the expertise people gained working with Mathematica,
and the advancement in faster and less expensive computers.
Over the years I have seen thousands of images, objects, sculptures, fine art pieces --
all created with Mathematica. I set out to collect and catalog Mathematica
graphics for the "Graphics Gallery" section of Stephen's The Mathematica
The increasing use of Mathematica graphics for book covers, technical diagrams,
textbooks, and conceptual illustrations provided a wealth of images to choose from. But
those of us working on the project also had several ideas for images that were not yet
created, images that would reach to the known limits both of the technology and of
We began contracting with mathematicians and physicists to generate custom Mathematica
graphics for Stephen's book. Not only did this show us the graphic possibilities of Mathematica,
but it also helped improve the software's capabilities for producing publication quality
These efforts for unprecedented graphics had a profound effect on the use of Mathematica
as a tool for visualization and image generation. After the release of the second edition
of the Mathematica book there was a proliferation of graphics coming across my desk
from colleagues -- enthusiastic users who wanted to show us what they were doing with Mathematica,
and friends who came across the distinctive look of Mathematica graphics used on
cover designs, logos, and even quilts.
It was clear from calls we began receiving from film producers and special effects
studios that Mathematica's influence was moving into more commercially creative
uses. People wanted to use Mathematica for broadcast and theatrical set designs.
Fashion design schools were installing Mathematica to use for developing textile
designs. Many people with technical backgrounds chose Mathematica as a creative
tool for their enjoyment, and a growing number of creative people -- even without a
traditional mathematical background -- were intrigued enough by Mathematica to
experiment with it in their professional work.
The Mathematica graphics in these first two volumes of Graphica
demonstrate the sometimes ambiguous connections between art, science, and mathematics. The
artist -- through either training or intuition -- understands and exploits concepts like
symmetrical versus non-symmetrical formations, randomness and repetition, and the
temperature and intensity of color, in creating objects that are both pleasing to the eye
and emotionally resonant. The scientist understands the rules and mathematics that are at
the core of these visual concepts and can also create, using mathematical models and
formulas, things never seen before.
JOHN BONADIES is the director of Marketing and Creative Services for
Wolfram Research, Inc. He started his career in New York City, and for the past decade has
been responsible for the visual identity campaign of Mathematica and Wolfram
Research. He is a graduate of Indiana University, with an MFA in graphic design from the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.