In 1979 Chip Shafer, then the creative director at Regis McKenna, Intel’s advertising agency, faced a simple yet difficult mandate: to create an ad campaign that would “top everything we had done, to make a unique ad that would be immediately perceived as Intel.” Shafer’s team was being asked to develop a marketing plan for Intel’s new 8086 microprocessor, a device so groundbreaking its advances were difficult to convey. The first chip in the now legendary x86 series, it was the architecture that would power the IBM PC platform and help define the personal computing revolution. Only a similarly revolutionary marketing campaign could convey the importance of the discovery to prospective buyers. Procuring the visuals to capture such a profound concept posed a daunting challenge to Shafer and his team. They found their answer in the work of rising artist Patrick Nagel, whose paintings for Intel between 1979 and 1981 would come to constitute not just a spectacularly successful advertising campaign, but a significant chapter of the career of an important late-twentieth century artist.
Born in 1945, Nagel served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division before earning a degree in painting and graphic design from California State University at Fullerton. He got his big break in 1976, when he began providing monthly artwork for a major magazine, and by 1979 his work had garnered him gallery shows and inclusion in a major exhibit at the Library of Congress.
Nagel’s subject matter, often the human form, didn’t bear an obvious connection to Intel, but Shafer and his team were drawn to it because of the similar ways that Nagel and Intel approached their work. Nagel favored bold lines, strong areas of black and white, unusual angles and forced perspective. In later years these elements would be easily done with digital graphic design tools, but Nagel crafted them with paint on canvas, creating an aesthetic that was well ahead of its time and intuitively well-suited to Intel’s corporate image. As a retrospective on the Nagel ads later put it, “Intel represented style in chip engineering. The products were beyond the reach of the competition, at once idealistic, bold and daring. So too, the Nagel format was idealistic, bold, and daring.” At a time when most industrial advertising focused on information and education, Intel’s approach — to draw customers in with striking artwork and then explain the technical virtues of its products — was both innovative and risky, but it would prove wildly successful.
The synergy between Nagel’s art and Intel’s technology was clear in the first ad featuring Nagel’s artwork. In the now-famous piece, a starkly drawn figure holds binoculars up to his eyes. Inside each of the two lenses lie five squares of different shades that symbolize Intel’s approach to the 8086: a strong microprocessor sits in the center with each of its four corners overlapping a supporting chip. The image spills slightly onto the adjoining page, where a headline boldly declares “The Future Has Arrived” and three columns of text explain the 8086’s capabilities. The relationship between the text and the image was largely implicit, but still effective. As Shafer explained, “It was right. It fit. It was Intel. You would not turn another page in that magazine until you understood the message in the Nagel ad.” The ad generated so many inquiries from prospective customers that Intel commissioned Nagel to create supporting art for its product advertisements for the next two years.
Nagel produced dozens of original pieces for Intel by 1981. His work promoted a broad cross- section of Intel’s products at the time, including processors, memories and controllers. Over the course of that partnership, Nagel’s work became strongly identified with Intel. Readership and inquiry levels for Intel’s ads, which were already above the industry average, climbed by 36 and 25 percent respectively.
Nagel passed away suddenly a few years later in 1984. Though only 38 years old, he had made a lasting mark in the art world and had had recently completed what would become one of his best-known pieces, the cover for the Duran Duran album Rio. The sudden end to his short career made the original artwork he had developed for Intel even more precious. In 1989, the company lent its collection of 35 complete ads to the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara for a special exhibit. In a fitting tribute to Nagel’s relationship with the company, the exhibit was titled “The Art of Technology.”