Illustrator Kevan Atteberry doesn't seem to mind that everyone's making freaky fan art of his more famous creation, Clippy (aka Clippit/the Office Assistant), the iconic paperclip virtual assistant that debuted in Microsoft Office 97.
I opened our phone conversation with a disclaimer: I was contacting him about the "mpreg" incarnation—a fan-made portrait of Clippy depicting the paperclip as a male with a bulging pregnant belly—and his priceless reaction on Twitter.
Atteberry laughed, to my relief. I had not yet offended the maker of one of the deepest-ingrained digital characters of my own childhood. "It's important to me that people remember Clippy because as long as they do, I have cachet," he said.
Clippy's been retired as the default helper in Microsoft programs since Office 2007. Nowadays, Atteberry's living in Seattle and illustrating and writing children's books, a job he said is much less stressful than doing contract work for Microsoft. Nostalgia culture, however, has not let Clippy die.
The tone properly set to "as weird as it gets," we talked about what it's like to be the man behind the most annoying assistant in the history of computing, and why people insist on getting freaky about it. (The following interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.)
Motherboard: Tell me about how you designed Clippy.
Kevan Atteberry: I originally worked on a project called Microsoft Bob, which was probably their biggest failure ever. When Bob crashed, we took the character help over to Word. We designed about 250 characters, and I had about 15 or 20 of 'em in there. Through working with some social psychologists out of Stanford, we spent six months going through them all, whittling them down with focus groups and stuff like that, and [Clippy] came out to be the number one most trustful and engaging and endearing character of them all. So he became the default.
"They fucking hate him! And you know what, that's fine. Any press is good press."
It's interesting that the psychologists found that Clippy was the most endearing, because people fucking hate Clippy.
They fucking hate him! And you know what, that's fine. Any press is good press. But to be honest, not everybody hates him. I get a dozen pieces of fan mail from people that just loved Clippy. Even some of the responses on Twitter you can see with the pregnant Clippy, there are some people that want to bring him back. And uh… you know…. People hate him. At one point he was annoying hundreds of millions of people a day, which was kind of funny. As much as people hate Clippy, when I meet [fans], they say, "Oh god I HATED THAT! That's so cool!" But I totally understand the annoyance factor there. I didn't really experience it myself, because I'm a Mac guy. In fact, I designed Clippy on a Mac.
[Pause for several seconds of laughter]
But you know, I am not put off by people hating him. The fact that people know who he is is the important thing to me. That he's still part of our culture, even though he hasn't been an active part of our culture, even though he hasn't been part of the software in decades. The fact that people despise him or hold him in disdain is probably what keeps him in the forefront of our memory.
What is so endearingly hateable about this character?
How the developers and programmers chose to make him act or react? I have no claim to that. But the reason I think people hate him is not because of what Clippy is, but how Clippy acts. No matter which character became the default character, they'd be doing the same things, and they would probably be hated.
What do you think of all the different ways people have made this character their own?
I'm totally kind of honored. To me, like I said, as long as people know who he is and make fun of him, I've got cachet. Even Microsoft, when Windows XP came out, they used Clippy in promotions, and called it the Ex-Paperclip version of Windows. They animated Clippy and used him in online ads, and there were flash games where you could shoot rubber bands at him as he went across the screen. People tell me when you're on the Microsoft campus, Clippy t-shirts are still one of the hot sellers in their stores.
Do you get royalties for all of that stuff?
Man oh man, I wish I did. A penny for every computer that's on, I'd be set for life. No. I was paid nicely and fairly at the time…. They pay you a fair enough fee for it.
The fame and the glory is all you're getting at this point.
It is. And you know what, Clippy has opened a million doors for me. When I say I'm the guy that designed Clippy, it's, "Oh yeah come on in, let's talk." When I first designed Clippy—after I designed him and left the project—I didn't put him in my portfolio or resume, because I knew how people reacted to him. They hated him. One time I was in a client's office and she was working in Word, and Clippy came up. I said, "I designed that guy." And she goes "Oh my god, you did?" and got really excited. I realized it didn't matter that people hated him, if people knew who he was. He was so pervasive everywhere, it worked in my favor. Initially, though, I was embarrassed to put him in my portfolio.
Do you think there's something about Clippy's shape, or the design principles involved, that make it easy to reproduce?
He's easy to knock off and modify. You don't have a whole lot to work with: Just a wire and a couple of eyes and some eyebrows. Anybody can draw him or make him up or copy him. Even more than his design, it's who he is. That's what makes people monkey with him so much.
And pregnant Clippy is the weirdest one you've seen?
I've not seen anything weirder. I've seen pregnant Clippys, suicide Clippys, things like that. But to take him and, first of all, there's no volume in a paper clip, and to use the paper to make him pregnant… The fact that I've always considered Clippy a male… How did he get pregnant? Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Who got him pregnant? How is this possible?
"I've not seen anything weirder. I've seen pregnant Clippys, suicide Clippys, things like that."
Before actively searching for it, I didn't realize how weird these fan art Clippys get.
They get very weird. But the pregnant Clippy, that was a first. They get violent, they get mean, they get funny and irreverent, and I love it all. But I've never seen anything like that.
Have you seen the erotica ?
Yep, a couple people sent me free copies. I've read through a little bit of it. The writing was, um, it was really technically subpar. It was hard to get through that. Not so much the context, but the writing.
If you're going to write Clippy erotica, please at least make it good.
Yes. Grammatically correct. It wasn't real compelling reading and the writing was bad, so I didn't read it all. Whenever Clippy is anything on the Internet, people send it to me en masse. Which is great, because then I don't have search for it.
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