Adobe co-founder, U alum, John Warnock dies at 82

Aug 20, 2023, 5:42 PM | Updated: 10:42 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Adobe co-founder and Utah native alumni Dr. John Warnock died on Saturday aged 82, Adobe said in a statement Sunday.

The cause of his death was not disclosed.

“It is a sad day for the Adobe community and the industry for which he has been an inspiration for decades,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said in an email sent to employees.

“John’s brilliance and technology innovations changed the world,” Narayen said in the statement.

Warnock graduated from the University of Utah with two bachelor’s degrees in 1961. One undergraduate degree was mathematics and the second in philosophy.

He would continue his studies at the University of Utah over the next few years, receiving a master’s degree in mathematics in 1964 and a doctorate in electrical engineering/computer science 1969, according to a previous statement by the university.

“While working on his doctorate, Warnock, collaborating with a colleague, wrote the first computer-based registration program used at the U.,” according to a statement made by the university in 2020.

Richard B. Brown, the dean of the College of Engineering, said the University of Utah was among the first in the nation to offer registration by computer, an effort that Warnock worked on “for days almost around the clock,” Brown is quoted in the 2020 university statement.

“He was still writing it over Christmas break,” Brown told KSL TV. “They told me of his sleeping in the Merrill engineering building for a few hours, then going back to writing this program that would be used to register all the students for their classes a couple weeks later.”

After his graduation from the U., Warnock went forward in the computer fields while working for Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation and IBM. While working for Xerox, he was involved with the development of a system for interactive graphics. He was also involved in a program to advance printer technology. Xerox was not interested in developing the concept further, so Warnock and colleague Charles Geschke struck out on their own to continue their work on it.

This effort lead to Warnock and Geschke co-founding Adobe in 1982. According to the 2020 statement by the U., “the duo’s innovations included scalable type, computer graphics and printing processes.” This revolutionized desktop publishing.

“John’s development of PDF is what made desktop publishing practical,” Brown said. “All of us now use PDF every day. John’s idea was, that rather than using a database for the fonts, the fonts should be generated with software. That’s what PDF does.”

Adobe’s Acrobat and Photoshop are among the software programs that were pioneers in the industry.

“There are many other creative programs that have come from Adobe that we use all the time,” Brown said. “It has had a huge impact on the world.”

Adobe is a major presence in Utah, with its campus on Silicon Slopes in Lehi. Adobe’s foothold in Utah was first established in 2009 and further grew with its Lehi campus, that opened in 2012.

Speaking in a virtual commencement ceremony to University graduates in 2020, Warnock counseled the graduates to move up and move forward.

“The rest of your life is not a spectator sport. Your job in life is to be an active player, to make the world a better place,” he said.

Warnock retired as CEO of Adobe in 2000 and was chairman of the board, a position he shared with Geschke, until 2017, according to Reuters.

A Utah native, Warnock was raised in Holladay and attended Olympus High School.

Warnock described how his high school math teacher George Barton played a pivotal role in his life. This teacher taught his students how to learn, focus, work and solve problems, Warnock said.

“His approach was really quite simple. He instructed us to pick up a college-level textbook for algebra, solve every problem in the book, then move on to the next subject, trigonometry, and do the same. And after that, go on to analytic geometry. By following his advice and solving a lot of problems, my grades in math and all other classes improved, and I went from C’s to A’s and B’s,” Warnock said.

Brown said Warnock stayed connected to his Utah roots while his role in the big tech world grew.

“John and Marva loved Utah,” Brown said. “They have a place in Park City. They’ve been spending much of their time in the winters in Park City.”

Warnock has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, bestowed upon him by President Barack Obama in 2008. He was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.

Warnock turned much of his philanthropy back to the University of Utah.

“He has given back in ways that have had a huge impact on thousands of students that came after him,” Brown said.

He and his wife, Marva Warnock, provided the “foundational gift of nearly $6 million for the John and Marva Warnock Engineering Building at the U and also created three presidential endowed chairs in computer science, mathematics and fine arts,” according to the 2020 statement by the university.

“I remember him saying that when he was a young man, he really needed the College of Engineering, and when he learned that the College of Engineering really needed him, he couldn’t say no,” Brown said. “He gave us the naming gift.”

Brown said the Warnocks were charitable even during more difficult times in the industry.

“That was right after the dot-com bust, and Adobe stock had taken a tumble, like all other tech stocks, and he still he stepped up and gave us the naming donation for the building,” Brown said.

Warnock visited campus as recently as March 2023.

“The IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, gave the University of Utah a milestone award for pioneering of computer graphics,” Brown said. “John was one of the people who did that pioneering.”

Warnock is survived by his wife and three children.

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Adobe co-founder, U alum, John Warnock dies at 82