East Bay multimedia executive builds ties with Israel and Jordan

When East Bay multimedia executive Aaron Marcus got invited to the palace in Amman, Jordan, in the fall, he enjoyed an honor he had sought for some time.

But Marcus, who taught Queen Noor al-Hussein graphic design at Princeton in 1973, was not only meeting the former Lisa Halaby to reminisce. He wanted to discuss high-tech partnerships between American companies and their counterparts in Israel and Jordan.

During his fall visit to the Middle East, Marcus also gave demonstrations in user-interface technology to groups of Jordanians and Israelis. With an interest in expanding business possibilities in Jordan and Israel, Marcus is taking his Emeryville firm, which already has a long list of international clients and partners, into new markets.

Aaron Marcus and Associates, listed in the San Francisco Business Times as one of the region's 100 fastest-growing businesses, specializes in user-interface technology and its applications in World Wide Web and multimedia design. User-interface technology, he says, is like "designing the dashboard and steering wheel and pedals of a car. It is the mask you see on a computer screen that hides the capabilities of the software."

In his own career, Marcus has gone through a succession of different masks. Although he studied physics in college, it was not until attending art school that he became interested in computer graphics. He taught himself programming, and soon got hired by AT&T/Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., as a computer graphic designer.

There he designed an early page-layout system for a yellow pages directory, before beginning a nine-year teaching career at Princeton.

"I ran a 19th-century printing press one day, on other days taught 20th-century graphic design and on another day went to Bell Labs to play with 21st-century computers. I had my feet in three centuries," Marcus says.

While in Israel in the 1970s, Marcus was attracted to the complexities of problem-solving between languages like Hebrew and English, requiring a change not only in alphabet but a different direction of script. He arranged a longer stay during a 1975 sabbatical from Princeton and taught classes in graphic design and computer cartography at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

After returning from Israel, Marcus started working in a field known as information design. One of his first projects was creating a nonverbal model to explain global-energy design to heads of state. Marcus gradually realized what he had been heading toward: "I knew why graphic design was so important," he said. "If engineers and programmers kept doing their work with no influence from the humanities, they would go nowhere."

After he started his company in 1982, one of his first clients was Efraim Arazzi, an Israeli developer of high-end computer graphics.

A few years before, when Marcus heard that Halaby was marrying Jordan's King Hussein, he tried unsuccessfully to get through to a royal representative to request a wedding invitation.

Almost 20 years later, when Marcus realized he would be giving computer tutorials in Israel and had time to visit Jordan, he was luckier.

"I called the Royal Palace and asked if I could make a gesture of good will toward the growing cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and the United States, by giving a complimentary tutorial," he says. The Royal Palace welcomed his request, and soon he had an audience with Queen Noor.

Marcus noticed several important differences between American and Israeli high-tech firms.

"Developers in Israel are extremely practical and demanding. They aren't patient with the indirect, cultural, historical aspects of a topic," he says. "They want answers."

Nevertheless, Marcus believes Israel is poised to become a leader in computer research and related technological industries.

"One of the most cellular phone-equipped countries in the world, for better or for worse, shows a key interest in absorbing new technology," he says.

The prospects for high-tech partnerships between American companies like Marcus' and their counterparts in Israel and Jordan seem good, he thinks, although historic territorial and ideological conflicts will not disappear with the flick of a computer switch.

"Israel should be concerned about the stability of Jordan," he says, "and with safe ways to develop economic cooperation."

Industrial development, especially in high-tech industries, has a potential to do more than make profits, Marcus believes; it can also strengthen the peace process. "It's good to have links between high-tech professionals in Israel and Jordan," he says. "It won't solve political problems, but it will create a more realistic bed in which a lasting peace can grow."