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Love him, hate him – just don’t blame the Bellevue artist who created Clippy

Clippy may have originated from a Bellevue artist, but the animated character lives on around the globe, such as this graffiti spotted in Vicenza, Italy. (theaelix, Flickr)

Computer users haven’t always had millennials around to show them how to use a program or navigate a laptop. Back when Microsoft was putting its computers in nearly every home in America, they came with Clippy — a loved and loathed animated paper clip ready to assist writers using Microsoft Office.

“The reason he wasn’t liked was the functionality; what the programmers had him do,” said illustrator Kevan Atteberry. “I’ll take all the credit for the good stuff.”

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Atteberry is a Bellevue-based children’s book illustrator and writer who has produced a range of titles from “Puddles!!!” to “I Love You More Than The Smell of Swamp Gas.” But in the 1990s, he was among a range of artists on a mission to create helpful characters for Microsoft. That’s how Clippy was born, and Atteberry has had a soft spot for the paperclip ever since.

Computers were still relatively new inside the home back in the ’90s and not everybody was able to use them with ease. Microsoft wanted helpers to teach customers how to operate its programs. Initially, there was Microsoft Bob — a dog — which was a general program to help people navigate Windows. And there were “Friends of Bob,” which eventually included Clippy. Atteberry submitted a handful of characters and Clippy stood out. Starting in 1995, he lived at the bottom of the computer screen..

“I created this character, and it was tested and retested for six months by some social psychologists from Stanford University out of 260 characters, and he was the most liked,” Atteberry said. “And he was a great, endearing character. I created this great, sweet character.”

Need to know how to print a document? Just ask Clippy. How do you divide a page into columns? Clippy popped up to help. Just writing away while you’re in the zone, cranking out an epic masterpiece of … oh, hi Clippy, I don’t need to know how to change the font right now. Getting back to this report and … no, not now Clippy. Anyway …  Clippy! Leave me alone!

Clippy was included with Microsoft Office programs for years — both to the benefit and annoyance of computer users. Eventually, users could opt out of his default setting in 2001. And in 2007, Clippy was finally put to rest. But the paperclip remained a comical meme and reference for years to follow. Saturday Night Live even parodied Clippy in 2015, long after he left Microsoft Word.

Many have speculated as to why the animated helper remained on the computer for so long. After all, the original helper, Microsoft Bob, was discontinued years before Clippy was allowed to go. Online magazine Artsy speculates that the project manager for Microsoft Bob, and in turn Clippy, was likely a factor. That manager in the 1990s was Melinda French — fiancee of Bill Gates.

But Atteberry notes that despite the criticism of Clippy, the character was quite good and he’s proud of it. The success of the animated paperclip helped to propel his career, and he was sad to see Clippy removed from Microsoft Office.

“Clippy opened a lot of doors for me,” Atteberry said. “I didn’t want him to fade into the sunset … I thought he would keep me famous for the rest of my life.

“It didn’t matter if you liked or hated Clippy. As long as you know who he is, I have cache,” he laughed.

Kevan Atteberry was interviewed by Jim Dever for Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio.

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