Insight - 10/16/23

Design Object Series N. 008

3 min

By Meghan Day

Susan Kare and the Macintosh Icons

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue, we salute Susan Kare,  the woman who gave the Macintosh a smile and revolutionized computer graphics. Kare is the creator of many of the iconic symbols and images we encounter daily in our digital interfaces. Forty years ago, her groundbreaking designs for the Apple Macintosh forever transformed the way we interact with computers. From the friendly smiling Macintosh to the trash can and computer disk icons, her work has left an indelible mark on the digital era. 

The Birth of Macintosh Icons

In 1983, Susan Kare, a young sculptor, received a call from an old friend, Andy Hertzfeld, who was then a lead software architect for Macintosh. Hertzfeld asked if she would be interested in designing graphics and typefaces for the new personal computer Apple was planning to release in 1984. Despite her limited experience with computers, Kare embraced the opportunity. Her first task was creating Chicago, the Macintosh’s boldest custom font and the default system font from 1984–1997. Her next was the artistic challenge of creating intuitive graphics to help the user navigate the system.

A Creative Foundation: Needlepoint and Grids

Creating icons for early computer screens posed a unique challenge due to their primitive CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) technology and limited resolution, which relied on a bit-mapped matrix system. Kare and Hertzfeld devised an ingenious solution. They treated the matrix as a fine grid and employed the smallest graph paper they could find—one 32-by-32 square grid per icon—to craft the designs. Kare painstakingly colored in the tiny squares to bring the graphics to life.

These small scale grids led to an unexpected source of inspiration—needlepoint. Kare’s mother had taught her the art of counted-thread embroidery, which laid the foundation for her understanding of grids and patterns. In a Smithsonian Magazine article, Kare shared that the black and white grids she was working with, “reminded me of working needlepoint, knitting patterns or mosaics. I was lucky to have had a mother who enjoyed crafts.” 

Photo: Rob Corder, Susan Kare Sketch

Revolutionizing the User Interface

One of Susan Kare’s most valuable contributions to the user experience was the infusion of warmth and accessibility into the world of computing. Early computers were complex machines designed primarily for scientists and engineers. Kare’s whimsical graphics, such as the smiling Mac and the bomb icon that appeared during system errors, eased the transition for ordinary users navigating the new digital landscapes. 

Previous to Apple’s early icons, computing commands were given via lines of code, opaque and unfriendly to the untrained user. Kare’s icons were more than mere images; they were intuitive visual cues for users. She understood that to make computers accessible to the average person, they needed to speak in pictures rather than lines of code. Particularly famous are classic symbols like the “delete” trash can icon, the “save” computer disk icon, and “file” page with a folded corner icon, all of which remain ubiquitous in computing today.

A Legacy of Creative Excellence

After her time at Apple, Susan Kare continued to leave her mark on the tech world. She served as the creative director for Steve Jobs’ NeXT, Inc., a company that would eventually be acquired by Apple. In 1989, she founded her own design firm, where she created graphics for numerous clients, including Autodesk, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, and PayPal.

Some of her notable contributions include designing the playing cards for Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 Solitaire game and developing virtual gift icons for Facebook in 2007. In 2015, she took on the role of creative director at Pinterest, where she created iconic images like the push pins that symbolize “pinning” items on the website.

Susan Kare’s ability to translate complex commands into intuitive visual cues and her knack for infusing warmth and accessibility into computing have had a profound impact on the world. Today, her designs and their innumerable ancestors are an integral part of our digital experience. Her lifetime achievement award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is a testament to her enduring legacy.

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