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An Interview with Susan Kare

Harry Tannenbaum

You’ve looked at and used Susan Kare’s work, or work inspired by hers, every time you use a computer.

The garbage can icon and other taken for granted icons can be traced back to Kare’s icons on the first Macintosh computers. Her icon solution for the Command key, lifted from a symbol used at Swedish campgrounds, is still used in Mac keyboards and documentation today. Even more neat, Kare developed the iconic fonts from that era, Geneva, Chicago, and New York. These were the first proportionally spaced fonts which made text on a computer screen look like print in a book.

Because in 1983 there were no software programs to draw icons, Kare began with an artist notebook and colored in grids to design icons. The grids, in turn, mapped to what developers had to work with: pixels. Pixels are the smallest addressable element on a computer screen. Kare could fill in a square on a grid and the programmer could fill in a square pixel on a computer screen.

The grid restriction also helped Kare focus on what matters, not how many colors or how realistic an icon might be. Instead, grids helped her focus on how well an icon worked as a universal image for a concept, for example, traffic signs. Her minimalist focus is echoed today in the computer interface design debate between realism and flat abstraction, for example, with Apple’s iOS6 operating system and new iOS7.

Tim: How did you get hired at Apple?

Susan: I heard about the Macintosh project at Apple from a good friend from high school, Andy Hertzfeld. The job title on his Apple business card was “Software Wizard”, and he was a key system software engineer on the project. He told me there was a need for an artist to create typefaces and symbols for the screen of a new type of computer, and that I could get an idea of the craft by coloring in squares on graph paper. I was very excited, because it seemed incredibly interesting, and a new design frontier — and I was a good example of the type of computer novice that was the target customer.

Tim: Did you accomplish your goals and ambitions at Apple? What did you leave on the table, if anything, that you’d like to have tried?

Susan: I really try hard to focus on whatever I’m working on — to think about the design problem and a number of possible solutions — but design is not an exact science so there’s never one “right” answer. I still think all the time about what would be a timeless icon for “save” — not tied to a piece of hardware like a floppy disk or disk drive. Treasure chest? Anchor? Taxidermy? Container?

Tim: Growing up, how did you become involved with design? What were some key moments in your personal history that influenced your ideas about design?

Susan: I was the type of kid who always loved art and crafts and was encouraged in those areas. When I was 14, I started working during the summers in the design department at The Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia. That experience really introduced me to graphic design and typography, and I was fortunate to have worked there for an incredibly talented designer named Harry Loucks (who had worked for Charles Eames).

Tim: What are the one or two key takeaways you have about design?

Susan: For designing symbols, I always try to create images that are meaningful and memorable, so they are easy to remember.

I also believe that, in general, less detail makes symbols more universal. Scott McCloud (in his terrific book, Understanding Comics) illustrates this by showing a series of faces with less and less detail, until you see a circle with dots for eyes and a line for a mouth–it could represent anyone. And my opinion: a bit of humor is a good thing!

Tim: What sort of background do you think aspiring designers should have to become great designers? Do they have to go to school or is it possible to be a designer outside of a formal college education in design?

Susan: I’m not sure you can generalize, but I think having a liberal arts education can be helpful in solving design problems. It’s also great to seize any opportunity to gain practical experience by volunteering to create graphics pro bono.

Tim: What are the most interesting design opportunities you see in the next 10-20 years? Where do you see design providing the most value to society, companies, and individuals?

Susan: Design opportunities are everywhere — from packaging to websites to road signs. I get excited when I see something wonderfully designed anywhere (however humble or important) — seems as if there are endless opportunities for any designer to be thoughtful and improve or create something of lasting value.

Learn More

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How Susan Kare designed icons for the Mac


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