Susan Kare: Design Hero

Susan Kare Portrait IconSusan Kare is one of my biggest design heroes. Even if you’ve never heard her name, you’ve probably run across one of her designs. Kare designed, amongst other things, the fonts and icons for the original Macintosh, the icons for Windows 3.x and the card designs for Windows Solitaire. Susan Kare has had a major influence on graphical user interfaces, and is a big inspiration to any artist or designer who grew up in the age of pixelated icons.

Black and White Icons

Susan Kare’s most influential work was at Apple. She was part of the original Macintosh team, where she designed the icons that set the Mac apart from its text-only competitors.

Chicago and Other Cities

It wasn’t just the icons that set the Mac apart from the competition. From the very beginning, the Mac used variable-width fonts that could more closely mimic paper printing. Though advanced for its time, the Mac still had a fairly low resolution screen compared to modern computers. Kare was able to work with this, creating pixelated versions of Times New Roman and Helvetica and other fonts, and naming the fonts after major world cities. She also created an entirely new font, called Chicago. Unlike the other fonts on the Mac, Chicago was designed for the screen first, specifically for the menu bars, buttons and other interface elements. Chicago served as the Mac’s main system font until Mac OS 8.0 came out in the late 1990s.

Command Key

Modern Macs have largely replaced Kare’s work with more modern icons and fonts. But there is one of her designs that has not changed since 1984, the Command icon. The original Apple II computer used modifier keys that looked like little Apple logos. One day, Steve Jobs came in, saw a drop down menu with Apple Key icons on it, and said that they were “taking the Apple logo in vain”. Spurred by Jobs’ famous temper, Kare went through a book of symbols and found an loopy-looking icon used for Swedish tourist attractions. She chose the design for the keyboard, and the rest is history.

Later Work

Kare followed Steve Jobs to NeXT, doing work for that system, before working on operating systems like Windows 3.x and OS/2. These later icons were in color, as were the card designs she created for Windows Solitaire. Susan Kare’s work has continued to evolve with computer technology. In recent years, she designed the “gift” icons for Facebook, and continues to work as a designer and expert in interface design. But to me, her early Macintosh work is (pardon the pun) the most iconic. There’s something about those early Mac icons that I just adore. Pretty much every computer icon since has been a refinement of Kare’s original work.

Susan Kare is still around and still working. She sells original signed prints at kareprints.com. One of these days, I’m going to buy a Steve Jobs icon for my office. In the mean time, I’ll make do with admiring her work online.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer, photographer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at http://steve-lovelace.com.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. February 4, 2017

    […] the graphics were still quite limited. Thankfully, Apple had a very talented graphic designer named Susan Kare. Kare designed all the icons for the original Mac, as well as many of the fonts. Most of the fonts […]

  2. February 9, 2017

    […] he would have also known about the many geniuses behind them: Steve Wozniak, Andy Hertzfeld, Susan Kare, Jean-Louis Gassée, John Lasseter and Jony Ive just to name a few. These are just some of the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *