Susan Kare: Design Hero
Susan 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
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.
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.
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.