Pixels with Personality: Susan Kare’s Digital Creativity
"Happy Macintosh" icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.
It’s 1984. Turn on your Macintosh computer. Marvel at the convenience of the mouse under your hand. Point the arrow on your screen towards a desktop folder and click to open a file. Drag it and drop it somewhere else. Or, open some software. How about MacPaint? Select the pencil, draw some craggy lines; use the spilling paint bucket to fill in a shape. Move your arrow to the floppy disk to save your work. And then… imagine a worst-case scenario, as the ticking wristwatch times out. A pixelated cartoon bomb with a lit fuse appears. Your system crashes. The “sad Mac” appears.
The Macintosh Personal Computer introduced Susan Kare’s icons to the world in 1984.
Introducing the Icon
Computer icons are visual prompts that when clicked on, launch programs and files, trigger actions, or indicate a process in motion. Clicking an icon is a simple gesture that we take for granted. In our current screen-based culture—spread between computers and smartphones—we might absent-mindedly use these navigational shortcuts hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day.
Before the mid-1980s, after booting up their computers, people typically found themselves greeted by a command line prompt floating in a black void, waiting for direction. That blinking cursor could seem intimidating for new home computer users because it assumed you knew the answers—that you had memorized the machine’s coded language. The GUI (graphical user interface, pronounced “gooey”) changed how humans interacted with computers by creating a virtual space filled with clickable graphical icons. This user-centric form of interaction, known as “the desktop metaphor,” continues to dominate how we use computers today.
The 1984 Apple Macintosh was not the first computer to use a GUI environment or icons. That achievement belongs to the 1973 Xerox Alto—a tremendously expensive, vertically-screened system that only sold a few hundred units. After a few failed attempts, the multi-tasking GUI system finally found a foothold in the home computing market with the introduction of “the computer for the rest of us”—the Macintosh.
From Graph Paper to Screen Pixels
After completing her PhD in Art History, Susan Kare briefly entered the curatorial sphere before realizing that she would rather dedicate her career to the production of her own creative work. In 1982, Andy Hertzfeld, a friend of Kare’s from high school, called with an interesting opportunity: join Apple Computer’s software group and help design the user experience for the then-developing Macintosh computer.
“Floppy Disk” save icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.
Kare took up Hertzfeld’s offer and set to work designing the original Macintosh icons, among them the trash can, the file folder, the save disk, the printer, the cloverleaf command (even today, this symbol appears on Apple keyboards), and the mysterious “Clarus the Dogcow.”
Since no illustration software existed yet, Kare designed the first Macintosh icons and digital fonts through completely analog means. Using a graph paper notebook, she filled in the squares with pencil and felt-tipped pens, coloring inside the lines of the graph as an approximation of the Macintosh’s screen. Despite the limitation of available pixels, Kare found economical ways to provide the maximum amount of visual or metaphoric meaning within a tiny grid of space—all without using shading or color.
Kare’s icons and digital fonts exist beyond the lifespan of the Macintosh, appearing in later Apple products and even early iPods. Iterations and mutations of her icon designs continue to define the visual shorthand of our desktops and software today, migrating across systems and platforms: NeXT Computers, IBM and Windows PCs. Have you ever played Solitaire on a Windows 3.0 computer? If so, you’ve played with Kare’s digital deck of cards.
A physical version of Susan Kare’s Windows 3.0 Solitaire game.
Have you ever sent a “virtual gift” over Facebook like a disco ball, penguin, or kiss mark? Again, this is the work of Kare, whose work has been quietly shaping our interactions with technology since 1984—making computers seem more friendly, more human, more convenient—one click at a time.
Disco ball “party” icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.
Kare-designed bandana and tea towels woven on a Jacquard loom.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
communication, design, by Kristen Gallerneaux, technology, computers, women's history