If you happen to be reading this on a Mac, take a look at the command key — it was designed by Susan Kare back in the '80s, a time when computer screens were often black spaces with blinking cursors and the mouse was an exciting feature. The ⌘ symbol's longevity is a testament to Kare's prowess as a designer. She joined Apple in 1982 to design icons and fonts for one of the first personal computers with a graphic interface, the Macintosh. Instead of typing extensive commands to do even the simplest functions, the Macintosh featured a desktop in the way we think of it today, with representational icons and easy navigation.
As the so-called "computer for the rest of us," the Macintosh was meant to be intuitive and user-friendly. To this end, Kare designed the "Happy Mac," a smiling computer that greeted users when the machine booted up. (Slightly less happily, she also created the "bomb" that appeared when the system crashed.) Her iterations of the trash can and folders that appeared on the desktop became Apple signatures. Her first typeface, Chicago, lasted through myriad interfaces, from the Macintosh all the way to the fourth generation of the iPod.
She's since gone on to create thousands of icons for hundreds of companies. For Windows 3, she designed the solitaire game; for Facebook, she created the original Gifts. Kare now works at Pinterest, where she's a product-design lead. IRL, she's whip-smart and wry. Earlier this month, Kare explained how to design an icon that stands the test of time, gave the scoop on working with a young Steve Jobs, and revealed the symbols she's still trying to get right.
Alex Ronan: How did you became the Mac icon and font designer?
Susan Kare: I got a PhD in art history at NYU, and then I went to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco on a fellowship. It became immediately clear to me that I wasn't a great match for curatorial work because I was always envious of the artists we visited.
I had remained friendly with a high-school friend who was working at Apple as a programmer. He approached me about helping with some graphics and showed me an early Macintosh prototype. To prepare for the interview, I read typography books at the library and drew a few rudimentary bitmap icons and letterforms with a marker in a graph-paper sketchbook. It was a very brief interview, but I got the job and I started work almost immediately.
AR: Were you a computer whiz?
SK: No, I had zero formal experience. Computers were essentially foreign to me, so it was a bit overwhelming to get up to speed, but the Mac group was small and welcoming. Also, I did have limited experience designing for grids from working on craft projects such as tiled ashtrays and cross-stitch embroidery kits.
AR: What was your first project?
SK: The very first project I took on was designing the system font for Macintosh that became known as Chicago (its original name was Elefont, because it was a heavier weight than the existing text fonts). I branched out quickly into icons and other typefaces.
AR: What was it like working at Apple in the early '80s?
SK: The environment was clubby and friendly; there was a Ping-Pong table in the lounge area in the middle of the software group's cubicles, and Steve Jobs [co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Inc.] would often drop by at the end of the workday to see what was new and play a little Ping-Pong — he was more enthusiastic than skillful.