The architect of Apple iconography

Susan Kare -- designer of vintage Mac symbols and Facebook "gifts" -- shares stories of Steve Jobs and famous logos SLIDE SHOW

Topics: Art, Apple, Steve Jobs,

Steve Jobs’ legendary product launches had an unmistakably theatrical air. For Apple fans, part of the thrill of seeing a new Mac instrument unveiled was the chance to admire its sleek design (take, for example, the moment in 2008 when Jobs liberated a razor-thin MacBook Air from its innocent-looking manila envelope).

While early Macs were boxier and more primitive than their hyper-evolved modern counterparts, good design — on-screen and off — has always been central to the Apple mystique. That’s where Susan Kare, the artist who invented many of Mac’s most enduring symbols, comes in. Kare is the architect of early Apple iconography — the designer who brought us, among so many other recognizable signs, the wristwatch waiting icon and the command key symbol (based on a symbol used on Swedish maps).

A new, self-published book (available online) shows off some of Kare’s most recognizable work (including more recent projects, like Facebook’s popular digital “gifts”) — and resurrects other designs that have been phased out of Apple computers’ virtual image lexicon. Over email, Kare answered some of our questions; the following slide show offers highlights from her portfolio (with captions adapted from her book).

How did you first get involved with Apple?

My friend from high school, Andy Hertzfeld, encouraged me to interview at Apple for a part-time job to design fonts (mainly) and other images for the Macintosh. I didn’t have any experience with computers, and couldn’t find research material about digital fonts per se, but figured I could work from traditional fonts displayed in books.

How unusual was it, at the time, for a computer company to hire a professional artist? Do you think this is something computer companies do a lot more often now?

I can’t really generalize, but I was the only graphic artist in the Mac software group (the title on my business card was “Macintosh Artist”).  Of course, it seems more common for development teams to include artists now since so many user interfaces are graphical (and I’m always impressed with the art made by the Google Doodle team).

In the beginning, how long did the design process for a single icon take?

This varies, because for some of the icons (e.g., a pencil for “write”) there is one obvious solution where alternatives were probably mocked up within a day. Others (e.g., “fill”) took longer because multiple candidates were created and circulated, and leading contenders were shown in the software in progress.

What do you think the most effective and lasting computer icons accomplish? Has this changed over time, as design technology has improved?

A great icon clearly conveys a concept at a glance, is not ambiguous, and is memorable. I think that the basic design challenge remains unchanged, though certainly technology advances provide more potential avenues of expression (more color, more resolution, sound, animation, etc.).

Your early, heavily pixelated Mac icons are markedly different from some of your more recent, smoother designs (e.g., the Facebook gifts). Is this because of the way technology has progressed over the years, or simply because you’re trying for a different look?

In any job we do, we first consider the design or marketing goals along with any technical limitations or requirements.

For the Macintosh, most symbols were monochrome, needed to fit within a 16 x 16 or 32 x 32 square pixel grid, and were shorthand for computer functions.

For each Facebook gift, there was a 64 x 64 pixel canvas with virtually unlimited color. The challenge was to create images desirable enough or affecting enough or amusing enough to encourage potential gift givers to spend a dollar to enhance a message. The gifts functioned as small greeting cards, rather than digital road signs. Some gifts were more iconic and some more illustrative, but detail in this case did not impede understanding.

How closely did you get to work with Steve Jobs? What did you understand his aesthetic philosophy to be?

I was fortunate to work with Steve at Apple and at NeXT on a variety of projects. He checked in almost daily on the Macintosh graphics-in-progress. Later, at NeXT, we worked together on the identity and branding, and on a variety of publications and slide shows. He would constantly iterate on the content of his presentations, slide by slide. At that pre-PowerPoint era, there was a lot of handwork in making slides, and builds could require many exposures. He might revise a single slide 14 or 15 times. I learned a lot about the cumulative value of attention to detail from Steve, and about pushing the limits of a medium. I still think of his philosophy of not showing too much information all at once, and the value of simplicity in visual messaging.

View the slide show

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    View the slide show

    View the slide show

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    View the slide show

    View the slide show

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    View the slide show

    View the slide show

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    View the slide show

    View the slide show

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    View the slide show

    View the slide show


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

    View the slide show

    View the slide show

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>