Give us a (virtual) kiss

Facebook gift designer Susan Kare on Mac icons, computer kisses and everything in between.

Published August 1, 2008 1:00PM (EDT)

Some of my friends call me crazy for spending money to send them Facebook gifts -- those extra-special icons that say you care because you're willing to spend a buck, the digital analog to buying a Hallmark Card. Were they free they might mean less -- to say nothing of certain organizations like Komen for the Cause that benefit from gift profits.

I got reacquainted with one of the gifts' designers, Susan Kare, by way of Facebook to catch up on what she's been up to since designing the original Mac's icons, her work on Microsoft Windows and those pesky sheep that get thrown around on Facebook -- which, I am happy to report, are not Susan's fault. (Phew! This moray eel I planned to throw at her goes back into the kitchen sink.)

JH: Susan Kare, hello. You created all of the original Mac's icons and UI elements (like the pouring paint can, bomb, and control panel) and the infamous dog/cow in the Cairo font that’s alleged to say "Moof!" (I have the T-shirt). What came after the original Mac while at Apple?

SK: I worked in the Macintosh software group almost all the time I was at Apple, but became a creative director in Creative Services for a few months before I left for NeXT.

JH: At NeXT you shifted focus.

SK: Yes. I was the 10th employee and was encouraged to become the creative director. I was able to hire my all-time design hero, Paul Rand, to create the NeXT logo and worked with him on other printed materials. It was a great chance to collaborate as the brand was created from scratch. I learned so much about design by working with Paul Rand at NeXT -- still think “WWPRD” and refer to his books when I need guidance.

JH: If memory serves, you then had a stint with Microsoft, to design the icons and other UI elements for Windows 3.0. What was that like as far as a shift in culture?

SK: I had launched my UI design practice when I worked for Microsoft. Although I love working in monochrome, it was a great chance to work in color (16 different ones!) and I had very thoughtful colleagues there. I remember thinking that at Apple, interface decisions were often engineering-driven, and at Microsoft, many were driven by product marketing. I just focused on the work: making better title bars and buttons that were three-dimensional, how to make a subtle wallpaper tapestry by dithering those somewhat garish VGA colors, etc.

JH: Pardon the pun, but what came next?

SK: After I left NeXT, I launched Susan Kare Design and have maintained the practice continuously since then. We do all kinds of digital design projects for a great variety of clients, e.g., Microsoft, IBM, Autodesk, Digital Chocolate, Joost, and Swatch. Everything from icon systems to phone games to logos and site graphics. I still love working on small screens with limited real estate -- trying to get some big idea into a 15 by 15 pixel grid. I also developed a series of icon products (magnets, luggage tags, Post-it notes, etc.) for the Museum of Modern Art stores in NYC.

JH: Which leads to a very public sandbox where you spend a lot of time: Facebook. How long have you been designing Facebook gifts?

SK: Facebook gifts are integrated into the Facebook UI -- not an app a user needs to add. I’ve designed hundreds and hundreds of Facebook gifts since they were introduced for Valentine’s Day in 2007. It’s one of my favorite projects -- trying to stock a virtual gift shop with enticing merchandise, traditional gifts like roses and candy but also disco balls, handcuffs, polar bears, beers, and hot tubs.

JH: How do you decide what becomes a gift?

SK: Facebook has suggestions, and I also provide ideas. There are often limited edition gifts for holidays, like wax lips and other Halloween items, and eggnog in December. You can see all the gifts in the store, even the limited editions that have sold out.

JH: What's the most popular Facebook gift ever?

SK: Lipstick kiss mark -- love and happiness! Flowers and animals are popular, along with birthday cakes.

JH: What's next, artistically speaking?

SK: Well, wherever I go, I’m always looking around, thinking about what might make a good gift! I design the always-evolving UI graphics for Chumby, which makes a cool WiFi device. I also designed the Chumby identity and packaging (and supersoft T-shirts), and I’m looking forward to expanding Chumby’s group of collectible rubber charms. I recently illustrated a book -- always enjoy new and different design projects.

JH: It was a pleasure catching up, Susan. Watch your Facebook in box for a gift from me –- of your own design, of course.

By Joe Hutsko

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