Inside Susan Kare’s sketchbooks are the makings of Mac’s graphic interfaces
- Jenny Brewer
- 24 May 2017
The Design Museum’s latest show California: Designing Freedom looks at the story arc of the US state that has gone from countercultural epicentre to innovation hub. Amid the political posters, photographs of Burning Man, artwork for Blade Runner, LSD blotting paper and Waymo’s self-driving car, the exhibition dedicated a section to the Apple Macintosh. Amid that is a collection of rough sketches drawn on squared paper by Susan Kare, that show the ideation of the symbols used in the Apple interface. To get more insight to this small but fascinating element of the show, we spoke to curator Brendan McGetrick.
Why was it important to include Susan Kare’s work in the exhibition?
The Mac was the first truly personal computer – one of its tag lines was ‘the computer for the rest of us’ – and it was designed to be used by theoretically everyone.
Susan designed the icons for the Macintosh’s graphical user interface. At the time, the notion of a GUI was revolutionary: just a few years prior to the Mac’s release, people could only interface with a computer through arcane commands written in code. By providing an image-based way to execute computer commands, the Macintosh made computers more intuitive and less intimidating.
As part of the original Mac team, Kare created some of the first digital fonts, the UI for MacPaint and some of the most persistent icons in computing such as the trash can/bin, the save disk and the smiling Mac. Kare added to the UI an element of friendliness and emotion. The icons that she designed were playful and simple enough to be recognisable to users around the world.
Can you tell us more about these images – what do they depict, and what insight to they give?
The icons depict many elements and actions that remain essential to computer operating systems today, included the trash can/bin for deleted files. Many of the defining icons of Photoshop and Illustrator – such as the paint brush, lasso, and hand tool - were originally created by Susan for MacPaint.
There are a couple of important insights: the first is the importance and potential power of working within constraints. Susan embraced the extreme limitations of the first Mac display. It was monochromatic and low resolution. She designed the icons in a gridded notebook. Using one box to equal one pixel, Kare designed intuitive icons that leveraged their graphic limitations as a source of strength.
A second, related insight is the importance of simplicity. The icons were designed to be as simple as possible in order to make the interface as accessible as possible. The ideal of the original Mac OS was to be so simple that people could use it without a manual – figuring it out through intuition and an enjoyable process trial and error, like an arcade game.
What was the impact of Susan’s work? What preceded her work, and what followed it?
Through her work on the original Macintosh Susan established a visual language that would form the foundation of point-and-click computing. She is one of the pioneers of pixel art, but she certainly didn’t invent it. In the past, she has explained that her work was preceded and influenced by the bitmap-like aesthetics of hieroglyphics, mosaics, and cross stitch. We live in an age of emoji, Like icons, etc. All of this has been influenced by her work.
How does she fit into the wider context of the show? Are there any other features in the show that might be interesting to fans of her work?
Susan’s work is part of a section called ‘Make what you want’ which is dedicated to the design of tools for creation. The Macintosh is an important part of that since it democratised the PC and launched the desktop publishing revolution. The section also includes early Mac-based DTP experiments by April Greiman and digital fonts by Zuzana Licko of Emigre magazine.
We also have multiple exhibits on the development of the graphical user interface, including the first commercial computer with a GUI, the Xerox Star. This story continues to include the multi-touch interface of the iPhone, Google Material and maps design, the evolution of Twitter’s UI, and others.
Susan Kare remains active as a graphic designer and the show also includes a number of graphic works, such as the political posters of Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers, Corita Kent, and Shepard Fairey, the psychedelic posters of Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin, the magazine design of David Carson, and a collection of works by Facebook’s Analog Research Lab.
California: Designing Freedom opens 24 May – 15 October 2017 at the Design Museum, London.
About the Author
After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.
Jenny is currently on maternity leave.