The icon designer who helped make the Macintosh so darn cute

Susan Kare's "Happy Mac" iconWhen it appeared in 1984, the Macintosh blew people away with its graphical interface, its mouse, and its unusual industrial design.

It also charmed customers with its cute, approachable icons, from the smiling Mac that appeared while it was booting to the bomb that popped up when something went terribly wrong. The Mac’s many icons were the work of Susan Kare, a painter who landed at Apple at just the right time and came to play a key role in the original Macintosh team. Kare started sketching icons on graph paper using markers, and eventually wound up designing many of the interface elements in the Mac. Her designs helped shape the personality of the Mac, giving it a touch of whimsy and friendliness not seen in computers before.

Kare went on to design icons for Windows, OS/2 and even designed the Solitaire deck that shipped with Windows. She’s just come out with a retrospective book showcasing her work, Susan Kare ICONS, and it’s a great opportunity for students of design to stop and consider what separates interfaces that people merely use from the ones that people actually love. You can also buy fine art prints of her classic icons from her site.

Susan Kare's dog icon, aka Clarus the DogcowThere aren’t too many designers whose work can honestly be described as “iconic,” but in Kare’s case, that adjective is true both literally and figuratively.

VentureBeat interviewed Kare via e-mail recently. Here’s the (lightly edited) text of our exchange.

Did you try many different versions of your classic Mac icons before settling on the right ones?

It was definitely an interative process. I always like to work with placeholders and tweak and improve images while there’s time. I remember trying a lot of different images for “copy” (some involving mirrors) and “undo.” Abstract nouns and verbs are always tough.

Susan Kare's bomb icon

Lots of people must be designing icons now, for websites and software. What are some examples that you really admire?

Never say never, but I tend to prefer simple imagery for user interfaces without too much detail. I remember reading in Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, why more people can “see” themselves in a simple smile face graphic than a detailed drawing of Prince Valiant. This principle applies to icons: Universality is good. So a very detailed, very specific icon of a certain type of writing implement seems less effective as a symbol.

One detail: I can never understand why the red circle-with-slash is occasionally used to mean “delete” when it means something is prohibited.

Susan Kare alert iconYour icons play a huge role in the personality and approachability of the interfaces they appear in. They’re also very clear and understandable. What advice do you have for people designing interfaces or websites?

Thank you! I try to think hard about the meaning of icons and look at them in context (in a mockup) and exercise restraint. You don’t want the UI to compete with the data.

What are you really excited about that’s just coming up in terms of computer design or interface design?

The thermostat from Nest looks great!

It seems like you sort of fell into icon design by being in the right place at the right time. Yet this is a seemingly very limited medium. Are you able to express yourself as an artist through computer icons? Or do you have other outlets (like painting)?

Some projects have many constraints in terms of limited screen real estate or palette, but the problems to solve are always interesting. I also love working on logos and working with type. And I have always enjoyed making sculpture.

Susan Kare icon portrait of Steve Jobs in 1983

Images courtesy Susan Kare.