Celebrating Women in Tech: Susan Kare, Designer Of Apple’s Most Iconic Icons

Image Source: History of Graphic Design

Of the many women in tech who have helped shape the modern world, we often remember Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Mae Jemison. On this International Women’s Day, we wanted to honor a particular woman in tech who’s had an such immense impact on our lives, that we should thank her every day and not just on March 8th.

Icons are a concept that we sometimes take for granted. We use icons so regularly in our daily interactions with virtually every screen in our lives, from our desktop computer to our e-book reader to the tiny icons on our smartwatch. However, before icons, computers could only be operated with lines of code. Icons were an important step in making computers accessible to mainstream users, instead of being limited to programmers with the know-how to work with code. Apple’s first icon designer was artist and graphic designer Susan Kare. A member of Apple’s original Macintosh team, she designed some of the most recognizable icons that we still use today.

Image Source: Photograph by Norman Seeff

In her own words, Kare “was the type of kid who always loved art.” She studied fine arts and now holds a PhD in design. While she was working for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she got a call from a high school friend, Andy Hertzfeld, who was already working for Apple as a systems programmer. Hertzfeld invited her to join the team as a designer, and suggested that she get some graph paper and make small images out of the squares. Some of the first Macintosh icons were designed by Kare in a $2.50 squared notebook. Kare became one of the first pixel artists, and still keeps that title today.

At the time, Apple was already working with technology developed at Xerox called a Graphical User Interface (GUI) — technology that had also been developed in part thanks to a woman programmer, Adele Goldberg. As Apple would soon prove, the GUI concept of windows that could operate side by side with icons to represent the windows, were two components that made the personal computer well, personal. First utilized in a rudimentary way in the Xerox Star, these concepts were used by Steve Jobs to create the Macintosh — the computer “for the rest of us”, as the original ad read.

Among Kare’s first tasks were designing fonts, including the now-famous Chicago typeface that became associated with the Macs of the 1980s and 90s. The Chicago font harnessed Steve Jobs’ idea of allotting each letter the number of pixels it needed instead of making them uniform, so that the narrow ‘I’ and the wider ‘M’ only took up the width they needed. This concept streamlined Apple’s fonts and set them apart from monospaced typewriter typefaces.

As part of her work at Apple, Kare did exactly what every graphic designer does today: listen to their teammates’ needs and think up design concepts to fit the bill. The fact that the end results have lasted so long is a testament to the level of familiarity, user-friendliness and usability of the icons. Among the icons we can thank Susan Kare for are the Happy Mac, the old Dogcow icon, and the Command symbol that you can now see on any Mac keyboard.

Examples of some of Susan’s icons. Image Source: universalfavourite.com

Jobs invited Kare to join him at NeXT after leaving Apple himself. Since then, Kare has developed a successful career of her own. She started doing freelance work at Microsoft, Paypal, and Facebook, where she designed the Facebook gift icons that were in use until 2010. The Museum of Modern Art store in New York City has also begun carrying stationery and notebooks featuring her designs. Today, Susan sells her artistic designs on her website: kare.com.

Pixels might be small, but thanks to Susan, they’ve made a big difference in this industry and the design community. Susan, you are truly a design icon (pardon the pun). :)

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