The woman behind the mac icons

Starting at Apple in 1982, Susan Kare’s first job was to design a Mac System Font. Something bold in order to stand out and take over from the thin jaggedy placeholder font being used. At the end of that first day Kare had worked on only the capital letters, not realising that there were 255 symbols in total and she was nowhere near done.

“This was my first time working with pixels, doing it on the screen. I really hadn’t designed anything on a computer, and I wasn’t someone who worked in grids. What became clear to me was that I really enjoyed the structure of that kind of design challenge, of working with relatively limited screen real estate. I went on to design icons which, unlike the font, had the element of symbolism, a different kind of problem to solve, because there was a concept along with the pixels. I still look for pixels in everything: Lego, needlework, mosaics. Cross-stitch fonts are a perfect analogy for what I was doing: There are 18th-century samplers that are perfect” said Kare. 

So began the love affair of Kare and the almighty user friendly mac icons. Think cherry bomb, think Kare. Think mac with smiley face, think Kare. No application for designing icons had been coded yet, so everywhere Kare went, so did her grid notebook. Using each square to represent a pixel, icons were being designed that would influence the way users engaged with technology, creating an easy interface for the non-technical users.

Kare states “The concept of the “computer for the rest of us” had great personal appeal to me as I didn’t have any engineering background. The whole team was focused on designing the Macintosh to appeal to non-technical users. I tried to incorporate everyday metaphors, a little nostalgia, and a little humor in the interface graphics in hopes of making the computer less intimidating.”

Kare explains one icon origin came from flipping through a symbol dictionary.  The command icon, right next to your space bar,  is taken from Nordic signage which symbolises places of interest. Icons like this one were simplistic and easy to come by, however others, like ‘undo’ were hard to visualise. Kare also mentions that using a cat in a mirror for ‘copycat’ never made the cut, along with using a copy machine to represent copying a file. Something as complex as a copy machine would never render well at a small scale.

Anyone old enough to remember the nostalgic ‘Windows 3.0 Solitaire’ game, should also note this was designed by Kare too after she left Apple. When asked why people feel so attached to the game or design, Kare responded “I’ve regularly seen comments online that Solitaire was how people procrastinated before there was Facebook and Twitter, and I think there’s some truth to that. It was free (with the operating system) and it was fun! In addition, playing Solitaire is how a lot of people learned how to drag and drop files.”  Kare has since released a card deck of pixelated designs with the help of Areaware,  paying tribute to the iconic card designs.

As well as designing most of the mac suite of iconography, Kare is also responsible for a number of the original Mac fonts, including Monaco, Geneva and Chicago, the latter being the first font ever developed for Macintosh and even used later on the infamous iPods.

Kare is currently Creative Director at Pinterest and has also worked with the National Museum of American History, MoMA and SFMOMA. It is no doubt that her influence on digital design is still strong to this day and has effected the way users interact with their ‘user-friendly’ machines, or in particular these days ‘applications’. In March this year The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) awarded the 2018 AIGA Medal to Kare with the statement: “Recognized for her bold and intelligent design of icons for the early Macintosh computers that defined the Apple user experience and set the industry standard with memorable wit and humanity.”

Areaware has also produced ‘Kare-designed’ home-wares which have become an instant hit. See below how Kare’s pixel designs can work just about anywhere, in particular they would work quite nicely in my home.

Renée Blakeley
Senior Finished Artist / Studio Co-ordinator


Images courtesy of, plos blogs,

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