Susan Kare: Icons For The First Mac Computer


Susan Kare, “Sketches for Graphic User Interface Icon” (1982), ink on graph paper at MOMA.  Kare was originally hired into the Macintosh software group to design user interface graphics and fonts; her business cards read “HI Macintosh Artist”. Later, she was a Creative Director in Apple Creative Services working for the Director of that organization, Tom Suiter.

This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good is an exhibition organized at MOMA by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, and Michelle Millar Fisher, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design. This exhibition takes its title from the Twitter message that British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) used to light up the stadium at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremonies. His buoyant tweet highlighted the way that the Internet—perhaps the most radical social design experiment of the last quarter century—has created limitless possibilities for the discovery, sharing, and expansion of knowledge and information.

As we revel in this abundant possibility, we sometimes forget that new technologies are not inherently democratic. Is design in the digital age—so often simply assumed to be for the greater good—truly for everyone? From initial exploratory experiments to complex, and often contested, hybrid digital-analog states, all the way to “universal” designs, This Is for Everyone explores this question with works from MoMA’s collection that celebrate the promise—and occasional flipside—of contemporary design.


Mac fonts designed c. 1983-1984 by Susan Kare. A member of the original Apple Macintosh design team, she worked at Apple Computer starting in 1982 (Badge #3978).

This year the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York jointly acquired Kare’s archive of these original drawings with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and selections are currently on view in MoMA’s This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good exhibition.

When Susan Kare sketched the icons for the first Macintosh computer back in the early 1980s, she only had basic black-and-white pixels to create a universal user language. Computer use had mostly been for the tech savvy and executed totally in text, and Apple was aiming for a device anyone could easily use on start up. Decades later, her smiling “Happy Mac” has greeted countless people as they booted up their Apples, and many of her designs are still part of computer interface, from the curly command sign to the trash can for delete.

Susan Kare (born April 6, 1954) is an artist and graphic designer who created many of the interface elements for the Apple Macintosh in the 1980s. She was also one of the original employees of NeXT (the company formed by Steve Jobs after leaving Apple in 1985), working as the Creative DirectorAs Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design, and Michelle Millar Fisher, curatorial assistant, shared on the Inside/Out MoMA blog: “Using one box to equal one pixel, Kare designed intuitive icons for various functions a computer user might undertake (for example, a pair of scissors symbolized cutting text). The pictogram icons were designed to be an instinctive language that could be understood and loved by users in many different countries.”

This Is for Everyone is an exhibition about the democracy of design, and Kare’s icons are definitely for the masses in their simplicity and friendliness. Three selections of her graph paper work for the Mac’s graphical user interface (GUI) are on view, including some sketches for “debugging” that include an image of a flyswatter and a boot to target a pixel bug, and a running rabbit once paired with a tortoise to indicate processing speed. Alongside these sketches is a notebook open to a pair of scissors, shaded in below a couple of Apple logos.

Taking inspiration from familiar objects, history, and art, some of her designs were direct mimics like a dipped paint brush, others were more abstract like the four-sided command icon based on a Scandinavian map’s designation of points of interest. As she told the Next Web last year, she thought it essential that “symbols were based on everyday objects, when possible. For example, it seemed to me that more people had experience with a wristwatch than an hourglass.” Thus the clock became the icon of time passing on a busy Mac.

Working on a limited interface, each pixel mattered, and it’s impressive how even the more abstract icons became almost invisible through their usability. Even her more whimsical choices like the “dogcow,” originally part of her Cairo typeface and later used to show printer paper alignment, have the same language as road signs in that once you recognize them, that connection remains and you don’t forget. Kare went on to an influential career especially in pixel art and computer design, later continuing to work with Steve Jobs as Creative Director at NeXT, and even designing Microsoft solitaire and virtual gifts for Facebook. Going back to the early 1980s, there’s still a minimalist momentum in each GUI icon, giving a user-focused personality to Apple computers that would continue through to today.


Susan Kare, “Sketches for Graphic User Interface Icon” (1982), ink on graph paper. Gift of the designer, 2015 on display at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art store in New York City has begun carrying stationery and notebooks featuring her designs. Beginning February 7, 2007, she has produced icons for the “Gifts” feature of the popular social-networking website,Facebook. Initially, profits from gift sales were donated to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, for the fight against breast cancer. After Valentine’s Day, the gift selection was modified to include new and limited edition gifts that did not necessarily pertain to Valentine’s Day. One of the gift icons, titled “Big Kiss” is also featured in some versions ofMac OS X as a user account picture.

Susan Kare is the designer of many typefaces, icons, and original marketing material for the original Macintosh operating system. Descendants of her groundbreaking work can still be seen in many computer graphics tools and accessories, especially icons such as the Lasso, the Grabber, and the Paint Bucket. An early pioneer of pixel art, her most recognizable works from her time with Apple are the Chicago typeface (the most prominent user interface typeface seen in Classic Mac OS, as well as the typeface used in the first four generations of the Apple iPod interface), the Geneva typeface, the original monospace Monaco typeface, Clarus the Dogcow, the Happy Mac (the smiling computer that welcomed Mac users when starting their machines), and the symbol on the Command keyon Apple keyboards.




About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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