Meet Susan Kare, The Pioneer Who Created The Mac’s Original Icons

Kare’s designs contributed in no small part to making Apple computers accessible and friendly.

[The following is Steve Silberman‘s introduction to Susan Kare Icons, available for purchase directly from the author.]


Point, click. The gestures and metaphors of icon-driven computing seem so natural and effortless to us now that it seems strange to recall navigating in the digital world any other way. It’s not unusual to see a child who is barely old enough to read take an iPad in hand and instinctively know how to use it.

Until Apple’s debut of the Macintosh in 1984, however, most interactions with computers–outside of Doug Engelbart’s lab at Xerox PARC, where the graphical user interface was born–looked more like this:

C:> RUN autoexec.bat

How did we get from there to here?

The genius of Steve Jobs and the Macintosh team was recognizing a huge untapped market for home computing among artists, musicians, writers, and other creative folk who might never have cared enough to master the arcane complexities of a command-line interface. The challenge of designing a personal computer that “the rest of us” would not only buy, but fall crazy in love with, required input from the kind of people who might some day be convinced to try using a Mac. Appropriately, one of the team’s most auspicious early hires was an artist herself–Susan Kare, who created the engaging icons in this charmingly modest and long overdue book.

After graduating from New York University with a Ph.D. in fine arts, Kare took a curatorial job at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where she quickly felt like she was on the wrong side of the creative equation. “I’d go talk to artists in their studios for exhibitions,” she recalls, “but I really wanted to be sitting in my studio.” Soon Kare earned a commission from an Arkansas museum to sculpt a razorback hog out of steel. That was the project she was tackling in her garage in Palo Alto when she got a call from a high-school friend named Andy Hertzfeld, who was a lead software architect for the nascent Macintosh operating system.


After joining the software group, one of Kare’s first assignments was developing fonts for the new computer. At the time, digital typefaces were monospaced, meaning that both a narrow I and a broad M were wedged into the same bitmapped real estate–a vestigial legacy of the way that a typewriter platen advances, one space at a time. For the Mac, Kare designed the first proportionally spaced digital font family that allowed text to breathe as naturally on the Mac’s white screen as it does in the pages of a book. (A distinctive Jobs touch was upgrading the original monikers of these elegant typefaces from the names of train stations near Philadelphia–like Rosemont and Ardmore–to those of world-class cities like Geneva, Monaco, and New York.)

Inspired by the collaborative intelligence of her fellow software designers, Kare stayed on to design visual elements for Apple’s revolutionary GUI. She began by sketching arrows, paintbrushes, and pointing hands in a notebook because the application for designing icons on screen hadn’t been coded yet. These casual prototypes of the new, user-friendly face of computing were initially drawn with a pencil on graph paper, each square representing a pixel.

Kare gave the Mac OS a visual lexicon that was universally inviting and intuitive. Instead of thinking of each image as a tiny illustration–say, a simplified representation of a particular trash can–she aimed to design icons that served as instantly comprehensible traffic signs. Kare mined ideas from everywhere: the history of Asian art, the geeky gadgets and toys that festooned her fellow designers’ cubicles, and the glyphs that Depression-era hobos chalked on walls to point the way to a sympathetic household. The symbol on every Apple command key–a stylized castle seen from above–was commonly used at Swedish campgrounds to denote an interesting sightseeing destination.

There is an ineffably disarming and safe quality about Kare’s icons. Like their self-effacing creator, they radiate good vibes. To creative innovators in the early ’80s who didn’t see themselves as computer types, her icons said: Stop stressing out about technology. Go ahead, dive in!

And dive in we did, en masse. In the Wall Street Journal,
Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From and other smart books, recalled the thrill of seeing the first computer he ever considered buying: “One look at the Mac and you could tell something was different. The white screen alone seemed revolutionary, after years of reading green text on a black background. And there were typefaces! I had been obsessed with typography since my grade-school years; here was a computer that treated fonts as an art, not just a clump of pixels. The graphic interface made the screen feel like a space you wanted to inhabit, to make your own . . . The Mac was a machine you wanted to live in.”

Many of us are living there still. For Kare herself, though, the Apple years were just an initial milestone in a distinguished career that has included designing icons for the Windows and IBM OS/2 operating systems, bitmapping the virtual deck in the Windows version of Solitaire, illustrating books, crafting logos, creating products for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and making fine-art prints (available at For years, thousands of Facebook users a day swapped Kare-designed birthday cakes, disco balls, roses, and engagement rings as virtual gifts, never knowing they were designed by the same artist whose smiling image of the “Happy Mac” greeted a generation at the threshold of a new world.


I recently asked Kare if she had any feeling at the time that the work she was doing at Apple would be so pervasively influential. “You can set out to make a painting, but you can’t set out to make a great painting,” she said. “If you look at that blank canvas and say, ‘Now I’m going to create a masterpiece’–that’s just foolhardy. You just have to make the best painting you can, and if you’re lucky, people will get the message.”

Click here to buy a signed copy of Susan Kare Icons for $39.95.