If you’re reading this on a computer, you owe a debt to Susan Kare, the pioneering designer behind the original Macintosh’s icons and the first digital typefaces like Chicago, which proved that computers could have great fonts. The 60-year-old is a legend in the digital design field, but you’d never guess it from talking to her. In person, Kare is breezy and down-to-earth, just as happy to chat about how much she likes Lego, or which celebrity gossip blogs she reads, as she is about her early days at Apple. After she chatted with us about her recreation of Apple’s original Pirates of Silicon Valley flag, Kare shared with us some words of wisdom for young designers hoping to make as big of an impact as she did: fake it until you make it, and remember that what makes design great never changes.
Having designed many of the Mac’s early system fonts such as Chicago, the (original) San Francisco, Geneva, and Monaco, Kare is one of the pioneers of early digital typography. But when she first applied to Apple, she was pulling her type design qualifications out of thin air.
“I was working at a furniture store at the time, and I didn’t know the first thing about designing a typeface,” she told me. “But I’d studied graphic design, so I said, ‘How hard can it be?'” So Kare went to the Palo Alto Library and took out a number of books on typography. “I even brought them to my interview to prove I knew something about type, if anyone asked!” she laughs. “I went into it totally green.”
Kare turned out to be a great hire, not because she knew about type, but because she knew about working within constraints. “Each letter had to fit in a space of just 9 x 7 dots, so they looked jaggedy,” Kare remembers. “I looked at the screen and the system fonts they were using, and decided that it might look cleaner if the lines were only ever horizontal, vertical, or at 45 degree angles.”
And that’s how Chicago was born, a typeface that was synonymous with two of Apple’s biggest products—the Macintosh and the iPod—for over 20 years.
Though Kare helped usher in what we think of today as digital design (her icons are responsible for the signature look of the original Macintosh, which influenced every desktop operating system to follow), she’s most excited about the fact that the divide between the digital and analog sides of design is starting to go away.
“I get excited to see all kinds of terrific graphic styles everywhere (from Google doodles to nice shopping bag icons) because the boundary between print and digital has virtually disappeared,” Kare says. “I remain a big fan of simple UI graphics that don’t compete with the content, and in a very general way am happy to see more of a focus on streamlined icons. It’s not just a matter of being flat vs. 3-D, but of presenting an essential message without extraneous detail.”
That’s the thing. For Kare, all types of design are just about solving a problem within a set of constraints. And while the canvas available to the digital designers of today is so much more hi-fi than the low-res, 8-bit canvas on which Kare made her mark, she doesn’t think things are terribly different from how they were in the 1980s–or for that matter, the 1580s.
“People say graphic design is so different now, because you have so many more pixels and colors to work with,” Kare says. “But when you study art history, you see there’s just nothing new under the sun. Mosaics and needlework, it’s all analogous to pixel and bitmap art. And with it all, good design’s not about what medium you’re working in, it’s about thinking hard about what you want to do and what you have to work with before you start.”