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Q&A: Susan Kare On Why Pinterest Feels Like Apple In The ’80s

The legendary Silicon Valley pixel designer explains why she made Pinterest her first full-time job in decades.

Q&A: Susan Kare On Why Pinterest Feels Like Apple In The ’80s
[All Images (unless otherwise noted): Susan Kare]

Late last month, social bookmarking site Pinterest announced a hiring coup: they were bringing on Susan Kare, the legendary designer behind the original Mac’s icons and fonts, as a product design lead. Although Kare has spent decades contracting for Silicon Valley companies like Microsoft, NeXT, and Facebook, this will be Kare’s first full-time design position since her stint at Apple in the 1980s. So how did Pinterest woo her, what will she be working on, and what similarities do Pinterest and Apple share? We caught up with Kare on the phone to find out.

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Susan KarePhoto: Ann Rhoney

You haven’t worked full-time for a company since Apple. How did you come to join Pinterest?

I can’t say I was actively looking for a full-time job, but I’m always thinking about what to do next. A friend was shocked I hadn’t met Bob Baxley, Pinterest’s design manager. We have the Apple connection in common–Bob managed the design of the Apple Online Store for eight years. So I went in to meet him, and immediately, I just liked him. He told me: “I want Pinterest to be the very best place for a designer to work in the valley.” I also met the design team, and it blew me away. It’s not huge, but it’s mighty.

Flickr user Nam-ho Park

What does ‘best place for a designer to work in the Valley’ mean?

I think what is articulated here, and this strikes me as true when I think about my colleagues, is that Pinterest is looking for really, really strong designers who are also nice. They really use that word in the hiring process, nice. It’s just refreshing . . .

I was struck by the talent pool and spirit of collaboration, and saw the imaginative office as a metaphor for the product and company. I also thought it would be fun to join a company with about 600 people–small enough to be agile about design decisions. And of course, it really appealed to me that one of the founders is also a very hands-on creative director.

As a designer, I’m already finding that Pinterest is a great place to work because the product and culture is all about inspiring users. There’s an ongoing effort to expand the extremely diverse group of designers, and everyone is able to focus on an area of interest, and contribute as part of a small team made up of designers, engineers, and product managers.

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So what are you working on?

It’s early, but I’m working on the product design team to improve the core experience of Pinterest. I’m starting out by taking a look at things like the home feed and the dozens of icons with the goal of adding meaning and clarity.

Icons seems like a natural fit.

Yeah, It’s a logical place for me to start, but I’m also definitely part of the product design team as a whole, so I don’t feel like my design input will be limited to that. But it’s still very early.

Do you see any similarities between Pinterest and Apple?

It’s really hard to compare, but at Pinterest, I’m working team with a lot of people of different ages, experiences, and disciplines in an agile team, which is similar to how I worked at Apple back in the day. It’s a good creative environment with just the right amount of structure, which again appeals to me, hearkening back to Apple.

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Ultimately, though, what seems most similar to me is how user-first both companies are? When we created the original Mac, we made a really sincere effort to make a computer for the rest of us, and give it a friendly, accessible UI. I see the same thing here at Pinterest, where our slogan is: “Put pinners first.” Just like when we created the Mac, Pinterest is putting a really strong focus on thinking about the user at every stage in the design process.