Susan Kare, the woman who made the Apple Macintosh smile

happy Mac Macintosh startup Susan Kare icons

The “happy Mac” icon on an Apple Macintosh 128K.

Almost everyone in the world knows who Steve Jobs was, many possibly know Jony Ive, the man behind many among the most iconic designs by Apple, but probably only a few have heard of Susan Kare.
Yet, without her, Apple would not be the mega-corporation it is today, perhaps.
Indeed, Susan Kare is the designer who created much of the graphical interface of the original Macintosh in the early 1980s and that, through it, changed graphic design forever. And her history, in the context of the pioneer era of the digital culture, really deserves to be told too.

Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1954, Kare began working as a traditional, “analog” graphic designer at the end of the 1970s, after graduating from the New York University.
Her career changed abruptly in 1982 when she accepted the request by an old friend – Andy Hertzfeld, a software engineer at Apple at the time – to work on the graphic interface of Apple’s new computer, the Macintosh.

When Kare started working on the commission, a problem emerged from the very beginning.
How to design graphic elements to be displayed on a computer screen consisting of some thousands of small squared, either black or white, called pixels, using only paper and pencils? How to verify what the final result would be on a cathode-ray tube, a device so different from the hand-painted sheets and high-resolution typographic prints she was accustomed to?

It must be kept in mind that there were no digital graphic editors and desktop publishing programs at the time, the first ones would be created for the computer Susan Kare was working on, indeed.
Her solution was to buy a grid-lined sketchbook through which to simulate the pixel grid of a computer display. Later, Apple gave her a prototype of the Macintosh with a preliminary version of the MacPaint graphic editor. In a way, graphics for computers and computers for graphics were being born at the same time; and the first digital graphic designers were being born together with them.

Susan Kare Macintosh icon sketchbook

The grid-lined sketchbook on which Susan Kare designed some of the icons of the original Mac Operating System. Image courtesy of MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art.

Susan Kare Macintosh icons 1

Susan Kare Macintosh icons 2

 Images  Susan Kare / Kareprints.com

For the original Macintosh OS, Susan Kare created various graphic elements, many of which totally groundbreaking. The first ones were the icons.
Those designed by Kare were not the first ones to appear on a computer screen, they were preceded by the icon devised by Xerox and those of the Apple Lisa; yet hers were something completely different. While the icons of the Lisa were serious and “institutional”, the Macintosh’s ones were funny and ironic. The system crashed unrecoverably? The symbol of a bomb pops out. Do you want to save a file? To click on the icon of a small floppy disk is what you need.

Overall, the goal was to connect both acts and abstract concepts to symbols that had to be easy, intuitive, unambiguous, and understandable by people of different cultural and social backgrounds across all over the world.
To achieve that, Kare took inspiration from the most various sources. The “command” symbol mimics the road sign symbol that in Sweden indicates a tourist attraction (which actually is a stylized plan of the Borgholm castle), the icon to fill an area with a color is a tiny paint bucket, the MacPaint welcome screen shows a pixel-art version of a woodblock print by Japanese artist Hashiguchi Goyo that Kare saw in Steve Job’s home, and so on.

Yet, the most famous icon is arguably that of the “happy Mac”, the smiling little computer that greeted the user when the Mac startup hardware test was completed successfully. Its counterpart also existed, it was the “unhappy (or sad) Mac” which appeared when the bootup failed.

Bomb icon Mac OS 1984 Susan Kare

The famous “bomb” icon, which appeared during a system crash of the original Macintosh OS.

Command key symbol Susan Kare

The design of the command key symbol proved particularly difficult since it didn’t represent a specific action but a very subtle concept with no physical equivalent in real life. Kare solved the puzzle by redesigning a symbol that recalled her that of a four-leaf clover, she found on a book, but that was actually the Swedish road sign for tourist attractions. The photo on the right is by Margaret Shear.

MacPaint interface, Susan Kare 2

Steve Jobs in an old Apple advertisement, the MacPaint welcome screen designed by Kare, and the Kamisuki (Combing the hair) woodblock print by Hashiguchi Goyo (1920, detail).

Happy Mac and sad Mac icons Susan Kare

The happy Mac and sad Mac icons, the “sock and buskin” of the digital age.

But Kare’s work went beyond icons, she developed also the system’s fonts, including the famous Chicago typeface which had been the default on Apple computers for nearly fifteen years. Most of them were proportionally spaced fonts, much more elegant and easy to read than the monospaced fonts in vogue at the time. Again, it was necessary to design the fonts from scratch on graph paper and making the most of the few pixels available on the small display of the Macintosh 128K.

Chicago typeface Susan Kare

The Chicago sans-serif typeface designed by Susan Kare, 1984.

Susan Kare’s work for the original Mac really subverted the graphic design of the time and laid the foundations of pixel art. Her playful and open-minded creativity contributed to transforming the boring, utilitarian computer-generated graphics of the late 70s into the flamboyant universe of digital images we have today.

After Apple, Susan Kare followed Steve Jobs to his NEXT project, and then she designed for Microsoft, IBM, Facebook, and other American tech companies. Probably not all know that the graphic interface of the hypnotic solitaire game included in many of the early versions of Windows was designed by her. Today, Susan Kare conducts her freelance designer office and also owns an atelier of limited-edition fine art prints (https://kareprints.com).

Susan Kare at Apple, 1984

Susan Kare at her desk at Apple Inc., 1984. Photo © Norman Seeff courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American History.


sponsored links

Visionary computer design of the past

Visionary computer design of the past

Visionary computer design of the past



copyright Inexhibit 2021 - ISSN: 2283-5474