Design Icon: The Mac Icons

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first Macintosh computer in January 1984, the smiling Mac icon, designed by Susan Kare, that appeared as the system booted up was the first human face to be presented to the public by a personal computer.

Indeed, this was the singular vision for the Macintosh, to produce a personal computer that was both affordable and easy to use. Kare's work on the original icon set, font family and interface tools played a crucial role in the success of that project.

Kare has a background in fine art, and holds a PhD in the subject from New York University. In fact, when old school friend and software maestro Andy Hertzfeld first approached her to talk about the Macintosh project, Kare had only recently resigned from a curatorial position at San Francisco's Fine Arts Museum.

"The advantage of working in pixels is that it's iterative," says Kare. "You can consider one approach, try another and see how something looks with one dot off or on." And that's just how it worked, one dot at a time on a 32 x 32 grid.

Each of the Macintosh icons was designed on the Mac while it was still being developed. Initially this required Kare to calculate the hexadecimal number of any pixel she wanted to change until Andy Hertzfeld produced an icon editor that enabled direct access to the pixels.

When Kare started work at Macintosh, interface design was in its infancy. "There weren't any existing icons," she explains, "just words in boxes." So to complete the task, Kare placed the emphasis on what she terms "economy of expression" - the need for an icon to convey its meaning in a single glance. Her trick? To think of icons more like road signs than illustrations, something Kare has continued in her current work for handheld devices.

"We were trying to create a set of familiar images so that their meanings could help the na¯ve user," says Kare. The pouring paint can, the watch, the bomb - every one of those icons hits the nail on the head. The fact they have only recently suffered "eviction from the Apple desktop" is a tribute to the clarity Kare instantly brought to the task.

Although Steve Jobs had the ultimate say on which icons made the final cut, Kare says that the process wasn't overtly controlled. "I worked with Andy Hertzfeld chiefly, but also with everyone in the software group," she says.

If an icon were needed, Kare would be approached to solve the problem. "I did variations and we discussed which would work best," she explains, and paint rollers and other potential designs eventually gave way to the definitive icons now so familiar to Mac users everywhere.

But Kare wasn't employed for her icon designs alone: "The job I applied for was chiefly to design bitmap fonts," she recalls, which, considering her lack of typographic training, was a bold move. "I checked out a lot of books about type," she admits.

Kare is modest about her achievements: "I just tried to work within the constraints and not have a lot of jagged edges," she says. The approach worked and Chicago was the first font to roll off the production line.

Other hits included Monaco, New York and Cairo - source of the ever-popular Clarus dog/cow beast. These typefaces were produced for machines, which, for a time, were the fastest personal computers in the world. A time when Apple ruled and IBM was its biggest competition.

Kare's influence on user interface design cannot be overstated. As the front end to the first commercially available GUI-based personal computer her work determined the direction of development for years to come, and even though today's icons are more like tiny illustrations, developers such as Dave Brasgalla, founder of, continue to use Kare's work as a source of inspiration. "The happy-face Mac startup icon is still a universal symbol for the whole phenomenon," he says.

"Since Macintosh was the first readily available consumer GUI," he continues, "those first Mac icons became representative of not only the Macintosh, but also the basic idea of the graphic user interface itself. It reminds me of Leo Fender and his Precision Bass design - a perfect example of someone getting it dead right the first time."

Not content with producing the first set of icons for the Mac and thereby pointing the direction for all future interface design, Susan Kare also worked on another set of icons for Window 3.0.

Kare is cagey about the reaction to her controversial move across the great divide, saying only, "I had resigned from Apple before I was offered that opportunity." But by the time of Windows 3.0, Apple must have known the writing was on the wall. For Kare, though, "It was just fun to work in colour."

Today Kare continues to work with a restricted palette, producing icons for handheld devices with significantly greater processing power than the original Mac. The same rules apply, she says: "Not much screen real estate and a premium on quick recognisability."

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