The Paint Bucket icon for the fill tool and the Lasso icon for the freehand selection tool are now part of everyday computing for millions of people worldwide. Their designer, Susan Kare , according to the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, is “a pioneering and influential computer iconographer. Since 1983, Kare has designed thousands of icons for the world’s leading software companies. Utilizing a minimalist grid of pixels and constructed with mosaic-like precision, her icons communicate their function immediately and memorably, with wit and style.”
She began her career at Apple, Inc. as the screen graphics and digital font designer for the original Macintosh computer, initially advertised as the “computer for the rest of us.” The computer with a sly smile, watch, trash can, bomb, hand and the arrow are some of the initial icons that have now become part of computing culture. The Macintosh set the standard for how computers could appeal to a broad new group of nontechnical people. Every software designer has dreamed of having his or her program achieve the same level of quasi-religious adoration as the Macintosh.
All sorts of interesting characters stumbled into the personal computer industry in the early 1980s, but Ms. Kare’s entry was more serendipitous than most. After receiving a doctorate in fine arts from New York University in 1978, she moved to the San Francisco area to work as a freelance graphic artist. One day she received a call from Andy Hertzfeld, a high school friend who was a programmer at Apple Computer Inc. He was working on a new computer and needed help creating graphic images by turning on and off the tiny dots, or pixels, on the computer’s screen.
“He told me to go to the stationery store and get the smallest graph paper I could find and color in the squares to make images,” Ms. Kare recalled. Ms. Kare was soon a full-fledged member of the Macintosh development team. She also designed the original type fonts that shipped with the Macintosh and were named for cities: Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
Since leaving Apple in the mid-80s after the chairman, Steve Jobs, was forced out, she has created hundreds of icons, including most of those featured in Windows 3.0, which was Microsoft’s first successful attempt to reproduce a Macintosh-like experience on IBM-compatible personal computers. She even designed many of the playing cards in the solitaire game included in Windows programs.
Ms. Kare favors a minimalist approach. Much of what she does when asked to give a program a face lift, she said, is take away elements rather than add them. “I tend to think of icons more like traffic signs than as illustrations,” she added. “It’s much more successful if it is simple.”
Her restraint also applies to the use of color. “Just because you have millions of colors doesn’t mean that you have to use them all the time,” she said. Her icons tend to be rendered in bright, primary colors.
But the secret to her art is not just pruning or rendering an image in light but also coming up with a cohesive metaphor for whatever action the icon must represent.
Nouns are easy, she said. Verbs are hard. The toughest commands to illustrate are “undo” and “execute,” she added.
She does not strive to make the action represented by each icon instantly recognizable. Her goal is to make them easy to remember. “I would say an icon is successful if you could tell someone what it is once and they don’t forget it,” she said.
It is also a challenge to come up with a fresh idea for a well-worn concept. “I’ve done trash trucks, trash bags, plastic garbage cans, aluminum trash cans, wire trash baskets, wastebaskets and even fires,” she said, referring to the variations on icons for “delete.”
For each icon that ends up in a program, she said, two or three others are rejected. “I always have many more images than actually ship,” she added. “The image graveyard is littered with things that might have been.”
“My work has continued to be motivated by respect for, and empathy with, users of software. I believe that good icons are more akin to road signs rather than illustrations, and ideally should present an idea in a clear, concise, and memorable way. I try to optimize for clarity and simplicity even as palette and resolution options have increased. I rely on common sense; when I designed buttons, icons, and other screen images for Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 in 1987, I was able to use the 16-color palette to replace black rectangles with images that looked like three-dimensional “pressable” buttons. I was also challenged to fine tune many images for applications by using dithered patterns of color to offset the constraints of the limited VGA palette.”
“Although I’ve designed thousands of icons for hundreds of clients over the past eighteen years, I still search for better metaphors-perennial brain twisters such as “undo”, “save”, and “run program” come to mind. I have endeavored to make all kinds of software more intuitive: programs designed for users, for experts in vertical markets, for technical audiences, and for more or less everyone.”
“The nature of user interface design is collaborative; much great software is the result of a team effort among engineers, marketing types, and designers. My design work-installed at the top level of software-has often been inspired by imaginative and breakthrough engineering. Current work that intrigues me is having the opportunity to improve the quality of small monochrome icons and typefaces in fast-proliferating handheld devices, in addition to the larger and more colorful images on computer monitors. I work to hone the meaning and appearance of each image, and I hope the cumulative effect makes the process of interacting with machines-the way people “see” the software-more gratifying.”
“I feel much happier that people are looking at my icons every day than having my sculptures in five living rooms across the country.”