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SUSAN KARE'S HERO IS PAUL RAND, the great graphic designer who created the IBM and the UPS logos. So although Kare works in Lilliputian scale, it seems especially appropriate that her screen icon designs for Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft's Windows software eventually may be even more familiar and subtly influential than those of her famous exemplar.
Even if we see five UPS trucks a day, how much more often do we drag a computer file to that familiar little trash can, or eye a tiny wristwatch waiting out the seconds of our spreadsheet calculations? When it comes to giving personality to what otherwise might be cold and uncaring office machines, Kare is the queen of look and feel.
A wise person plans life, but only a fool expects things to go as planned. In 1979, armed with a Ph.D. in fine arts from New York University and time spent working in graphic design for Harry Loucks at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Kare swapped coasts to take a job as an assistant curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. After two years before the mast of high culture, Kare put out her shingle as a freelance graphic designer.
Then an old friend from high school, Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original programmers on Apple's Macintosh project, called to say that the company needed someone to design proportional fonts and icons for a revolutionary point-and-click technology. This led to three years at Apple and put Kare on the leading edge of a whole new field of graphic design. Working with only a grid of pixels, she began to master a peculiar sort of minimal pointillism. She spent her days turning tiny dots on and off to craft instantly understandable visual metaphors for computer commands.
Initially, her job was to shape individual letters and numbers to bring a semblance of print's elegance to the grainy domain of computer screens. But Kare's most memorable legacy is the playful quality of some of her icons. She's quick to point out that Xerox PARC had already created a garbage can for disposing of files, but Kare's can is so viewer- friendly that one half-expects Oscar the Grouch to pop out.
For a designer in uncharted territory, Apple was the place to be, and Steve Jobs was the boss to have█supportive, involved, adventurous, and design-obsessed. "Steve cared intensely about each letterform and font selection," Kare recalls. "He had great insights about what stuff should look like, even at the pixel level." Their collaboration didn't end when Jobs left Apple. In 1986 Kare became creative director for Next Software (whose logo was designed by Paul Rand). She was drafted by the opposition in 1988 to help bring Microsoft out of the shadows of DOS dullness.
"The best icons are more like traffic signs than graphic illustrations," Kare says. These days, however, the "drivers" on the information highway live all over the world, and global traffic has become more complicated. Kare has loosed spotted dogs, pointing hands, and running hares into the computer user's world, but many of her design challenges are of a more complex sort. What kind of metaphor can reduce a command such as "Compute Value Added Tax" to a simple pictogram?
In a book-lined office overlooking San Francisco's Presidio park, Kare deals with questions like that every day for such clients as AT&T, Fidelity Investments, Sony Pictures, Sun Microsystems, PeopleSoft, Autodesk, and Intuit. Any given job may require her to come up with as many as 400 tiny but effective graphic images, a labor that can take months. Given her methodology█editing down from several possibilities for each command█her idea output is nothing short of prodigious. But some things never change.
"I still spend my days turning dots on and off," she says with a charming smile. "And I'm always perfecting scissors."

Owen Edwards

PHOTO: R.J. MUNA

 

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