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
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
"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."
PHOTO: R.J. MUNA