August 26, 1996
The Designer Who Made the Mac Smile
By LAURENCE ZUCKERMAN
uch junk food has been eaten and many caffeine-laden drinks have been consumed. The code is almost complete. Then suddenly, someone realizes that the new software program will be used by people, not programmers, and not too much thought has been given to its public face.
That is often when the phone rings at Susan Kare's San Francisco studio. It is where Ms. Kare, who designed the signature icons of the Macintosh (the moving watch, the paintbrush and, of course, the trash can) as well as most of the icons in Microsoft's Windows 3.0 program, spins the threads of her imagination onto the computer screen, and thence around the world.
Her goal is to help software writers improve the overall "look and feel" of their products, from the borders on the overlapping windows to the drop-down menus.
But her bread and butter are the tiny electronic images known as icons that computer users click on dozens of times a day.
From her studio overlooking the leafy Presidio, Ms. Kare, 42, focuses on the postage-stamp-sized square of 1,024 dots that make up an average icon. (Some smaller icons have only 256 dots.) Like a modern mosaicist, she spends her days manipulating the color of each dot to create her images.
Although she could easily hire and train a staff to help her, she largely works alone. "I'd rather do the work than be out representing the business," she said. "Temperamentally, I really like sitting in front of a computer with a grid. I'm kind of obsessive about my dots."
Sometimes called the Betsy Ross of the personal computer, Ms. Kare did path-breaking work on the original Macintosh in the early 1980s, including the image of a miniature Mac with a smiley face that greets users when the machine is turned on, and the trash can. The designs helped create the cult-like devotion that still surrounds the machines. It also created a new profession for her.
The Macintosh set the standard for how computers could appeal to a broad new group of nontechnical people. Every software designer soon dreamed of having his or her program achieve the same level of quasi-religious adoration as the Macintosh.
More recently, the growth of the Internet's graphical World Wide Web has put a new premium on graphics. As a result, Ms. Kare is busier than ever.
This spring, IBM hired her to spruce up the next version of its OS/2 operating system, which will be officially released next month. Although IBM. has largely conceded defeat in its quixotic battle against Windows, the company is still trying to give OS/2 the sex-appeal that it has always lacked.
"Even though we were a technology leader, people really didn't think of OS/2 as something fun to use," said Jeff Howard, OS/2's worldwide brand manager. "One of the main reasons we went to Susan was not only because she has an unmatched reputation but because she has that sense of fun which we wanted."
That sense of fun has become Ms. Kare's trademark. "Her style is very thoughtful in the way that she creates a look and feel that is very friendly," said Vic Zauderer, manager of information design at Netobjects Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. Ms. Kare helped design the look of Fusion, Netobject's new programming tool that enables people to create pages for the World Wide Web.
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. Among the many now-classic images she created were the tiny wristwatch that appears on the screen to indicate that the Macintosh is working and a tiny spotted dog. The dog, which many mistook for a cow (a misperception that earned it the name "Moof, the dogcow"), indicated whether pages would be printed horizontally or vertically.
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 a current project, she recently went "metaphor shopping," buying a sheriff's badge, a crown, tiny street signs and miniature tools.
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."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company