Susan Kare

Thirty years ago, an Apple designer helped define the future of personal computers with three iconic icons.

Susan Kare illustration by Jonathan Puckey
Thirty years ago, this Apple designer helped define the future of personal computers with three iconic icons.

Apple user or not, chances are you’re familiar with the “Sad Mac,” “Happy Mac,” and ticking watch icons, the original symbols of the Macintosh operating system. Those unforgettable digitized pictures were created by Susan Kare, who in 1982 helped reframe the computer as an accessible tool for the individual rather than a data-processing machine suitable only for big business.

Happy MAC icon by Susan Kare
The "Happy Mac" was one of Apple's first icons.
When Apple hired Kare, then a recent PhD graduate from New York University, she was an artist with no prior computer experience. Armed with rudimentary versions of MacPaint, Kare designed her now-famous bitmap graphics—essentially a grid of black and white pixels. Such icons are “analogous to needlepoint,” she explains, and easily communicate their function to a novice Mac user. And due to their straightforwardness those graphics have endured the test of time. “I believe icons can be in use for a long time, like the pouring paint can,” she says. “The key is focusing on finding a strong metaphor, not illustrating a piece of technology where the industrial design is likely to change frequently.”

Kare left Apple in 1986 and established her own design studio three years later in San Francisco. Though she has since designed thousands of icons and logos, like a recent one for MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, her mantra remains the same: “I always err on the side of simplicity, and try to create icons and logos that mean something as opposed to images that are primarily decorative.”

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