Who is Susan Kare?

Our latest brief, Unheard Voices asks us to look at hidden people in the creative world and create something to acknowledge and appreciate their work. I have chosen an artist and graphic designer called Susan Kare who has had a big impact on the look and feel of our digital world.

Susan Kare in the 1980s and in 2017

Susan Kare in the 1980s and in 2017

She was hired by Apple in the 1982 to lead the user interface design for the first Macintosh, her business card read HI Macintosh Artist. The Macintosh was one of the first personal computers with a screen, keyboard and mouse. There was a big emphasis on making the Mac appear friendly so it was approachable for anyone. It has one of the first user interfaces with fonts, icons and buttons, instead of replying on plain text and commands.

The Macintosh says Hello. A personal computer anyone can use.

The Macintosh says Hello. A personal computer anyone can use.

Kare designed the original iconset for the Mac as well as all of the typefaces which were so key to its success. In Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford speech (often referred to his 'stay hungry, stay foolish' speech) he refers to the proportionally spaced typography as this was very important to him in creating friendly computer that anyone could use. The fonts were later used on another of Apples flagship products, the iPod in 2001.

Due to the low resolution of the first personal computers, Kare designed the fonts and icons on a grid system so she could see pixel for pixel how the icons would be rendered. When preparing for her interview at Apple a friend suggested she buy a squared notebook and draw some icon ideas. She shaded in squares with pen to create shapes which resembled pictorial icons and was hired by the end of the interview as Jobs likes her thinking so much.


I love how this was such an organic process, she hand sketched these icons not knowing what a profound impact they would have on user interface and digital design. Many of the icons such as the floppy disk save icon or the bucket fill icon are universally recognisable and have been replicated time after time. In photos of the original sketchbooks you can see the price label is still stuck to the inside cover. 


After leaving Apple and joining Jobs' new company NeXT, she worked with Microsoft as was asked to design the card deck for the solitaire game on Windows 3.0, an iconic game in the history of computers. She has since worked on many other icons, illustrations and emoji style graphics for Facebook, PayPal and other companies. 

The work she did for the 1984 Macintosh is constantly being referenced by user interface and experience designers. Microsofts latest version of Word, PowerPoint and Excel still use the floppy disk as the save icon. Apple's Finder icon as a resemblance to the 1984 happy mac icon and on the latest iPhone (iPhone X, Nov 2017) the Face ID interface uses a smiling face icon, a (likely) deliberate reference to Kares icon. Throughout the years I've also spotted Apple using references to the happy mac icon in places such as iCloud. 


I have chosen to base my project on her because the evolution of her work is so widely used every day by millions of people. She created one of the first publicly available user interfaces which led to a whole new category of design. Her work was key in establishing the Macintosh as a friendly, personal computer, which led to its success and put Apple on the map. She is someone who most people will never hear of however her work has been used for over 30 years and will likey be used for a long into the future.