Experiments with Kare’s Digital Metaphors

This post was written as part of a term-long project called Unheard Voices. We had to deliver a creative response to highlight a unknown designer who has had an impact on the world. I chose Susan Kare, who was hired by Apple in 1982 and designed almost all of the icons, fonts, illustrations and user interface for the original Macintosh. She created icons such as the ‘save’ floppy disk and ‘trash’ can yet most people have never heard of her. I wrote previous post explaining who she was and her work.

I started by focusing on the icons she designed and looked at how many of them were metaphors for physical items and actions. For example moving a file to the ‘trash’ icon was the same as throwing a physical document in the bin. The Macintosh was one of the first personal computers that ‘anyone could use’; It simplicity and ease of use was one of its selling points and one of the reasons why it was so successful. Much of this came down to Kare’s user interface, and in particular her icons. The icons were designed to be recognisable, friendly and easy to recognise. Kare said in an interview with The Next Web:

 The original Macintosh in 1984 featuring Kare's user interface and 'Hello' illustration.

The original Macintosh in 1984 featuring Kare's user interface and 'Hello' illustration.

“It was explained to me that the Mac’s intended audience was non-technical, and that the interface should look so friendly and be so easy to use that “your mom could do it”. Obviously, making the Mac easy to use was a team effort and graphics were just a part of that. Another prevailing idea was that it would be ideal if a user could just figure things out without a manual, as in an arcade game.

I interpreted “personal” and non-technical to mean that it would be good if symbols were based on everyday objects, when possible. For example, it seemed to me that more people had experience with a wristwatch than an hourglass. ‘

I chose some of Kare’s well recognised icons and found images of the real world equivalents, then in Photoshop I treated them to match the perspective of Kare’s Icons. I was unsure what my final outcome for the project would be so these images served more as an experiment that perhaps I could use later on in the project. I also cleaned up the colours and had to adjust photos such as removing an additional handle from the trash can and changing the sticker orientation on the floppy disk to match the icon. I added a series of gradients behind the objects to emphasise that they were real-world icons; this also helped to contrast them from the the solid black icons. 

 Comparing Susan Kare's 1982 digital icons with the real items.

Comparing Susan Kare's 1982 digital icons with the real items.

I later experimented with how text could look alongside the icons and images for a potential poster or editorial spread. I used Kare’s Chicago typeface from the original Mac alongside Apple’s San Francisco typeface used on the current Mac. I also tried some layouts focussing on just one icon and photo and blowing them up so they were the focal point of the whole page. With a light grey background and no additional colour these images have a very different feel and allow the viewer to compare the icon and image with no distractions.

I later used some of these metaphors in a publication abut Kare (Pictured Below) and through these experiments learned how similar her icons were when compared the the real items. Despite having to work on a simplified grid of squares - the dimensions and features of the ‘Happy Mac’ icon were proportionally accurate to a real Macintosh computer, the same with the floppy disk and many other icons.

 The Photoshop file containing these experiments

The Photoshop file containing these experiments

I enjoyed this experiment as it allowed me to focus on some of her key icons on a large scale and really appreciate their craftsmanship. Due to the simple processes used to create them, and the small scale to which they are normally seen it is very easy to overlook their significance but seeing them in detail allowed me to appreciate every pixel of them fully. 

 Experiments that were later used in a publication about Susan Kare's work.

Experiments that were later used in a publication about Susan Kare's work.