Why Steve Jobs replaced the Mac’s  key with ⌘

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Graphic designer Susan Kare is iconic — literally. The mastermind behind the friendly 32 x 32 and 16 x 16 icons used in the original Mac operating system, Kare’s work has reached more people than almost any other graphic designer on Earth.

Yet the way she stumbled into designing the icons for the Mac operating system was pretty much a lark, and in a recent presentation at the EG conference in California, Kare spoke a little bit about how she stumbled into the job.

It’s a fascinating talk, not just for the details she shares about early Mac operating system development, but also because Kare finally reveals why Apple switched from the Apple symbol to the Command key.

Why Steve Jobs replaced the Mac’s  key with ⌘

Kare never thought she’d be best known for designing icons for a living. A high school friend of Andy Hertzfeld, who was leading up the Macintosh OS design team, Kare says the job was offered to her “serendipitously” based on no more than her ability to draw some off-the-cuff icons on graph paper during her initial interview.

To say that Kare was good at drawing icons is an understatement. In fact, many of the icons she drew during her interview became mainstays of the Macintosh operating system. Working with a prototype Macintosh OS, Kare’s job was to make the operating system as “discoverable as an arcade game,” with “no manuals.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories Kare tells in the video above is about why the Macintosh replaced the  key with the Command key. Originally, all shortcuts in the Macintosh operating system were done with the  key, but when Steve Jobs saw the dropdown menus, he screamed: “There are too many Apples! You’re using our logo in vain!”

Looking for a replacement, Kare consulted a symbol dictionary and plucked a little-known symbol used almost exclusively in Swedish campgrounds — the ⌘ symbol we all know and love today.

There’s far more, and the full video is well worth watching. Kare’s one of the most influential graphic designers of the last 30 or 40 years, and she’s just as charming and beautiful today as she must have been in the early 1980s.

  • AlanAudio

    Apple didn’t simply replace the Apple key with the point of interest symbol. I have several old Apple keyboards where the command key is engraved with both symbols. Over time the Apple symbol disappeared, but they co-existed for many years. The keyboard that I consider the classic Apple keyboard certainly had both symbols.

    I used to joke with my kids that the command key was the snack button. If you knew the magic way and the perfect time to press it, you would be rewarded with either a piece of fruit or a pretzel.

  • diego fabbri

    very interesting video, thanks a lot!

  • GoCat

    I’ve been a fan for close to thirty years. A remarkably creative woman and, by all accounts, a kind and gentle soul.

  • Frank Malloy

    Sigh.

    Steve Jobs did this, Steve Jobs did that. Yep, he singlehandedly designed, engineered, built, and shipped everything Apple ever did.

    You know what Steve did? Went into meetings and said, “ship this, can that, change that…”, “Make this smaller”. Hired brilliant people and fired brilliant people.

    Um, this article has to do with the work of Susan Kare, yet everything comes back to “Steve did it all”.

    • digerati007

      Without Steve Jobs & Woz, Apple would not exist & numerous smart people would not have the opportunity to achieve greatness within Apple. Respect. Truth. Learn

      • Frank Malloy

        Sure, but does every single article about Apple have to talk about what Steve did? We all know. There are books and movies glorifying and paying tribute. Articles written every day. We get it.

        This was about Susan Kare’s contribution. Can we just not make EVERYTHING all about Steve?

      • digerati007

        Ms Kare is an extremely smart & talented designer & that’s why Steve interviewed her & Apple hired her. She deeply respects Steve Jobs & was talking about him in the article & the video. Talking about Apple without mentioning Steve Jobs is like talking about Disney Corp. without mentioning Walt Disney…

      • Frank Malloy

        So, you cannot mention a company name in any article without mentioning the founder? You know how ridiculous that sounds?

        And Steve Jobs didn’t replace the character. Susan did. Steve just told her to do that.

        Steve Jobs wouldn’t have had a clue how to go into an icon editor and make the change, for all his brilliance, let’s be honest. He was an “idea man” and hundreds of engineers make it happen.

      • Frank Malloy

        I guess every article about cars should talk about Henry Ford. LED light bulb innovation? Thomas Edison.

        And while we’re at it, Nikola Tesla should get a mention in every tech article written if it involves electricity.

      • ConstablePlod

        Walt who?

      • LJSeinfeld

        Like this post?

    • Kendall Tawes

      I don’t think you read the article because it was Susan that brought up Jobs. She said the reason she had to create a replacement for the Apple logo to signify command was because Steve Jobs said so. They very likely would have kept using Apples otherwise as they did on other products.

      I get your gripe about the Steve Jobs worship that happens. There a quite a lot of times when Steve Jobs is brought up for no reason but in regards to this and the Macintosh project as a whole. Steve for better or for worse (often both) had a big part to play with Apple and the creation of the Macintosh and to give him no credit is just as asinine as giving him all the credit.

      • Frank Malloy

        He got credit. A lot of it. He’s had books written, movies made.

        I read the article. I also saw the video. She mentioned Jobs. But we don’t need to include him in the title of any article mentioning Apple.

      • LJSeinfeld

        Um.. When it’s your decision, it’s your decision. You get credit for it –good or bad.

        Steve Jobs was a known egomaniac and could be somewhat of a tool. He also was a business visionary –and very much responsible for Apple Computer’s birth.

  • http://kitchensinkwp.com/ Adam Silver

    Interesting as I did wonder why the Apple was removed. Heck, I remember having both the Solid Apple and Open Apple logo on keyboards back in my Apple ][+, //e, //gs/ etc.. days. I still catch myself mentioning shorts to friends/family and saying “open-apple-v”.. then correcting myself.. “command+…”… etc. Good times.

    • mattack1

      It’s the cmd key on the GS too.. (I’m typing this on my Mac Pro on an Apple Standard keyboard that shipped with the SE.. virtually the same as the GS keyboard, but a tiny bit bigger).

  • mahadragon

    Awesome video. I feel inspired.

  • Matt

    Which symbol dictionary is that? Looks very handy.

  • Einar Zettergren

    If Kare indeed used the logo from Swedish roadsigns, it is actually not for campsites, but for attractions: http://www.transportstyrelsen.se/sv/Vag/Vagmarken/Lokaliseringsmarken-for-upplysning-om-serviceanlaggningar-med-mera/Sevardhet/

  • ConstablePlod

    Pity most of the respondents below swung this extremely interesting discussion by an iconic (!) Apple employee into their own love-hate Steve Jobs rants.

    Surely anyone reading this knows that no presenter, much less the article writer, has anything to do with picking headlines. That click-bait role falls to editors and sub-editors whose job is to bait clicks.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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