Mac icon designer Susan Kare honored with award

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Fast Company/Susan Kare
Some of Susan Kare's iconic designs.
Photo: Fast Company/Susan Kare

There’s no more famous name in computer icon design than Susan Kare, who remains best known for creating the famous icons for the original Macintosh.

Having spent three decades working in the tech space, Kare is now being honored with an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medal, whose previous winners have included the likes of Paul Rand, and Charles and Ray Eames.

A brief history of Susan Kare

The AIGA website includes a short biography of Kare. In the early 1980s, Kare was a sculptor before being brought on to the Macintosh project. Her connection to Apple came about because she was an old high school friend of Andy Hertzfeld, one of the programmers on the Mac.

She had no prior knowledge of computers, but used this to help create the icons for Apple’s first successful graphical user interface which were friendly and accessible to the masses. (Apple’s first GUI was actually on the ill-fated Lisa computer, although these icons lacked the character of Kare’s.)

Kare was also the person who decorated the Mac office with the pirate flag with rainbow-colored eye patch. This was a reference to the team’s motivational slogan: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.”

In recent years, Kare has worked for Facebook and, currently, as creative director at Pinterest. She’s also worked for companies including Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Motorola, and Sony Pictures.

As AIGA notes:

“Throughout the years, Kare has strictly adhered to a design philosophy that rests on the tenets of simplicity, clarity, and beauty. And though she’s upgraded her tools from graph paper to design software, Kare continues to place a premium on context and metaphor. On the streets of San Francisco, she intrepidly hunts for catchy symbols and shapes; once inspiration strikes, she works within a grid-like template in Adobe Illustrator — a tool to help her visualize the constraints of the device on which her user will view her icons. Each icon, she contends, must not only be easy to understand, but easy to remember.”

Apple’s focus on eye-catching graphics and simplicity owes a huge debt to Susan Kare. It’s great to see her recognized by her peers!