Review: Susan Kare Icons

Presenting: the untold, little-known story of one of Apple’s earliest and most influential artists. Susan Kare’s place in history is among its most important and foundational, yet her body of work is comprised of something that most people take for granted and never give a second thought to.

I have to be honest: I’d never heard of Susan Kare before I picked up this book. And once I did, I flipped through its sparse, white pages with lots of empty white space thinking, Okay, so it’s icons. What’s the big deal? It turns out, it is a mighty big deal. You may not have heard of Susan Kare either, so let me give you a quick history lesson. Stay with me, it’s worth it — it ties directly into Apple history.

In 1983, when Apple was designing the first commercial Mac, they hired Susan Kare to come on board and design various parts of their operating system’s user interface. Her first job was the creation of several of the Mac’s earliest fonts, including the classic typefaces Chicago, Geneva, and Monaco — fonts that had characters that were, for the first time ever, spaced according to the width of the character, instead of every character width being identical. But the work she is best known for is what came next: designing the sublime and inviting icons used in the Macintosh OS.

Susan Kare Icons collects many of these original pixelated icons in generously-sized formats that let you best appreciate their lovely simplicity. Her earliest prototypes, as the book explains, were drawn with an ink pen on graph paper, with each graph square representing a pixel. Kare designed each icon to be as something as instantly recognizable as a traffic sign, and this design philosophy is evident in all of her earliest works.

One of her most recognizable icons is the Mac command key icon, and the book provides its fascinating backstory, which also demonstrates the lengths to which Kare went in looking for inspiration. The command symbol was first seen at Swedish campgrounds, designating points of interest for sightseers. It was made to look like a stylized castle as seen from above. She’s also responsible for the “Happy Mac” icon that Apple fans know so well (and which is featured on the cover of her book), as well as loads of UI elements, file icons, and even some of the earliest program icons.

Over the years, she moved on with Steve Jobs to NeXT, and eventually worked with Microsoft and IBM on many of their interface elements. More recently, she’s crafted the images used in Facebook’s popular “Gifts” feature. Thumbing through Susan Kare Icons, you may be stunned at just how many of its eighty icons you recognize.

The genius of her work is how she’s able to distill complicated functions down to simple, instantly-understandable images. Take her tortoise and hare icons, for example; they were placed on opposite ends of a slider in the first Mac control panel to indicate a range of speed settings. It’s simple, elegant, and everyone understands it.

Jobs gets the majority of the credit for ideas that changed the world, but this book makes it clear that Susan Kare is an artist who changed the world in her own right. Every one of us still use her thousands of designs daily — or modern designs that build off of her work and would not exist without the foundations she laid. Susan Kare Icons should be required reading for any student of iconography — particularly those interested in 8-bit pixel art. Because Kare might just be the inventor of the entire genre.

Each copy of the book, which is available exclusively at the artist’s website, is personally signed by her. Selected icons from her library are also available to buy as art prints, including a pair of pixelated representations of the ultimate Apple icon himself — Steve Jobs.

About Robin Parrish

Unathletic, uncoordinated tall man with endless creativity stampeding through his overactive brain. Comes with beard, wife, and two miniature humans. Novelist. General blogger and main Gaming Geek for ForeverGeek. Lead Blogger, Apple Gazette.

Comments

  1. overuse alert: “stunned”

    stunned
    past participle, past tense of stun (Verb)
    1. Knock unconscious or into a dazed or semiconscious state.
    2. Astonish or shock (someone) so that they are temporarily unable to react.

  2. Overstatement. Reel back the hype a bit. Did you even read the definition of “stunned”? Were you truly “knocked unconscious or into a dazed or semiconscious state”? The word itself has been devalued by its overuse, including the citation above.

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