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SUMMER 2001
VOLUME 6
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One with Nature: Mount Holyoke's Changing Landscape
One with Nature: MHC's Changing Landscape

Among the Chosen Few
Among the Chosen Few

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Mount Holyoke's Pluralistic Faculty

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Mount Holyoke College

Designer Susan Kare '75 Gives Pixels Personality

BY JANET TOBIN

 
  Susan Kare '75, developer of the classic Apple Macintosh icons.

For those who worry that the twenty-first century will be dominated by a cyberculture that is remote, robot-driven, and generally lacking in personality, there is no need to fear—at least as long as Susan D. Kare '75 is working as a computer illustrator and interface graphic designer. While few would argue that such computer functions as starting up, deleting files, and selecting printer-paper orientation are anything other than monotonous and lifeless, the icons that Kare designs to represent these activities put a human—and in some cases even a smiling—face on these processes.

In the 1980s, as a member of Apple Computer's Macintosh software group, she created the now famous happy-faced Mac, seen at start-up to tell Macintosh users that all is well with their computers, and a sad-faced Mac that appears in dire circumstances; a trash can, to serve as a receptacle for deleted files; a wristwatch, to indicate processing time; and such other signature Mac icons as the pencil, pouring paint can, paintbrush, and the renowned Moof, the dogcow (designed originally as a dog image in the Cairo font). Most of these designs were created using a grid of 32 x 32 pixels—approximately 1,000 square dots.

On her way to becoming the new millennium's answer to Seurat, Kare got her start in the arts and honed her artistic and conceptual abilities at Mount Holyoke. A liberal arts education, she says, taught her “the process of researching and writing and revising, getting comments and incorporating them to make a better final product. My work involves not only creating images but coming up with concepts and trying to think of a new and better way to express those concepts."

Some icon concepts come easy. “Nouns such as document or eraser," are in this category, Kare says. She acknowledges that representing some verbs can be more difficult “because they are more abstract and there isn't necessarily an image that comes to everyone's mind." Do it/run the program have always been difficult, as have undo and save. As a rule, Kare says, she tries to “find metaphors that are easy to understand, and at times these might be slightly humorous, but it all depends on what is appropriate for a particular product."

If Kare were asked to create an icon to evoke how she came to design icons, she would have to come up with an image that represents serendipity. After earning her A.B. in English and fine arts from Mount Holyoke, summa cum laude, in 1975 and receiving a doctorate in fine arts from New York University in 1978, Kare moved to the West Coast to work for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 1982, she received a call from Andy Hertzfeld, a high school friend who was working as a software engineer at Apple Computer. Hertzfeld needed help creating graphic images for the original Macintosh, which was then in development. “I designed the first icons on small-ruled graph paper, since the programmers hadn't yet written an icon editor for the computer," Kare remembers.

ýhe result was not only a set of pictograms, or visual metaphors, that are now universally recognized and beloved by Mac users, but a career path for Kare, who also designed the original type fonts (such as Chicago, New York, and Geneva) that shipped with the first Macintoshes. Building on her innovative work designing icons for Apple, Kare has gone on to create icons for hundreds of companies ranging from IBM, AT&T, and Motorola, to Sony and Fidelity Investments—even Microsoft—and, in the process, has become something of an icon herself.

Kare draws inspiration for her icons from a wide variety of sources—everything from commercial and fine art, old advertising, cartoons, and textiles to books of old logo designs, Haitian flags, and Web surfing. Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand, designer of the now-classic logos for IBM, Westinghouse, and UPS, has long been a “tremendous inspiration to me," Kare acknowledges. “I admire the intelligence, wit, and simplicity of his designs and their longevity."

Writes Forbes magazine: “Susan Kare's hero is Paul Rand… . So although Kare works in Lilliputian scale, it seems especially appropriate that her screen icon designs for Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft's Windows software eventually may be even more familiar and subtly influential than those of her famous exemplar. Even if we see five UPS trucks a day, how much more often do we drag a computer file to that familiar little trash can, or eye a tiny wristwatch waiting out the seconds of our spreadsheet calculations? When it comes to giving personality to what otherwise might be cold and uncaring office machines, Kare is the queen of look and feel."

Susan D. Kare '75 received an honorary doctor of science degree at Mount Holyoke's 2001 commencement.