Oct 26, 2019
Susan Kare Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because by understanding the past, we’re able to be prepared for the innovations of the future! Today we’ll talk about a great innovator, Susan Kare. Can you imagine life without a Trash Can icon? What about the Mac if there had never been a happy Mac icon. What would writing documents be like if you always used Courier and didn’t have all those fonts named after cities? They didn’t just show up out of nowhere. And the originals were 8 bit. But they were were painstakingly designed, reviewed, reviewed again, argued over, obsessed over. Can you imagine arguing with Steve Jobs? He’s famous for being a hard person to deal with. But one person brought us all of these things. One pioneer. One wizard. She cast her spell over the world. And that spell was to bring to an arcane concept called the desktop metaphor into everyday computers. Primitive versions had shipped in Douglas Engelbart’s NLS, in Alan Kay’s Smalltalk. In Magic Desk on the Commodore 64. But her class was not an illusionist as those who came before her were, but a mage, putting hexadecimal text derived from graph paper so the bits would render on the screen the same, for decades to come. And we still use her visionary symbols, burned into the spell books of all visual designers from then to today. She was a true innovator. She sat in a room full of computer wizards that were the original Mac team, none was more important than Susan Kare. Born in 1954 in Ithaca, New York this wizard got her training in the form of a PhD from New York University and then moved off to San Francisco in the late 1970s, feeling the draw of a generation’s finest to spend her mage apprenticeship as a curator at a Fine Arts Museum. But like Gandalph, Raistlin, Dumbledoor, Merlin, Glinda the good witch and many others, she had a destiny to put a dent in the universe. To wield the spells of the infant user interface design art to reshape the universe, 8-bits at a time. She’d gone to high school with a different kind of wizard. His name was Andy Hertzfeld and he was working at a great temple called Apple Computer. And his new team team would build a new kind of computer called the Macintosh. They needed some graphics and fonts help. Susan had used an Apple II but had never done computer graphics. She had never even dabbled in typography. But then, Dr Strange took the mantle with no experience. She ended up taking the job and joining Apple as employee badge number 3978. She was one of two women on the original Macintosh team. She had done sculpture and some freelance work as a designer. But not this weird new art form. Almost no one had. Like any young magician, she bought some books and studied up on design, equating bitmap graphics to needlepoint. She would design the iconic fonts, the graphics for many of the applications, and the icons that went into the first Mac. She would conjure up the hex (that’s hexadecimal) for graphics and fonts. She would then manually type them in to design icons and fonts. Going through every letter of every font manually. Experimenting. Testing. At the time, fonts were reserved for high end marketing and industrial designers. Apple considered licensing existing fonts but decided to go their own route. She painstakingly created new fonts and gave them the names of towns along train stops around Philadelphia where she grew up. Steve Jobs went for the city approach but insisted they be cool cities. And so the Chicago, Monaco, New York, Cairo, Toronto, Venice, Geneva, and Los Angeles fonts were born - with her personally developing Geneva, Chicago, and Cairo. And she did it in 9 x 7. I can still remember the magic of sitting down at a computer with a graphical interface for the first time. I remember opening MacPaint and changing between the fonts, marveling at the typefaces. I’d certainly seen different fonts in books. But never had I made a document and been able to set my own typeface! Not only that they could be in italics, outline, and bold. Those were all her. And she painstakingly created them out of pixels. The love and care and detail in 8-bit had never been seen before. And she did it with a world class wizard: someone with a renowned attention to detail and design sense like Steve Jobs looking over her shoulder and pressuring her to keep making it better. They brought the desktop metaphor into the office. Some of it pre-existed her involvement. The trash can had been a part of the Lisa graphics already. She made it better. The documents icon pre-dated her. She added a hand holding a pencil to liven it up, making it clear which files were applications and which were documents. She made the painting brush icon for MacPaint that, while modernized, is still in use in practically every drawing app today. In fact when Bill Atkinson was writing MacSketch and saw her icon, the name was quickly changed to MacPaint. She also made the little tool that you use to draw shapes and remove them called the lasso, with Bill Atkinson. Before her, there were elevators to scroll around in a window. After her, they were called scroll bars. After her, the places you dropped your images was called the Scrapbook. After her the icon of a floppy disk meant save. She gave us the dreaded bomb. The stop watch. The hand you drag to move objects. The image of a speaker making sound. The command key, still on the keyboard of every Mac made. You can see that symbol on Nordic maps and it denotes an “area of interest” or more poignant for the need: “Interesting Feature”. To be clear, I never stole one of those signs while trampsing around Europe. But that symbol is a great example of what a scholarly mage can pull out of ancient tomes, as it is called a Gorgon knot or Saint John Arm’s and dates back over fifteen hundred years - and you can see that in other hieroglyphs she borrowed from obscure historical references. And almost as though those images are burned into our DNA, we identified with them. She worked with the traditionally acclaimed wizards of the Macintosh: Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Bruce Horn, Bud Tribble, Donn Denman, Jerome Coonen, Larry Kenos, and Steve Capps. She helped Chris Espinosa, Clement Mok, Ellen Romana, and Tom Hughes out with graphics for manuals, and often on how to talk about a feature. But there was always Steve Jobs. Some icons took hours; others took days. And Jobs would stroll in and have her recast her spell if it wasn’t just right. Never acknowledging the effort. If it wasn’t right, it wasn’t right. The further the team pushed on the constantly delayed release of the Mac the more frantic the wizards worked. The less they slept. But somehow they knew. It wasn’t just Jobs’ reality distortion field as Steven Levy famously phrased it. They knew that what they were building would put a dent in the Universe. And when they all look back, her designs on “Clarus the Dogcow” were just the beginning of her amazing contributions. The Mac launched. And it did not turn out to be a commercial success, leading to the ouster of Steve Jobs - Sauron’s eye was firmly upon him. Kare left with Jobs to become the tenth employee at NeXT computer. But she introduced Jobs to Paul Rand, who had helped design the IBM logo, to design their logo. When IBM, the Voldemort of the time, was designing OS/2, she helped with their graphics. When Bill Gates, the Jafar of the computer industry called, she designed the now classic solitaire for Windows. And she gave them Notepad and Control Panels. And her contributions have continued. When Facebook needed images for the virtual gifts feature. They called Kare. You know that spinning button when you refresh Pinterest. That’s Kare. And she still does work all the time. The Museum of Modern Art showed her original Sketches in a 2015 Exhibit called “This is for everyone.” She brought us every day metaphors to usher in the and ease the transition into a world of graphical user interfaces. Not a line of the original code remains. But it’s amazing how surrounded by all the young wizards, one that got very little attention in all the books and articles about the Mac was the biggest wizard of them all. Without her iconic designs, the other wizards would likely be forgotten. She is still building one of the best legacies in all of the technology industry. By simply putting users into user interface. When I transitioned from the Apple II to the Mac, she made it easy for me with those spot-on visual cues. And she did it in only 8 bits. She gave the Mac style and personality. She made it fun, but not so much fun that it would be perceived as a toy. She made the Mac smile. Who knew that computers could smile?!?! The Mac Finder still smiles at me every day. Truly Magical. Thanks for that, Susan Kare. And thanks to you inquisitive and amazing listeners. For my next trick. I’ll disappear. But thank you for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Have a great day!