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Iconic Icons

Susan Kare, the former Apple designer behind the 'Happy Mac' icon, discusses a well-designed life

Susan Kare | Photo: Ann Rhoney; Icons: ©Susan Kare

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Anyone ever give you a virtual kiss on Facebook? Ever find yourself face to face with Apple's once-ubiquitous "Happy Mac" icon? You have Susan Kare to thank. The pioneering digital designer and founder of Susan Kare User Interface Graphics in San Francisco is the iconographer behind Apple's most successful designs and typefaces, as well as almost all of the Facebook Gifts images. She's releasing her self-published book, Susan Kare ICONS, on Nov. 22, and spoke about her work and influences with Adweek.

Adweek: What makes for a good icon ?
Kare: A good icon is a little more like a road sign than an illustration. How can you get the concept across in a minimal way that speaks to everyone? [Something] quintessential and memorable and meaningful, so that you don't need to keep changing it.

Where do you go for inspiration?
I'm open to getting good ideas everywhere. It's great to call your inspiration not just by being online, [but by being open] to the things you encounter that are old and new.

Your work at Apple [1983-86] was hugely influential. How did Apple and Steve Jobs influence you?
Two people I was lucky to work with were Steve and [independent graphic designer] Paul Rand. I think both of them were really critical. Everything they did was deliberate and made sense. It's hard not to point at [the work] and just a little bit think, "What would Steve Jobs do? What would Paul Rand say? How can we push to make things better?"

You have a fine art background. Does that make it hard to compromise with the business realities of your clients?
We always ask the client if they have any ideas or sketches. We always try to develop an image that someone's asked for. But we also try to provide how [we ourselves] would solve the problem. Sometimes they take your advice and sometimes they don't. I feel at peace with that because you've tried to put your heart into finding a solution that you think is good.

The world has more icons now compared to when you started. Is that a challenge?
In the olden days, you couldn't get on Google to search for "icon + trash." You could do that now, and maybe you could find a bunch of results. When I design an icon, even if there are many predecessors out in the world, I always try to start fresh.

Technology has advanced so much since you started. Has that changed how you approach your work?
The tools are way better. Your range of stylistic options is bigger. The fundamental problem of how do you make a symbol that means x—the design and metaphor issue—I don't know that that's different. When you think hard about an icon or logo and how to give it some meaning, it doesn't have anything to do with technology.

Why is it that your Facebook Gifts are so different from your Apple icons?
[The challenge for Facebook Gifts] was what can you make in a 64 x 64 pixel space that would be expressive enough in some way that someone would want to spend a dollar to give it to somebody else. I tried to think of things you have in your collective memory. Sometimes I say this half joking, but what I learned was that cute trumps edgy.

What are some of your all-time favorite icons?
Gowalla.com has great, simple icons, and the [more illustrative] stickers are really nice. I also love Paul Rand's original UPS logo with the shield shape and stylized package. It's a great icon for safe shipping.

And of your own work?
I'm sentimentally attached to the smiling Macintosh.