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The Story Behind Susan Kare’s Iconic Design Work for Apple (milanote.com)
223 points by oliebol 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

What is the source of these quotes? If it's an original interview, you should say so. If from somewhere else, you should say where and link to it.

To my recollection having just watched it a few months ago, the quotes and figures are all pulled directly (and uncredited), from the talk she gave at the Layers Design Conference, 2015. [1] Of course she's maybe given this same talk on other occasions but the OP is a shoddy piece of work. The video's worth your time if the topic interests you, she had some other interesting anecdotes about the Apple days and her work after also. Just don't waste your time with John Gruber's Q&A at the end, he wasn't on the same page as her at all.

1. https://vimeo.com/151277875

Aww! Seems like she lost that fun New York accent she had.


It doesn't look like it is an original interview. One quote is from here, for instance.


Some of the sketches seem to come from the work of the person who wrote the introduction to her book.


These basic designs pretty much stayed the course all the way through OS 9, and some even in OS X. It's gotta be surreal to think something she designed is on millions of devices. Reminds me of someone I met who wrote video drivers for Intel. It's something small you don't think about, a tiny piece that is essential in bringing the whole thing together.

Too often we think about the captains of the ships, the Gates and Bezos and Musks of this world. People attribute so much to them, when all they really did is convince other people with actual skill to make the things they wanted. I doubt Elon could design the engine of a rocket. There are no Tony Starks outside of the movies. There are 60 ~ 150 engineers who carefully design and check each others work.

It's like when we see Columbus discovering the new world, even though so many other civilizations had discovered it before him, ignoring all the ships and crews that got him there, and the fact that the new world was named after Amerigo Vespucci, the cartographer who actually mapped it out.

There are hundreds or thousands of engineers and designers like this one, who are the people who really make these products real.

Gates was quite heavily involved in making Microsoft's early products, long before they had '60 to 150 engineers'. In the case of Jobs, the really enduring mystery to me is that despite some seemingly disqualifying personality flaws, he managed to both surround himself with very talented people and get them to do outstanding work together. Once, you could chalk it up to luck but somehow he did it repeatedly.

Joel Spolsky has a good story about Gates and his understanding of engineering.


Edit: there's a tl;dr on the particular topic of Gates' engineering skills buried in the story (which I'll quote below), but I encourage everyone to read the whole damn thing because that is how you successfully lead engineers.


"It was a good point. Bill Gates was amazingly technical. He understood Variants, and COM objects, and IDispatch and why Automation is different than vtables and why this might lead to dual interfaces. He worried about date functions. He didn’t meddle in software if he trusted the people who were working on it, but you couldn’t bullshit him for a minute because he was a programmer. A real, actual, programmer."

That was quite a bit later. Here's a super-short summary of Microsoft's earliest days.


He definitely became famous as an executive and captain of industry. But he very much started on the hands-on, nerd side of things.

A fine read ... a piece that teaches us so much about the human side of things that matter in engineering management.

I found the anecdotes from John Carmack about working with Jobs really interesting in this regard. Apart from being probably very smart Jobs did care a lot about the things they were building, and willing to throw everything overboard if you could convince him that an existing approach was not the right thing to do. It is something many managers or leaders lack IMHO, not willing to do the "right thing" because of politics, market studies or something else.

I didn't get that impression from the Carmack stories at all. If you haven't had a chance before, dig into the early Mac development history at folkore.org. A number of the stories involve the team engaged in some (in hindsight) hilarious and ridiculous effort to humor, misdirect or otherwise manage Jobs in situations that arose primarily from him being profoundly, stubbornly, catastrophically wrong. The eventual resolution never involves Jobs saying 'ok, ok, you lot were right, let's do it your way'.

>The eventual resolution never involves Jobs saying 'ok, ok, you lot were right, let's do it your way'.

That would be un-becoming of a narcissist and a leader. What he would do, is to do a 180 and claim that it was his idea all along. From a dispassionate point of view this is actually good since all sides of a contentious issue can be fully explored, but it sure feels shitty when someone steals your idea and claims it as his own.

> but it sure feels shitty when someone steals your idea and claims it as his own.

Such is the life of the salaried employee.

There are advantages though, in that you don't have to run with the idea. You can just go home in the evening and be with your kids.

Also, if it turns out to actually be a bad idea it's not your problem either!

Interesting, will read up on these. There's ten years difference between early Apple and late Apple Jobs so maybe things were different for Carmack. In the end, Jobs must have been doing something right given his track record.

No doubt! It seems surprisingly difficult tease out exactly what it was, even if you trawl through all the anecdotes, histories and biographies. Perhaps it's simply that his proverbial reality distortion field held for long enough for his collaborators make the unreality reality.

There's also potential reality distortion in the other direction: how much of the early-apple lore has survived untainted by three decades of mythology, never mind the general haze of time (I know I'm telling a story from 2013 that's certainly not gotten more boring over time -- thing were crazy, but I'd not trust my self to be able to gave a 100% accurate account of exactly how crazy)? How much of it is an accurate recollection of what things were like day-to-day, and how much of it is a particularly crazy couple of week before the shareholder meeting that got amplified?

That's a very sensible concern but I think if you've worked in the field in the SFBA for a reasonable amount of time in the last 20 or more odd years, you've almost certainly heard variants of same stories and themes, sometimes from first hand participants.

Even when you allow for the indisputable fact that, say, Herzfeld or Cringley or Isaacson and others are fallible human beings with imperfect recollection and intrinsic biases, the lockstep consistency of the narratives and characterizations is striking.

Yes, he’s a terrible person to try to learn from since his methods of success were so singular. I can imagine running the “Jeff Bezos playbook” but not the Steve Jobs playbook.

because of politics, market studies or something else.

The big advantage Jobs had is that he never had to answer to anyone. It was always "his company". Except when it wasn't of course!

> and willing to throw everything overboard if you could convince him that an existing approach was not the right thing to do

"Strong opinions, loosely held" is a good way to approach many things.

I work on an app that has several million active users per month, and I have to admit it's quite the rush sometimes. I never expected to experience that sensation in software development. It definitely made me appreciate all the software that's out there in public view.

> I doubt Elon could design the engine of a rocket.

In this case, you're wrong. Elon is actually the lead engineer on at least early SpaceX rockets.

Well, it is true that he gave himself that title.

Articles tend to pigeonhole her as an Apple designer, but that sells her influence short; Kare also designed the icons for Windows 3.x and the cards for Solitaire.

For those who wonder, the uncredited cartoon strip

"When you look at a photo or see a realistic face, you see it as the face of another; but when you enter the world of cartoon, you see yourself"

is from Scott McCloud's excellent "The Invisible Art" [1].

Cannot recommend it strongly enough; it contains a rich and enlightening analysis of cartoons, and through that of the way we human perceive and communicate using graphics.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Comics-Invisible-Scott-...

For the lazy: the symbol (⌘) has apparently been used at Swedish campgrounds and parks for decades. It's used to denote interesting features, both natural and man-made. It was inspired by the way Swedish castles look from above (a central building with a turret at each corner).

Andy Hertzfeld (original Mac's hardware wizard) tells the story in https://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&stor... :

Our bitmap artist Susan Kare had a comprehensive international symbol dictionary and she leafed through it, looking for an appropriate symbol that was distinctive, attractive and had at least something to do with the concept of a menu command.

Finally she came across a floral symbol that was used in Sweden to indicate an interesting feature or attraction in a campground.

Apparently it started being used to denote a place of interest in Finland in the 1950's. Funny enough I have always thought that sign was universal, understood by all culture to mean you can park your car here and see something interesting.


There's just few things that are truly universal. One example from somewhat nearby: nodding means "no" in Bulgarian.

I've also met some Indian guys who bob their head when they're in agreement which is very similar to how I'd be used to people I know shaking their heads in disagreement.

I see that as a kind of figure-of-8 movement... when my friend and I visited India we decided that it was a cross between a nod and a shake ie. ambiguous yes/no, non-committal

I saw it in Iceland last year when driving around. Must be a Nordic/Scandinavian thing

It's also used in Lithuania.

> the symbol (⌘) has apparently been used at Swedish campgrounds and parks for decades

That's not how I know the sign. The Swedish Transport Agency has a page for this road sign[1].

It says, roughly translated: “The symbol indicates an historic site [or attraction] of national interest. The nature of the historic site is indicated in connection with the symbol.”

So, it's probably more commonly used to mark viking age burial grounds than campgrounds.

-- Picky Swede

[1] https://www.transportstyrelsen.se/sv/vagtrafik/Vagmarken/Lok...

> [...] used at Swedish campgrounds and parks for decades. It's used to denote interesting features

They aren't saying its used to denote the campground, rather the presence of a historic site or attraction at the campground.

Also used in Iceland!

My mother keeps calling the feature symbol "zolbia" for its resemblance to the middle eastern pastry, so whenever I have to help her over the phone I have to tell her to press zolbia-so-and-so instead of command-so-and-so.

> Kare also developed the icons, such as the trash can for discarding files, that helped define graphical interfaces. She and Jobs hit it off because they shared an instinct for simplicity along with a desire to make the Mac whimsical. “He usually came in at the end of every day,” she said. “He’d always want to know what was new, and he’s always had good taste and a good sense for visual details.” Sometimes he came in on Sunday morning, so Kare made it a point to be there working. Every now and then, she would run into a problem. He rejected one of her renderings of a rabbit, an icon for speeding up the mouse-click rate, saying that the furry creature looked “too gay.”

We couldn’t afford a Mac when I was a kid, but Susan’s icons were one of the primary things that made it stand out as “special”. From the trash can to the fact that it booted up with a smiling Mac icon, instead of the typical stream of bios logs on every other machine of the day.

I hope she got disgustingly rich from her time at Apple. Her designs were an integral part of making the Mac what it was and is today.

I wonder if graphical user interfaces will become less relevant as natural language, both voice and text, become more capable via A.I. No need then to learn icons.

That will happen as soon as natural language isn’t incredibly painful to use with computers (or other humans, for that matter).

I think it's a pretty safe bet that computer experts (developers, admins, etc.) will be both the first ones and last ones to use GUIs (just like for TUIs).

Thanks for introducing me to Milanote

It's seen on Swedish road signs because it was copied from Swedish road signs. Did anyone really think it might be the other way round?

I don't think anyone is confused that the origin is swedish road signs. to quote from the article:

"I was just not sure what a ‘feature’ looked like … so I was thumbing through a symbol dictionary and I came across this symbol (⌘). In the back of the book, it said it was for an ‘interesting feature’ at Swedish campgrounds. I thought it was maybe a little abstract, but it worked."

The original title of this submission was something like "Why is the Apple symbol seen on Swedish road signs?" It was clearly renamed and now my comment makes no sense.

It was: What is the Apple ⌘ symbol doing on hundreds of road signs in Sweden?

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