A Brief History of Computer Icons

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I was never one for Apple products. I remember using them in middle school. I bought an iPad in 2011 to FaceTime with my now husband. Occasionally my husband lets me borrow his iPhone so I experiment with apps that use it’s AR Kit like Adobe Aero.

Despite my preference for PC and Android over Apple, I can’t deny the iconic graphics. Enter Susan Kare, the woman behind Apple graphics like, “the Apple clock, the pointer finger, the trash can, and more.”

Icons by Susan Kare
Icons by Susan Kare via famousgraphicdesigners.org

Kare was hired to work on the Apple Macintosh design team after recieving a call from a high school friend, Andy Hertzfeld. I read about Hertzfeld in Valley of Genius. That the time, the folks at Macintosh were figuring the basics that we take for granted today. They researched different types of typography and having the computer talk.

At one point, the designers had to figure out how to show the user that the trash can needed to be emptied. Randy Wigginton recalls the Cookie Monster in the trash can on the Mac. “When you dropped a file onto the trash can, all of a sudden the Cookie Monster would come up and go ‘munch munch munch’ and then back down. Andy Hertzfeld and Susan Kare just did that as a demo.”

“Andy Hertzfeld and Susan Kare just did that as a demo. Everybody who saw it thought it was great.”

Valley of Genius pg 108

After Macintosh, Kare worked at NeXT and had clients like IBM and Microsoft. Recognize the solitaire card in the image above? That’s Kare’s work. She even designed the “gift” icon for Facebook in 2007. According to her website, “Kare believes that good icons should be more like traffic signs than illustrations; easily comprehensible and not laden with extraneous detail.”

It’s so cool that we live in a time where many of the inventors and designers of the technology we use every day are still alive. Not only can we put a face behind the Apple graphics but we can talk to Kare on Twitter. Her work is also displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.

P.S. If you enjoy this type of history, I highly recommend Valley of Genius The Untold History of Silicon Valley by Adam Fisher.

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Featured photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash


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