Susan Kare has led a diverse career as a graphic designer, but her reputation is preceded by an early milestone: she designed the indelible icons and fonts for the original Apple Macintosh. Her evocative, lucid and witty designs set a standard for the graphical user interfaces that followed.
Susan went on to work with NeXT, Microsoft, IBM and more, where she continued to pioneer charming designs in limited digital space. Now her work is quite literally art; her prints are available at Kare Prints. We caught up with Susan to learn about the tools of her trade, her productivity habits and how she works.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Gig: Partner, Susan Kare User Interface Graphics and Kare Prints
One word that best describes how you work: Intensely
Current mobile device: iPhone 5s in a Lifeproof Realtree Fre case (my previous phone worked perfectly after four weeks in the ocean in Santa Cruz thanks to that case).
Current computer: MacBook Pro
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
I spend most of my work life in Photoshop and Illustrator designing icons, logos and graphics. Anything bound for the screen I design on the screen, often drawing freehand with a mouse, or using image trace to make a rough illustration. Outside of the digital world, I love to sketch using cool bound notebooks and the latest gel pens that I get at Maido, my favourite stationery store in Japantown,
What’s your workspace setup like?
Like many people, I can work anywhere on my laptop, but in my San Francisco office (where I spend so much time at the computer) I’m surrounded by an eclectic mix of everything that’s important to me in life. There’s framed artwork by my three sons, paintings of the ocean by Mary Wagstaff, a huge cow skull and a red woven blanket with swordfish on it from a recent vacation in Pescadero, Mexico and a photo of a few former Apple colleagues and me laughing. And of course, books and lots of stationery and art supplies in tall cabinets.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? Do you automate something that used to be a time sink? Do you relegate email to an hour a day?
I wish I could limit email time to an hour! A little thing I do is turn off sound alerts for texts and email so I’m not constantly interrupted. I also try to run first thing in the morning, phone-free, with my Australian shepherd; then it doesn’t get postponed and gives me a chance to think.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I have an old-school approach: type out a numbered list in 18-point Garamond and print it out every week. Even though I rarely get through everything, it’s satisfying to draw fat lines through completed items. It’s also pleasant to come across lists from the past and feel as if I’ve made some progress.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
As far as gadgets go, I’m constantly taking photos with my iPhone for inspiration, so really my phone and computer are what I rely on most. However, I do love my 1” pin-back button maker and circle punch for making fun souvenirs for clients. Throwback but always in my bag: my favourite No. 2 pencil (dark and smooth for signing prints) and a good-quality portable pencil sharpener.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I don’t know that I’d say I’m better than everyone else, but I love to cook and put together a meal for a crowd without much notice. My favourite is a brunch spread; I enjoy making majestic fruit salads and baking. After years of experimentation I’ve finally succeeded in making great flaky pie crust — stay away from food processors and just chop the ingredients on a cutting board.
What do you listen to while you work?
Primarily I like it to be quiet, or have background noise that I can tune out. But I have a few favourite Pandora stations, like Haim + Chromeo, and Al Green. I’ve also been known to binge-listen to TV shows. I burned through all of Arrested Development pretty fast, and the second season of Orange Is The New Black as soon as it was out.
What do you do to stay inspired? Who are some of your favourite artists?
I find inspiration from so many visuals in so many places: kites at the beach, neon signs, vintage cars, toys, crafts and stickers on telephone poles. I studied art history, so often take time to look at fine art, but appreciate seeing eclectic collections, such as the Skulls show at the California Academy of Science. Too many to list, but a few favourite designers are Charles Eames, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Chip Kidd, and an illustrator from Mexico, Federico Jordan (such clever, economical and thoughtful work).
User interfaces and software icons blend readability with aesthetic appeal; do you think the ‘rules’ of icon design have changed over the years?
I believe that good icons should function somewhat like traffic signs — simple symbols with few extraneous details, which makes them more universal. Certainly, the software tools have improved over the years, and often designers have increased resolution to work with, but I think the goal of developing images that are meaningful and memorable remains the same.
What sort of work are you up to now?
I enjoy doing as much design work as possible: new fine art images for Kare Prints, and anything from developing icons and logos to painting some large-scale icon murals. One of my favourite experiences was having the opportunity to paint a watch cursor icon from a cherry picker on a building in Göteborg, Sweden. I recently collaborated on some icon-inspired products including a deck of Solitaire cards for Areaware, a Brooklyn-based company that makes all kinds of well-designed and thoughtful products for everyday life. I also paint on canvas, but most recently finished painting a skull and crossbones on a black flag, a re-creation of the original that flew over Apple in 1983.
What are you currently reading?
I’m a voracious magazine reader and read everything from Surfer’s Journal to Elle to the Economist cover to cover. I’m also reading How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg, a fun and thoughtful book with great stories that explains how to think more like a mathematician — how to be more logical and make good decisions. I also just bought Brady Udall’s novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint because I so enjoyed his earlier novel, The Lonely Polygamist.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both.
Both! I enjoy both working alone and collaboratively. Not a party animal, but am grateful for my circle of friends and colleagues.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I really enjoy working late, and feel most creative at night when everything’s quiet and there are no interruptions, so I often skimp a bit on sleep. This bad habit probably originated during college, when I’d wait around the printmaking studio long enough until everyone left and I’d have it all to myself. Maybe it’s a design thing — when I worked in Macintosh software at Apple the people in my group typically arrived just in time for lunch and worked through the night.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
I’d love to see Pharrell Williams answer these same questions. He seems to get so much outstanding creative work accomplished in multiple realms.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father once told me that you can never have a problem-free life, though you can change your situation and have different problems. It doesn’t sound very upbeat, but I think it’s helpful because it’s realistic. On a work note, a good piece of advice I got from my graphics hero Paul Rand is that design is not an exact science, so there’s never only one “correct” solution to a design problem.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Surfing with my family is one of my greatest joys and my car has more than a fair share of surf stickers. We spend a lot of time talking about waves and boards (my current favourite: Pearson Arrow’s Josh Mohr model). Despite my fondness for sites and apps like Magic Seaweed, QuikCAST, Surfline and Pacific Waverider, surfing’s a good antidote to screen time. A charity I care a lot about is Surfers Healing, which takes autistic kids out on waves with great results.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.
Picture: Ann Rhoney