Women in computing: Susan Kare

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 1:09 PM


I am old enough to remember the C: prompt, the 1> prompt, and to have used the Apple II, before the more convenient GUI which so characterizes computers from the mid-eighties on. I am also old enough to remember, partially because the problem is ongoing and partially because that was the face of the industry, when the face of technology was a white dude. (It still is, in some cases.) For this reason, on occasion, I'm going to do things like this.

Susan Kare is a PhD in Fine Arts (nice for the artists to get some credit), asked by a childhood friend to help him design a font for the Mac OS which did not attempt to cram multiple letters into the same small space when they were rendered, legacy of the typewriter and thinking of letters as physical objects which must be produced one at a time, in a relatively small space. This caused the letters to run into one another, making visual recognition a problem. The relative resolution was not good enough to allow the San Serif fonts we can now use, and the OS system needed a font which was easily scannable for users. This is the font she designed:

The font, and her later designs for Mac sprites like the Apple command key, the paint icon, the trash can and the speaker icon for volume are unquestionably an important part of making computer technology less frightening for people who are uncomfortable with the changes technology brought to their lives. The sheer amount of things which have changed in my lifetime, in a serious fashion, is dizzying, and I have sympathy with people who have been hard-pressed to keep up. I imagine that, if you aren't oriented this way, this is incredibly frightening and that you probably need something object oriented and familiar to help you navigate. It doesn't hurt if the thing looks cute. After all, how threatening does this look?

I have a great deal of respect for the effect of the GUI system on users; I think object orientation is both a direction the human brain is inclined to operate in, and provides a helpful little object lesson in abstraction. A sprite represents a cluster of commands and ideas, and like the cut icon below, we will tend to fill in that cluster instantly on recognizing the object.

We see scissors, we think immediately think of a cluster of associated actions; it orients us to a frame of mind which we recognize from art classes or really any hands-on project, something familiar in which we can anticipate the interactions. Kare's ability to see individual objects as symbols and know which objects we would associate with the computer command is both a part of art training (seeing recognizable symbols) and computer history.

Thank you, Susan Kare, for contributing to this interface. I'm not a Mac fan (I <3 my PC), but
the use of easily recognizable icons has made my interactions with computers much easier, and I love to see women in the technologies.

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