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A Literal Icon of Computing

Rob McNelly makes a toast to early GUI decisions and designs, and the people behind them.

icons over green purple banner

As a fan of computing history—as well as someone who played with a Macintosh in his college computer lab in the late 1980s—I found this 2019 article on Susan Kare, designer of the first Macintosh icons, to be pretty entertaining.

If it wasn’t for needlepoint, the computer graphics we have come to know and love today might have looked a lot different. Pioneering designer Susan Kare was taught by her mother how to do counted-thread embroidery, which gave her the basic knowledge she needed to create the first icons for the Apple Macintosh 35 years ago.
 
“It just so happened that I had small black and white grids to work with,” she says. “The process reminded me of working needlepoint, knitting patterns or mosaics. I was lucky to have had a mother who enjoyed crafts.”
 
Kare’s breakthrough designs for the Macintosh, which included the smiling computer at startup, trash can for recycling and a computer disk for saving files, are now commonplace in the digital era. They are so recognizable that they are legendary.
 
Although Macintosh wasn't the first GUI, most would argue it was the first time mainstream users used a GUI. Like a lot of you who are my age, I was already comfortable with command line interfaces, so learning to use a mouse was interesting. Single click? Double Click? Drag and drop? If I recall, there were tutorials and programs to help us along. On that note, Susan Kare also designed the card deck for Microsoft’s Solitaire program, which was intended to be a learning aid for the computer mouse.

Here's a bit more from the Kare article. Be sure to read the whole thing:
 
Kare devised various ideas and concepts to translate basic commands and procedures into visual cues for users. Thus emerged the trash can, computer disk and document with turned-up page corner—all of which are, in one form or fashion, omnipresent icons for computer functions.
 
Using graphics on computers was not new but Apple wanted to demystify the operating system so average people would understand intuitively what they needed to do. Early computers tended to be complicated behemoths that were developed for mathematically inclined scientists and engineers.
 
Honestly, it's hard to even remember what using a computer was like before the Macintosh. How else would you try to visualize your interface? How could you differentiate the array of functions and file systems to simplify the desktop experience for non-technical users? Can you remember marking up documents in WordPerfect, and then transitioning to Microsoft Word? I remember the first time I used WYSIWYG publishing software with a laser printer; the results were astounding. 
 
It may be taken for granted, but we owe quite a bit to those early decisions and designs, and the people behind them.
 
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