Significance of Bitmap Icons by Susan Kare – Hyelin Kim

While embracing various realms of graphic designs, I felt that the textbook lacked in delivering significant design advancement in the history of digital technology that gifted us with the convenience of computers and smartphones. Nowadays, all the programs and technologies accompany simple icons that enable us to recognize their function at a glance. To get to this point of cognitive efficiency, Apple’s remarkable graphic designer, Susan Kare, made the greatest contribution by building the basis of iconographic designs.

Kare joined Apple Computer after she received a call from her high school friend, Andy Hertzfeld, the lead software architect for Macintosh at the time, in the early 1980s. Kare started working as the designer for Macintosh’s user interface graphics. Although Kare was inexperienced in computers at the beginning, she was able to accomplish significant achievements throughout her career in Apple.

Susan Kare, Bitmap Icons, 1980s.
Fig. 1 Susan Kare, Bitmap Icons, the 1980s.

The most renowned and appreciated works of her are “bitmap graphic” icons (fig. 1). These simple yet practical images were the core element that granted the Macintosh to be approachable for anyone with less or no experience with the computer. Not only her designs were practical, but they were also enjoyable. Now that this “user-friendly” interface allowed the computers to communicate with the users visually instead of lines of codes, the more approachable it became. Ellen Lupton of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum remarked that Kare’s icons made people feel “welcome and safe—even when the system crashed and gave [them] a drawing of a bomb,” witnessing the friendliness of Kare’s design (Kindy).

This must have been able as Kare herself loved and enjoyed the characteristics of the bitmap. She mentioned in her interview back in 2000 that the bitmap graphics reminded her of working “needlepoint, knitting patterns or mosaics” (Kindy). She described the process of her bitmap designing as “the marriage of craft and metaphor” (Lange). Like such, her main technique for coming up with the ideas was through connecting the functions with metaphorical images. From a pointing finger functioning for “Paste,” a paintbrush for “MacPaint,” and scissors for “Cut,” many of her icons were efficient and easily associable with its role.

Her love of metaphor and symbolism is also evident in her design of the “command” icon that still lives with us on the left of our space bar. She borrowed the idea from a “Swedish campground sign meaning ‘interesting feature’” (Lange).

Fig. 2 Susan Kare, Typefaces, 1983-84.
Fig. 2 Susan Kare, Typefaces, 1983-84.

Not only Kare contributed to the development of communicative icons but she also was able to give life to many of Mac’s typefaces including Geneva, Chicago, and Cario (fig. 2). She is also responsible for designing other interfaces in different companies like the spinning button used for refreshing or the pinning icon on Pinterest or the cards from Microsoft Windows Solitaire (fig. 3) and more.

Fig. 4 Susan Kare, Microsoft Window Solitaire Cards, 1990.
Fig. 3 Susan Kare, Microsoft Window Solitaire Cards, 1990.

In conclusion, Kare’s great contribution to our digital life by developing the visual communicative language that built the more convenient experiences should be acknowledged in our textbook. Her invention of icons marks historical advancement in both digital technologies and graphic designs.


Works Cited

Kindy, David. “How Susan Kare Designed User-Friendly Icons for the First Macintosh.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Oct. 2019,

Lange, Alexandra. “The Woman Who Gave the Macintosh a Smile.” The New Yorker, 19 Apr. 2018,

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