It’s the care that stands out – a rigour in the precision of the framing for perception. Architects can learn a lot from Susan Kare’s wonderful icons. Indeed, we all know these but have been unaware of their maker – or even that there was a maker. As in all good art, (and architecture), the identity of the maker is irrelevant. The work stands alone with its relationship to the body, intertwining and engaging effortlessly, mindless of who did it. Knowledge of the maker only interferes with true understanding. It distorts perception with other layers of distracting, irrelevant references and facts.
These icons become a part of us before we even know them. It is their scale that intrigues. Kare’s book, simply ICONS, has a large-scaled image on the right-hand page, and a miniature one on the lower left-hand page opposite. The careful, very deliberate articulation of simple squares – each a pixel – into a self-conscious patterned arrangement intrigues. What is it? Then a glimpse to the left reveals the identity clearly. Here, angles become curves; flat, two-dimensional patterns gain depth; and colours fade into unexpected formal contexts. Everything is in its right place – the only place where it must and can be. The work is surprising.
Two of the most astonishing images are the portraits of Steve Jobs. One was done in 1983 during one sitting, the other in 2011. These images display, truly graphically, the power of Kare’s art and its skill. Here just a few, articulate black squares become, not just a face, but a young Steve Jobs and an older Steve Jobs – clearly identifiable in every subtlety; not as caricatures. So much with so little: truly, less here is more than more – and its structure, the mystery of its making, can all be carefully analysed and revealed without destroying its power.
Any one who was introduced to computers through the first Macintosh will know the friendly icons that made the computer accessible. The coded texts of glowing green blocks called letters on a dark screen that were totally unforgiving made other computers items of abuse. They frustrated. One had to know every detail coded step, or hours of effort could be aborted, with the operator being sent back to start the process all over again. Kare’s icons, layered over the Mac operating system, made understanding simple and participation a joy. They delighted. They still do. Think of the command symbol; the trash can; the sound symbol; the watch; the bomb; the paint can for fill; the pencil for line, and the spotted dog and the hare. These are memories to cherish - all on a white screen.
The range of the work is as astonishing as the change in technology that has allowed new, truly sophisticated images where pixels fade and meld into a different reality. The happy Mac box image is miles – well, terabytes – away from the images of the penguins, the mirror ball and the kiss. Times really have changed. I recall my first Mac costing me $4800.00 and the printer, that used paper with tear-off holes on each side, costing $1500.00 – back in the early eighties. Still, I am very grateful for this little Mac that stayed with me right up to 2000. Its capacity – what it was able to achieve – was simply astonishing. It was an inclusive, forgiving, maleable tool that really assisted in achieving an outcome by participating in the process creatively.
Kare first designed the alphabets for this Mac, using proportionally spaced letters that looked right on the screen and the page. From here she moved into the icons and has never stopped. Her work carries a determination that baffles one with its grace and humour that is revealed in a strange understanding of the physicality of its perception – its becoming: the reading of its making and its sensing by the body. It is not the 'less is more' that architects need to recognise, but how details, relationships, colours and juxtapositions can be so critical – so essential; so necessary – for such simple, ordinary, easy understanding. It makes the inspiration of crumpled paper truly look just cleverly sloppy and lazy, and the smart self-promotion and personal hype appear as mere grandiose boasting - simply foolish.
It’s the humility that glows in parallel, as one, with these stunning, iconic creations that makes them so beautiful - so endearing; so charming.