3.23.2010

Ada Byron Lovelace Day: Susan Kare, Graphics Pioneer

Happy Ada Byron Lovelace Day! I've been mentioning this around to a number of folks, but a group of very nice people have been organizing today as a day for people to talk about some of their female heroes in science and technology, to raise awareness about women in these industries (where they're sadly underrepresented :/ ). There are SO many women I could feature here, so many great heroes, I just wanted to mention one of my personal favorites, and why. I work in computers, as many of you may know, specifically with Macintosh computers, and (now, please, no political arguments), one of the reasons I like working on the Macintosh is because, since it's inception in the early 1980's, the Macintosh has worked hard to make itself beautiful. Pretty. Call it what you will. Some people call it cute, or fluffy, or showy, or whatever. I call it beautiful. I am NOT someone who is good at making beautiful things, but I love beauty - it is beauty that, in the end, helped me to be okay with my career path. In the modern world, we spend enormous amounts of time in a world entirely of our own construction, one made of devices, files, graphics, data streams. This is no longer just somewhere geeks and techies spend their time, it's a home to people of all stripes now. Yet, in spite of the amount of time we spend on these devices, we do not think of any of this as 'real' - and therefore we tend to just think past the computer, to attempt to ignore it and marginalize it in our lives. Working for a large corporation, I see this all the time. Computers are tools. We treat them something like enormous staplers - only staplers burdened with a great weight of machinery meant to make sure that the user doesn't accidentally waste staples, or staple their hand. A computer - or more accurately, a virtual world, since a computer is mroe than simply a box - is more complex than this, it is, temporarily the home of one's consciousness, often for hours and hours at a time. It is an office, a lounge, a night club, it's many places rolled into one place - a place designed not for users but for managers, for profiteers, for technicians. I find this very, very sad - to me, my duty as a computer worker, is to give the people I work with somewhere they can be happy - at least a little bit. A computer should be a place that listens to you and acts the way you'd like it to, rather than one that retrains you into being something you're not. Of course, huge strides have been made in this area over the last 30 years - and Susan Kare is one of my heroes in this work. Kare is a designer, her portfolio is available, in part on her website. Flipping through that portfolio, for an old geek like me, is something like looking at your childhood picture album. On the Mac, she designed most of the original icon set, things you take for granted now - things like the happy mac and the bomb icons one used to see on startup, or the command key logo that's on an Apple keyboard. She designed the Monaco typeface - the one that, for instance, was the text on all of the original couple of generations of iPod. She design Moof the Dogcow - which, if you don't know Moof the Dogcow, you should look it up, because it's a happy, happy little bit of joy. And that was just it - in a world where computers were beige and bland and meant to feel like accountant's tools, the little splashes of life that Ms Kare designed were whimsical, playful, and very, very human. On Windows, she designed the cards in Solitaire. Most of her most famous work is not used anymore - or it's used in a highly refined form. Part of the beauty of her work was her ability to render ideas with clear meanings and a distinct soul in the kudgy, bitmapped screens that computers had when she was building - 8 bit color, drawn one bit at a time. While her icons themselves are slowly dissapearing or being reformed, the spirit behind her work is still a guiding principle across the computing world, and one that is growing more important today: that a computer should speak to humans, should help them to relate to the unfamiliar, should be beautiful, and fun, and simple. The visual look of the iPhone - simple uncluttered design with subconsciously recognizable, bright iconography - owes an immeasurable debt to Susan Kare. Every graphical operating system - Windows, Mac OS X, the various Linux desktops - looks and feels the way it does, at it's best moments, because it's imitating the successes that Kare was such a part of in the beginning. Susan Kare is one of my heroes in technology. She didn't invent the microchip, she didn't program the Linux kernel, and the work she did is largely defunct now. But what she DID do was, in a culture of insular, excited technospeak, whisper out in her little way about people, humans, and about the noble reality of a geeky, copper-wire dream - that computers are more than table saws, they are ways to live more fully, more completely, and more beautifully.

8 comments:

Amanda said...

Is that picture Moof the Cowdog?

Emily said...

What a wonderful post, Jason. One hears a lot about the men of Apple - Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, etc. - and in fact when I watched their short iPad video I was struck by the utter absence of women talking about the product. So it's good to have someone like you pointing out the contributions women have made to the history of attractive, elegant design in that company & in the computer industry in general. Thanks for the education! :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - Yes, he used to be the picture they used to show page orientation in the print dialogue :).

Ms Emily - Thank you! Yes, it's interesting, I actually kind of felt bad, because people think 'women' in computer companies, and they think "Oh, like in sales, or like as designers and stuff (graphic not industrial)". And there are SO many women who have done the 'hard' technical side of computing too. But in EITHER area, it's sad, but computing is a very sexist, exclusionary profession. There are very few women in it, and when they ARE in it, they're usually relegated to junior positions, and treated as 'outside the boy's club' as it were. Which is really frustrating to me. At a HUGE programming conference last year, for instance, someone thought it would be funny to illustrate the bullet points of his presentation with jokes about the porn industry adn pictures of women (not NAKED, but generally in the act of getting to that point). A magazine a few years ago made a list of the 100 most influential people since 1975 in computers, and women were actually outnumbered by M->F transsexuals, in fact. IT's a strange, frustrating culture. But, in the end, people like Ms Kare are a part of what's RIGHT with the culture (and there are GOOD THINGS in computing), and I've always loved her worked, so I picked her.

Nymeth said...

Somehow I was convinced it was tomorrow. I suck :(

Nymeth said...

Okay, and now for my real comment :P

I completely agree with this: "A computer should be a place that listens to you and acts the way you'd like it to, rather than one that retrains you into being something you're not." We do tend to think of these places as "not real" despite all the time we spend here. Hooray for Ms Kare for making them more like home.

Debi said...

I loved this post, Jason! I'd never heard of Susan Kare before. (Of course, I don't really know many computer people at all, since you all scare me because it boggles my mind how anyone can understand all this stuff to start with!) Anyway, the things you brought up with about Ms Kare were honestly things I'd never thought about at all. And yet they're the very things I find myself appreciating the very most.

And Ana--I apparently messed up the date, too...have my post scheduled for tomorrow. And here I was thinking I was all cool and stuff, as I never getting around to writing a post ahead of time. :P

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Sorry for the confusion on the dates :D. Looking through her portfolio is really fun, she designed things you don't even think about :)
Ms Debi - Thanks :). Honestly, I think that computers are DESIGNED to be obtuse for non-technical people. There's a certain bias built into the process where the geeks want to make computers they will like, not that everyone else will like.

Nishant said...

Thanks for the education! :-)
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