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In Conversation With Susan Kare: On Windows 3.0 Solitaire, Iconography, and Nostalgia

When it comes to digital iconography, Susan Kare’s pioneering influence is undeniable. Designing thousands of icons since 1983, her art is not only some of the most recognizable, but probably the “most-clicked on” of all time.

After our conversation with Areaware about their physical reinterpretation of Kare’s original Windows 3.0 Solitaire designs, we had to speak to the woman, the legend, the “icon” herself. We spoke with Kare about creating icons for digital platforms, the ’90s, and where she turns for inspiration.

 

Today we take for granted that we interact with iconography via digital platforms on a daily basis, but your use of icons pioneered the way people engage with technology. When first tasked with creating icons for the “computer for the rest of us,” can you explain what your thought-and-decision-making process was like?

The concept of the “computer for the rest of us” had great personal appeal to me as I didn’t have any engineering background. The whole team was focused on designing the Macintosh to appeal to non-technical users. I tried to incorporate everyday metaphors, a little nostalgia, and a little humor in the interface graphics in hopes of making the computer less intimidating.

Why do you think people feel so attached to the Windows 3.0 Solitaire card design?

I’ve regularly seen comments online that Solitaire was how people procrastinated before there was Facebook and Twitter, and I think there’s some truth to that. It was free (with the operating system) and it was fun! In addition, playing Solitaire is how a lot of people learned how to drag and drop files.

You returned to the original 16 VGA color palette when creating the jokers for the Areaware deck. Do you think that limitations (from color palette, to materials and beyond), can be a source of design inspiration?

Most graphic problem-solving involves dealing with constraints (technical, budget, audience, staying consistent with brands, etc. ), but that’s part of what makes the design process interesting and challenging. I actually think that limits can make you more creative; they force you to look for  unexpected routes to a design idea.

The Windows 3 Solitaire cards were a digital interpretation of a familiar physical game. Now, Areaware’s cards bring the digital back to the physical world. What excites or inspires you about the moments when these two realms cross over?

It’s of course fun to reimagine two-dimensional images as something tactile; we did a lot of iterations on the box and shape of the cards. I love housewares, so I enjoyed being part of the design team on the cards. Actually, I am now working on some textiles for Areaware.

What are some icons that you think really “nailed it,” and what elements do they share?

It’s much easier to represent concrete nouns, such as a lasso; verbs are often harder. I like to think that the pouring paint can for “fill” has had a pretty good run.

Any advice or words of wisdom for aspiring artists or designers?

Designing icons isn’t an exact science, so it’s always good to come up with a range of solutions. I also think that it’s good to look at each icon challenge anew – not necessarily make use of a “standard” concept – since there are always effective metaphors out there that haven’t been tried.

Don’t miss Part One of Areaware’s collaboration with Susan Kare! And remember to follow us @thisisstory for hints as to #WhatComesNext.