AR: I had no idea there were so many women back then. Looking at pictures from that era, it's remarkable how young Jobs was. What was it like working with him then?
SK: It was always really fun to show Steve something new because, if he liked it, he was so joyful. Sometimes he brought in visual material to share that had caught his eye, such as graphics from Memphis, a 1980s Italian design group founded by Ettore Sottsass. And it's no secret that he had a shiny Bösendorfer grand piano and BMW motorcycle in the lobby of the Macintosh building so that everyone could be inspired by examples of design excellence.
AR: What makes an icon easier or harder to design?
SK: Generally, it's a lot easier to represent concrete nouns than abstract concepts, so "document" is easier to design than "undo." I try to focus on developing a memorable symbol for a concept, as opposed to a detailed illustration, to give icons a better chance of longevity. For a "fill" tool in the paint program that changed a defined area to black, white, or a pattern, I designed a can of pouring paint. Because our mission was to be accessible and "friendly," I sometimes took a humorous route.
AR: How did humor come into play in your work at Apple?
SK: Early on, I was asked to design a symbol for total system failure, something that the programmers and engineers thought would rarely happen, so it was highly unlikely the icon would be seen much at all. Probably cartoons inspired that icon — a bomb with a lit fuse — and of course I wouldn't have been so irreverent if I had known so many people would see it!
Right after the first Mac shipped in January 1984, some software-team members were gathered in our office and a call was forwarded to us from Apple's main number. Unfortunately, an early Macintosh user's system had crashed, the dialog box with the bomb was visible, and the woman on the phone was worried that her computer might blow up.
AK: Growing up, one of my first computer experiences was fighting with my brothers over whose turn it was to play the solitaire you designed for Windows. I recently saw that you've turned that design into an actual deck of cards, and all those memories came flooding back. I know people have tattoos of your designs and buy prints for their homes and offices. Did you ever expect people would develop such an emotional attachment to your designs?
SK: I loved designing those cards because I'm addicted to solitaire — it's one of the first card games I remember my mother teaching me to play — and it was a great pixel challenge.
At the time, I really was focused on solving the design problem at hand, not speculating about the future. Of course it's gratifying to see some of the icon concepts in use 30 years later, and I'm flattered that people have good memories and associations with them.
AR: Even though computers are a modern invention, you have, as you mentioned, an art-history background. How has that influenced your work?
SK: When you study art history, you learn that there is very little that is completely new, and in many ways digital art is no different. I love to derive inspiration from all types of images: mosaics, hieroglyphics, petroglyphs, woven patterns in textiles, and needlework. There is a lot of very good "pixel" design work before the twentieth century, like a 1760 sampler by Elizabeth Laidman that looks like a bitmap font.
I don't use work from the past as a literal guide; rather, those artifacts reinforce a view that simple images can communicate with wide audiences over time. Icon design is like solving a puzzle, trying to marry an image and idea that, ideally, will be easy for people to understand and remember.
AR: Are there icons that you still find hard to get right even after designing for decades?
SK: I'm still trying to come up with something good for concepts that defy easy visualization, such as "categories" or "followers." I never stop trying to think of a really good icon for "idea" that doesn't involve a lightbulb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alex Ronan is a writer living in Berlin.logo Created with Sketch.
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