Influential Books and Paul Rand

Source: Interview with Susan Kare, 8 September 2000.

Influential Books

Pang: I noticed there are a number of books in your office on Japanese language, art, and culture. Do you think there's a connection between your interest in Japanese art, and your interest in simple designs?

Kare: Yes. I didn't formally study Japanese art in college-- I mainly studied Western art-- but when I first lived in San Francisco, I lived beside the Buddhist Temple of San Francisco, and they had a Japanese school, and I went there for a number of years. And these books are useful in my work [goes over to shelf, pulls one down]-- I don't know if you've seen this one.

Pang: No I haven't. [Reads] Kanji Pictograms.

Kare: I think it's a great book. I got it because it would show you all the pictures that the characters stand for, as a mnemonic, to help you remember the characters, but I really like it because I've pulled it out when I'm completely stuck. I always go to books when I'm stuck-- not all symbol books, but it's good to look at road signs, for example, to get your started. I always start with the index, but of course what you're looking for is never in the index [laughs]. I don't think of them as icons, but it shows you that some of the kanji are more iconic than you would think.

Pang: Do you remember any particular books you had in your cubicle at Apple that you'd look at when you--

Kare: [Kare pulls out another book] Yeah, I definitely liked this one--

Pang: [Reads] Henry Dreyfus' Symbol Sourcebook, for those readers who aren't here and can't see this, with a forward by Buckminster Fuller.

Kare: One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they're in chalk on stones.

Pang: I had no idea there was such a thing.

Kare: When you're desperate for an idea-- some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like "undo"-- you look at things like hobo signs. [Points to one, reads] Like this: "Man with a gun lives here." Now, I can't say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don't understand a lot of them-- "These people are rich" is a top hat and a triangle-- but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I'm grateful for it.

And I look at a lot of craft books, and folklore books, and maybe that art history did give me a sense-- I am a big believer that there is a rich history of symbols from which you can draw even for concepts and icons, whether from fine art or folk art, or advertising or bottle caps. So I had my shelf of books from college, and some that I picked up that were kind of random.

Sometimes people e-mail me now, and say "How do you learn to design icons?" and "Are there any good books about learning how to design icons?" I think it's more-- you can spread your net wider, and get idea from all over.

Kare: Are there any books about how to design computer icons?

Kare: [laughs] I don't know.

Pang: Of all people, you're the one who would least need such a book, after all.

Paul Rand

Kare: There are certainly books about designing logos. I'm a huge Paul Rand fan, and I think he always was one of the most articulate, excellent writers and designers. Sometimes when I'm thinking about my own icon work, I read what he wrote about his work, and about trying to put meaning into what you do; so if you don't have a multibillion-dollar advertising budget, it helps if you can infuse some meaning in that symbol.

Pang: Paul Rand designed the NeXT logo. Were you involved in that?

Pang: Yes. I did hire him. I introduced Steve to his books, and then we contacted him. I didn't know him, but I'd always admired his work. So that was a fantastic opportunity for me, to be able to meet and work with someone who had been a hero to me, and introduce him to Steve. And I think Steve and I both learned a lot from him. He was very unequivocal [laughs], a great person with a tremendous amount of self-confidence: I remember him almost pounding the table, saying "I've been doing this for fifty-five years, and I know what you should do!" It must be great to have that much confidence in such an inexact science.


Document created on 20 February 2001;