The first fonts of the Macintosh

Filed under: People,Software

During the summer of 1983, after spending more than six months creating symbols and icons for Macintosh files and menus, designer Susan Kare‘s attention turned to an issue she very much cared about: fonts.

Apple Macintosh Commercial - Susan Kare

At the time, on most personal computers, each letter was allotted the same space regardless of its shape. Thanks to its bitmap high resolution display (and Steve Jobs’ obsession with calligraphy) the Macintosh was capable of rendering proportional fonts, “leaving behind the tyranny of monospace alphabets with their narrow m’s and wide i’s” as Kare recalls.

The tireless engineer Bill Atkinson had already given two fonts to the Macintosh, a calligraphic one and a placeholder one, the latter converted from Xerox’s Smalltalk systems that inspired Apple.


Free from the requirement of making digital versions of print, scalable or already existing fonts, Kare focused on optimizing screen readability creating new bitmap fonts in specific sizes, controlling every single pixel as she was wont to do.

At the beginning, much of the designer’s efforts were concerned with the system font, used in titles and menu items, both enabled or grayed out, and alert windows and dialog boxes. The result was a stylized font that was modern, clean and readable, so well-made that Apple kept using it as the default on the Mac for thirteen years (until Mac OS 7.6), and adopted it for the iPod interface. Jokingly, Kare called it Elefont, a pun on ‘elephant’ and ‘font’, but it is best known with its official name: Chicago.

The typographic arsenal of the first Macintosh was completed by various other fonts, different in style and purpose: serif and sans serif, gothic, monospaced, symbols and even one resembling cut out newspapers letters for a ransom demand.


Kare consulted Andy Hertzfeld, developer and her high school classmate, and asked him for advice about the names of the fonts. They decided to call them after Philadelphia suburbs where the train stopped on their commute to school: Ardmore, Overbrook, Merion
But these names are not familiar to Mac users. Why? Because Steve Jobs disapproved of the choice, and decreed that the fonts needed names of big cities, not of unknown places. That’s how Elefont and the others became Chicago, New York, Geneva, London, San Francisco, Toronto, Athens, etc. and even the calligraphic font by Bill Atkinson was renamed Venice.

Note: the picture of Susan Kare is taken from one of Apple’s 1984 Macintosh commercials, while the screenshot of Xerox Smalltalk system is from an article by Larry Tesler on BYTE 8/1981, page 120. Both are reproduced for illustrative purpose only. The Mac fonts image is from the Storie di Apple archive.
Thanks to Serena Di Virgilio for helping out with the translation of the original italian text into english.

Tuesday 24 February 2015, 2:30 pm
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