The pixel’s effect on icon design is vividly perceptible when admiring Susan Kare’s sketches for the original Macintosh interface. Kare drew her ’80s bit-con icons on graph paper first, using one square to represent one pixel. The analog versions of the familiar floppy disk, pair of scissors, and of course the happy Mr. Macintosh were blown up to ultra-pixelated proportions on paper, before being translated to the screen. Kare’s early sketches were the beginning of what has now become so ubiquitous that we barely even think about it: although now much smaller and imperceptible to the eye, most of how we create today is by drawing with pixels.
Kare’s famous Mac sketches are featured in MoMA’s new exhibition, Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989, which highlights works created using computers or computational thinking. At its core, the show explores how artists, architects, and designers have operated at the very vanguard of computing as a means to reconsider artistic production.
“So much anxiety around our current moment is embodied by how we interface with new media and technology,” says Sean Anderson, the show’s curator and MoMA’s associate curator in the Department of Architecture and Design. “By exhibiting and narrating these objects from the museum’s collection, we not only deepen the story of postwar art and design, but also engage in a meaningful conversation about present-day realities, which are informed and implicated by developments in cybernetics, programming, and computing.”
The exhibition juxtaposes artworks, design items, and proposals in order to trace how computers have transformed aesthetics, and how machines entirely reshaped the way we approach designing, creating, and working. Sat alongside artworks by John Cage and Richard Hamilton are computers designed by media artist Tamiko Thiel as well as IBM and Apple. We asked Anderson to take us through five works from the three decades represented at the show—a timeline during which computing and computational thinking became an important basis for the productive intersection of art and design.