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DigiBarn Stories

The (Xerox Star Icon) World According to Norm Cox

A brief background….

I joined Dallas’ Xerox Office Products Division in 1972 as a wet-behind-the-ears designer fresh out of college. With a blend of art, design and architecture from LSU, I wasn’t sure what I was qualified to do, exactly. To fill the time until I could figure out my master calling, I took a job as a mechanical designer, designing nuts and bolts and random unnecessary plastic items for their line of electronic typewriters.

To satisfy my frequent artistic yearnings—to the encouragement, delight, and sometimes chagrin of my co-workers—I would often pick out someone in our design group and draw a caricature of them. Usually I would depict some embarrassing event or physical feature that everyone—except the “victim”—got a big kick out of. Over the course of a year or two, I amassed a portfolio of 40-50 caricatures of the folks I worked with, including a few senior managers and an occasional executive or two. As divine providence would much later reveal, this little sideline talent brought me a little notoriety around the office building and punched my ticket for the express train to the an incredible opportunity.

After a couple of years as a mechanical designer and caricaturist to the stars, I met Robin Kinkead. Robin was the manager of the Industrial Design and Human Factors department in Dallas, and his group was in need of a graphic designer to develop printwheel and display fonts for the typewriters. With no hesitation whatsoever, I jumped at the chance to escape the smoky bullpen of mechanical designers and moved upstairs to my private cubicle on the 11th floor. With my art and design background, I fit well into my new role as typographer, artiste, and resident graphic designer.

Sometime around 1977-78 with Robin’s constant finagling and back office politics, our little rag-tag IDHF&G group procured a couple of Altos to test drive for “usability” and “user friendliness”. Like curious cubs, we all were intrigued by this industrial strength monitor, keyboard, massive and cumbersome storage disks, and a tethered little pointy-clicky thingy with three buttons they called a mouse.

In short order, our resident geek got the things up and humming, and connected it through the Ethernet to the other Alto folks in Palo Alto so we could send electronic mail messages back and forth. I remember thinking, “Why in the world do we need to write mail messages again when we’ve got a phone with a WATS line? It’s so much quicker just to make a phone call.” Silly me!

It also had an early version of a word processing program called Bravo, and a couple of rudimentary drawing programs called Flyer and Markup. Naturally, as the resident artiste, I was encouraged to play with this electronic version of my etch-a-sketch and see what I could do with it. I took to the task with great excitement and gusto. Imagine, getting paid to sit around and draw!

This new blue screen/black pixel medium with a tethered block (mouse) for a paintbrush was like trying to draw with a rock on the end of your pencil. It took a while to get the hang of it, but I soon became quite adept at rendering on this new forgiving medium. And no more messy eraser dust!

Eventually the Alto (and my scribblings) became a “must see” attraction for both local executives and visiting dignitaries. Often I’d get advanced warning of an upcoming visitor, and would sketch a quick caricature of the guest on the display to add a bit of humor and personality to the near-daily Alto show-n-tell events.

Below are a few of the caricatures I rendered on the Alto in those early days. There were so many others, but finding a way to save them at the time was difficult. And, unfortunately, the context of the caricatures has been lost to history and failing memory.

At left was my manager, Robin Kinkead. “Eagle Beak” we used to call him.

Below is famous actor, W.C. Fields.

 This is Renn Zaphiropolous, Xerox exec and the former president of Versatec (prior to Xerox’ acquisition of them).

Left is Marco Padalino. Not sure what his role was, but I’m thinking he was something like V.P. of Engineering.

Also, during those days in the late ‘70s, I remember seeing a parade of hippie-types and “long hairs” from California coming through our offices occasionally to talk about Alto stuff, human factors and such. Since we were always having visitors, I never gave it much thought. All I knew was that these Palo Alto folks were part of the Systems Development Division (SDD), and reported to our Dallas Office Products Division president, Don Massaro. (I later learned that these guys were Dave Liddle, Charles Irby, Dave Smith, Ralph Kimball, Bill Verplank, Wallace Judd, et.al.)

Our IDHG&G group was a service organization, and supported various product efforts around the company. As manager, Robin would shop our services to any product group that would let him in the door. Naturally, SDD became another potential customer to pursue. They were in the early stages of bringing together some of PARC’s hardware and software efforts to construct the Xerox Star, and Robin felt our Dallas group had some of the skills and talents that were lacking on the Star development team.

After one of his sales boondoggles to PARC, I remember him telling me a little bit about this new machine, and that he wanted to get me involved. He believed that my traditional design and typography skills and newly developed pixel pushing talents were just what these computer geeks needed. He talked about how there were going to be pictures on the screen (icons) that represented objects and machine functions. He said that I should render some examples that he could send to PARC as an example of my budding expertise in digital artistry and maybe they’d invite me to California to work with them.

“Draw me a picture of ‘incoming mail’”, he said, “and I’ll send it out there to them. We’ll show them what real talent is.” And so, in the summer of 1978, with blissful ignorance and clueless abandon, I produced this first crude concept of an icon for incoming mail (left).

Needless to say, the folks at PARC thought this was an “interesting” illustration, but not exactly what they had in mind. For whatever reason—whether they recognized my potential talent, or whether Robin badgered them into reluctant submission—I was eventually invited to the now infamous and hallowed halls of PARC.

My Cajun country upbringing had never taken me any further west than Dallas. And since I wanted to make a good first impression on my new California friends, I purchased a spanking new three-piece navy blue polyester suit, super-wide ‘70s tie, platform shoes and the finest imitation naugahyde briefcase I could find and made my first reservations at Rickey’s Hyatt House.

I arrived at the lobby of PARC, resplendent in polyester and cheap Old English cologne, and was met by Charles Irby… ponytail, scruffy beard, tie-dyed t-shirt, khaki shorts and Birkenstock sandals. He welcomed me warmly, and then took me around to meet the eclectic cast of colorful characters and future luminaries that made up the Star development team. As we toured the offices, and the more folks I met, and the more beanbag chairs I saw, the more conspicuous, foreign and puritanical I began to feel… a penguin in the company of parrots. And yet, I was embraced and welcomed into this cadre of characters. It would not take me long to assimilate.

Thus began my providential journey of education, immersion and inclusion into the culture and creativity of the original Star development team. And thus began my life’s calling in a rewarding field of study that never really existed before. Ironically, these colorful characters became wonderful friends, mentors, co-workers and kindred spirits over the many years we worked and played together at Xerox and subsequent ventures. I shall always be grateful and indebted to them for all they taught me and for the opportunities and challenges that they presented to me.

Over the next several years, we worked together to produce a seminal work in user interface design. Below are some of the early icon works that were designed by Wallace Judd, Bill Bowman, Dave Smith and myself. These groups of icons were tested on potential users and refined based on their feedback.

Earlier Concepts (Bowman and Judd) - click for larger views

Later Concepts (Smith and Cox) - click for larger views

These are some of the final designs based on usability test results, good design principles, and human performance considerations. Though nearly 25 years old and rendered in a coarse, grainy medium, there’s still a simple, timeless elegance about them that set a standard for future interface evolutions.

New renditions of Star final icons

Thank you for letting me share this little walk down the memory lane of past glories. Enjoy.

Norm Cox

See Norm's site Cox & Hall interaction design

See Also:

Our main pages on the Xerox Star OS and applications

The DigiBarn's Xerox Star 8010 workstions

High quality Polaroid shots of the Xerox Star 8010 interfaces

with some early Icon design decisions (1981)

The Digibarn's extensive collection of Xerox computers and other artifacts

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