in Design

The untold origins of 6 common computer icons

Origin graphic

Sometimes the simplest tasks of everyday life are performed with the instant recognition of an icon.  A Simple visual metaphor that helps us share music, find spots on a map or remotely message your boss while you work from your favorite café/home. But how exactly did some of the more common yet abstract icons on our computers come to be? If our brains use metaphor to bring familiarity and understanding to our surroundings, someone must have put effort into designing this visual language; right?

Well, after a little digging, I found some answers. Although, some are debatable.


power icon
This symbol evolved from the on and off labels used on the interface of early analog control boards. Engineers used binary code to indicate whether a switch was supplying full power (1) or disconnecting a device from its power source (0).  Eventually the 1 and 0 merged into a unified symbol that could be placed on a single toggle button.


command icon
The infamous Apple command key. Created by Susan Kare under direction of Andy Hertzfeld, a key member of the Macintosh development team in the 80s. In trying to figure out how to translate menu commands on to a keyboard they initially came up with the “apple button.” This button could reference specific actions when pressed in conjunction with other keys. However, Steve Jobs refused to use an apple icon on the button stating, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain. We’ve got to stop doing that!” A quick redesign ensued and after scanning through an international symbol dictionary Susan came across the Gorgon loop; the floral symbol that indicates an attraction or point of interest in Sweden. And the fun thing is that that sign is based on Borgholm castle.


Origin graphic
You can thank the Danish King Harald Blatand for inspiring this icon. His initials make up this popular symbol by combining the old Danish runes of H and B. Legend has it that he loved blueberries and one of his teeth were permanently stained blue but he’s mostly known for uniting warring factions in Scandinavia – just like Bluetooth allows various devices to integrate with each other.


at icon
Depending on where you live you might know it by a different name. The elephant’s trunk-a (Swedish), the monkey’s tail (German), little mouse (Chinese) or the worm (Hungarian). It was used by computer programmer Raymond Tomlinson in the early seventies to send the first electronic message. He wanted a unique character that could separate a user’s name from their location on a network. For him the “at” symbol was an obvious choice since it was unlikely to appear in anyone’s name and it indicated that the recipient is sitting “at” this specific computer.

But the symbol existed long before emails started swarming your inbox. Some linguists site its appearance in the 6th century as a way for Latin scribes to simplify the word “ad” meaning “at” or “toward” that was not easily confused with AD (Anno Domini). Others claim it emerged in the 18th century as a commerce symbol used to indicate price per unit, as in 1kg of bacon @ 50 :-


usb icon
Neptune’s trident was the inspiration for this common icon. The different shapes at the tips of each prong represent the different devices that can be attached with this standard.


play icon
Granted, this one was around way before Winamp or the classic Windows Media Player but, as a music geek, I found its not-so-definitive origin interesting. It’s thought to have first appeared in the 60s on reel-to-reel tape decks as a tape transport symbol. The direction of the arrow told the operator which direction the tape was moving