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The Ghosts in Our Icons

Icons play an increasingly important role in our technology-filled world. I recall learning the now-universal symbols for audio and video functions on an early cassette recorder as a child. Evidently, at some time during the '60s, the world agreed that a right-pointing triangle means "Play."

Actually, there used to be two play keys. Back then reel-to-reel tape decks were popular, and they could be played in either direction -- a left-facing triangle was the other play. Double them up and you get rewind and fast-forward. This was more elegant than the words, since "rewind" and "forward" are relative terms.

I can't comment on the square for stop or the upright equals for pause, but they are universal. They can be found on cassette decks, CD players, and even modern Internet radio apps.


Icons solve two critical problems. They require much less space than words, and can be understood across languages.

In addition to the audio playback, the power icon is also universal. Up until about the '90s, devices such as televisions, computers, and most other appliances had physical power switches. Since the words "on" and "off" complicate international distribution, many manufacturers adopted the binary "I" and "O." Software-based systems favor a non-mechanical power switch, and the "I" and "O" converged into a single icon now found on just about everything... from our ubiquitous smartphones to dishwashers, and even cars.

Another well-known icon is the USB symbol. When and where it came from seems to be in dispute, but most agree that it was inspired by Neptune's pointy and versatile trident. The USB symbol has only one pointy tip; a circle, and a square signify (universal) interoperability.

The USB symbol is popular, but not an official logo like Bluetooth, which is controlled by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Bluetooth uses a complex icon that conveys nothing about its purpose. Developers named the technology after 10th century Danish king Harald Blåtand, who helped unite Scandinavia. Blåtand translates to blue tooth in Danish, and the symbol uses Scandinavian runes to symbolize the king's initials (H and B).

Thanks to our tiny smartphones, icons have become even more commonplace. Some of them are so ingrained that we don't really think about them much, but there are some problems. Many icons just don't make any sense any more, and some inconsistencies have cropped up among vendors.

The modern smartphone is filled with icons that have historical significance -- at least to millennials. For example, the phone icon uses a curved handset that most millennials have never experienced.

Ironically, smartphones are starting to curve, so perhaps some will see it as futuristic.

Smartphone apps are replacing many physical goods such as calculators, maps, and personal phone books -- all of which are frequently represented by icons of their material ancestors. For example, time, alarm, and stopwatch all use icons based on their 20th century forms. The timer icon goes back even further, with an hourglass design. It just isn't practical to use a smartphone icon to represent all these different apps.

Has anyone besides Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass for search? Why has the magnifying glass become the universal symbol for this function?

These icons may not make a lot of sense today, but at least they are widely known and recognized. That can't be said for all icons. The share icon, for example, varies across platforms.

Web developer Alex King takes credit for designing the first share icon in 2007. Google embraced it, but Microsoft and Apple went different directions. Unfortunately, none of the icons are particularly intuitive, but that may be too much to ask in this case.

Icons are supposed to simplify things, but they can be tricky. I had a very difficult time trying to figure out the hieroglyphics on a European dishwasher. Hieroglyphics may seem like a strange word for modern icons, but modern icons surprisingly often represent the past. The only thing for certain is icons are on the rise along with smartphones and a flatter world.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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