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Origins of Common User Interface Symbols.
December 20, 2013 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Ever wanted to know why the Bluetooth symbol looks like it does, or what the deal is with the logo on the Command button on Apple keyboards? This link, which tells the story behind the design of many common user interface symbols, has got you covered.
posted by Effigy2000 (28 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was wondering about the Bluetooth symbol the other day. I really should have figured it out myself, but it is early.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:44 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you could have figured that out by yourself then you must know an awful lot about Danish history.
posted by JHarris at 2:02 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


For a universal standard that is quite obviously a take on the letter "B," the Bluetooth symbol sits on my menu bar and I'm always like, what the fuck is that thing, then I click on it and see the word "Discoverable" and realize what it is. I don't know why, but I don't like it.
posted by phaedon at 2:08 AM on December 20, 2013


Study carefully. Memorize what you can. An hour into these fun facts and your relatives will never ask you to fix their computer again.
posted by hal9k at 2:13 AM on December 20, 2013 [18 favorites]


I have an affection for the Command symbol that stems from a very nerdy place-- c. 1990 or '91, that was the logo of my Dungeons and Dragons party, The Midnight Ravers of the Heathen Scumwaffle. One of the other members, who had recently returned from his professor dad's sabbatical in Stockholm, doodled it and said "this should be our logo." When asked where it came from, he said "it's a road sign in Sweden. I think it means 'historic site.'"

I see it so often now that I don't really think about it. But I had a few months of frequent nostalgia when it first started showing up on Mac keyboards.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:34 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you could have figured that out by yourself then you must know an awful lot about Danish history.

Well, I know more about Danish history than I ever thought I would, but the subject also came up on a podcast I was listening to a while back, so it should have been a shorter trip than it sounds.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:34 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


A useful thing about that USB symbol is that connectors are always oriented so the logo points up. Forget about trying to remember which side of the plug is which; just look for the logo.
posted by ceribus peribus at 3:21 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Maybe we should be linking to the original source of this: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/08/computer-symbols-history/all/
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 3:35 AM on December 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


I find this very interesting, but I'm going to be a grump. Why did someone take a two week old visual.ly poster, chop it up and put it on imgur. Or, more precisely, why did they take a three year old post from Wired, add these 'design' colors and post it to visual.ly? This whole thing stinks, I tell ya, stinks!

On preview: Dang you, Sodium lights the horizon!
posted by Literaryhero at 3:38 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


A useful thing about that USB symbol is that connectors are always oriented so the logo points up. Forget about trying to remember which side of the plug is which; just look for the logo.

Oddly, I have a lot of devices that want the USB to be plugged in upside down, so while this is great, I still can't remember which device wants it which way.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:39 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The logo on USB is irrelevant, because the connector has a quantum state. Everyone knows you have to try it first up, then down, then up again before it will fit.
posted by bonaldi at 3:56 AM on December 20, 2013 [26 favorites]


I always thought the USB thingie was an arrow with stuff branching off it, or a tree. Hmm.
posted by Foosnark at 4:45 AM on December 20, 2013


Hmm. Apple seems to have broken the "crescent moon = sleep" convention with the Do Not Disturb indicator in iOS.

(Though I'm trying to figure out where I've ever actually seen the moon mean sleep?)
posted by olinerd at 5:04 AM on December 20, 2013


USB 3.1 is coming, and the new connector will fit either way. That should gain me at least a few hours a year.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:06 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought the Bluetooth people just liked the Dead Kennedys.
posted by indubitable at 5:15 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


That should gain me at least a few hours a year.

You will still have to flip the pug three times. That is how the magic works!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:15 AM on December 20, 2013


(Though I'm trying to figure out where I've ever actually seen the moon mean sleep?)

I had an HP work PC about 7 years ago that had a moon key on the keyboard that would put the PC to sleep. It was in a place that I'd accidentally hit a few times a week.
posted by birdherder at 5:19 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


It is cool to know the stories behind these icons, but it reminds me that when you're designing your own icons, the amount of backstory you put into it doesn't affect how recognizable and useful they are.

To this day, I still get flustered when I see ⌥ and ⌘ and ^ and ⇧ in clusters and have to think hard to parse them. I feel like I'm doing flashcards. I wish menus would just write out "Opt" and "Cmd," even if it's going to incur localization costs. There's a reason humanity invented writing, and those three-letter words are instantly parseable in English.

I think ^ and ⇧ might be a little more successful as symbols because they're less busy than ⌥ and ⌘, which never fail to make me go, what is going in there?

I have a similar but lesser problem with the Bluetooth and USB symbols. Their tiny intricacies put a burp into the flow of my cognition. However, I never misidentify them, partly because they usually stand alone and do not pop up as part of a mob of symbols as ⌥ and ⌘ often necessarily do.

Maybe using symbols in a sparing frequency is just as important as making them non-busy.
posted by ignignokt at 5:26 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Note, you actually have to flip the plug three times. Flipping a pug can be a lot of fun if done responsibly, but won't help you with USB issues.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


To this day, I still get flustered when I see ⌥ and ⌘ and ^ and ⇧

YES. It's such a weird blind spot for Apple and their vaunted user friendliness...all their documentation uses them, but they're impossible to intuit and really hard for the average user to even Google.

I'm sure Ive would faint if you brought him a keyboard with the symbols actually printed on the keys again, but come on.
posted by Ian A.T. at 6:29 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


yeah, apple really made a bad call when the dropped the open/closed apple buttons on the keyboard and went with that bizarro new alt/meta/apple/command key..
posted by k5.user at 6:37 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I still call the Mac command key the "open-Apple" key, because that's how I learned it in elementary school. Whenever I say it out loud, people are like, "huh?"
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:08 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Interesting to me to know that the command key symbol is known to mark "places of interest"... The Russians have a single word meaning "places of interest" that happens to be one of the most awesome words in the language: достопримечательности -- pronounced (roughly) "dohstohpreemehchahtelnohstee". The specificity and length of the word have forever cemented it in my memory.

I will forever now be calling the command key the "dohstohpreemehchahtelnohstee" key, which I'm sure will be met by understanding and joy from all I relate to day to day.
posted by MysticMCJ at 9:35 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


USB 3.1 is coming, and the new connector will fit either way. That should gain me at least a few hours a year.

Ah, interesting, but will it make all our current USB devices unuseable with the new ports?
posted by JHarris at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2013


Ah, looked it up; they'll need an adaptor, which means instead of gaining a few hours a year, you'll first lose a few looking for the damn adaptor.
posted by JHarris at 10:16 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


To this day, I still get flustered when I see ⌥ and ⌘ and ^ and ⇧ in clusters and have to think hard to parse them.

Twenty (count 'em) plus years using Macs and I still have to double-check the meaning of those symbols.
posted by ambivalentic at 11:45 AM on December 20, 2013


Macintosh keyboards used the ⌘ symbol clear back to the beginning, in 1984. They only added the Apple logo later, when they produced the first ADB keyboards, because they were compatible with both the Macintosh and the Apple IIgs, and Apple II users were used to the "apple key". The Macintosh documentation always called it the "command key" and never mentioned the fact that it also coincedentally had an Apple logo.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:48 AM on December 20, 2013


The Wired article mentions the beachball wait cursor, but says it has mysterious origins. Allow me to demystify. The spinning ball wait cursor was originally monochrome (two bit greyscale), designed by Keith Ohlfs for NeXTStep, at least as early as version 0.8, probably earlier. I think there were four wedges each of black and white. With the NeXTStation Color, he gave it rainbow colors, still with straight radial divisions between the color wedges. Somewhere along the line, somebody else (by this time at Apple, for MacOS 10.whatever) curved the divisions between the colors and increased the number of wedges and colors.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 4:09 AM on December 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


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