The Esoteric Symbols Behind User Interfaces, Explained

Power? Bluetooth? USB? You’ve seen their symbols. Here’s where they came from.

We already know where the @ symbol came from, but what about every other strange glyph that appears across our gadgets and user interfaces? While we may have learned to identify the power symbol or the Bluetooth designator, who knows how these symbols were generated in the first place?

This handy infographic, Origins of Common UI Symbols, was put together by Sofya Yampolsky, Warm Gun, and 500 Startups to explain just that. And even self-professed tech geeks will learn something.

For instance, did you know that the Bluetooth symbol is based upon Danish king Harald Blåtand Gormsen? "Blåtand" translates to "Bluetooth." There are many theories behind the name, the most delicious of which is that the king had an obsession with blueberries, so much so that his consumption stained one tooth blue. Whether that was actually the case or not, the modern Bluetooth symbol is based upon the story. The original Bluetooth hardware had a tooth-like shape and it was blue, making it a no-brainer to immortalize the two runes representing the king’s initials for the logo.

Or take USB—a three-pronged fork topped with strange shapes. Apparently that was an interpretation of Neptune’s trident, a symbol for power (that, as a USB symbol, would invoke user empowerment). The tips, however, aren’t mere triangular points. The addition of a square and circle represent USB’s ability to connect many disparate devices.

But the power symbol, better known as a circle with a point out the top, was not crafted from historical legend or greek mythology. It’s the result of engineers seeking symbolic efficiency. In WWII hardware, 1 labeled an "on" switch, and 0 represented "off." Eventually, these two merged to simply represent "power." That's a neat evolution when you consider that the language of computers is a collection of 1s and 0s—which represents transistors turned on and off—known as binary code. To consider the power button in this way, whenever you turn on your Macbook, it’s as if you’re launching the language of 1s and 0s that power your computer's consciousness.

Origins of UI Symbols

[Image via Shutterstock]

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25 Comments

  • erictan

    Back before personal computers, I remember @ = arroba or something like that.

  • Paul_Rand

    the usb port is missing some important visual information about which side is obviously the top.... I always have to try several times before its right...

  • J_Lillz5

    Do you feel a little proud when you plug it right on the first try???? I do..... (never happens though)

  • robbyGregg

    what about the "diskette" icon that one clicks to save a file? Younger users know that as the "save" icon, but do not have any idea of what it is supposed to represent ...

    or where the "carriage return" symbol used for "Enter" came from, for those who have never used or even seen a typewriter ...

  • Adam

    But the power symbol, better known as a circle with a point out the top, was not crafted from historical legend or greek mythology. It’s the result of engineers seeking symbolic efficiency. In WWII hardware, 1 labeled an "on" switch, and 0 represented "off." Eventually, these two merged to simply represent “power.” That's a neat evolution when you consider that the language of computers is a collection of 1s and 0s--which represents transistors turned on and off--known as binary code. To consider the power button in this way, whenever you turn on your Macbook, it’s as if you’re launching the language of 1s and 0s that power your computer's consciousness.

  • John

    We already know where the@ symbol came from, but what about every other strange glyph that appears across our gadgets and user interfaces? While we may have learned to identify the power symbol or the Bluetooth designator, who knows how these symbols were generated in the first place?

  • Adams

    “Blåtand” translates to “Bluetooth.” There are many theories behind the name, the most delicious of which is that the king had an obsession with blueberries, so much so that his consumption stained one tooth blue. Whether that was actually the case or not, the modern Bluetooth symbol is based upon the story. The original Bluetooth hardware had a tooth-like shape and it was blue, making it a no-brainer to immortalize the two runes representing the king’s initials for the logo.

  • John

    Or take USB--a three-pronged fork topped with strange shapes. Apparently that was an interpretation of Neptune’s trident, a symbol for power (that, as a USB symbol, would invoke user empowerment). The tips, however, aren’t mere triangular points. The addition of a square and circle represent USB’s ability to connect many disparate devices.

  • Fabian Galon

    Actually the icon for the Apple function key is the symbol for a "historic site of national importance". Doesn't have to have anything to do with any camp grounds.

  • Adams

    Or take USB--a three-pronged fork topped with strange shapes. Apparently that was an interpretation of Neptune’s trident, a symbol for power (that, as a USB symbol, would invoke user empowerment). The tips, however, aren’t mere triangular points. The addition of a square and circle represent USB’s ability to connect many disparate devices.

  • Tom

    "Anno Domini" is Latin for "Year of Our Lord", meaning how many years after his BIRTH - not his death.

  • Adams

    But the power symbol, better known as a circle with a point out the top, was not crafted from historical legend or greek mythology. It’s the result of engineers seeking symbolic efficiency. In WWII hardware, 1 labeled an "on" switch, and 0 represented "off." Eventually, these two merged to simply represent “power.”

  • Tweenwolf

    The only thing this article doesn't explain is the use of justified sans serif body copy. Reversed out of colour blocks. Urrgh.

  • John

    Actually the icon for the Apple function key is the symbol for a "historic site of national importance". Doesn't have to have anything to do with any camp grounds.

  • Adams

    To consider the power button in this way, whenever you turn on your Macbook, it’s as if you’re launching the language of 1s and 0s that power your computer's consciousness.

  • John

    Inside Apple we called it the RCoD: Rainbow Cursor of Death. The old black and white one was just the beachball, also used descriptively as "your app has beachballed."

  • Adams

    The opinion of this old photo major is that the photo is a faded Kodachrome. The red color is fugitive and turned pink.