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

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.