As Intuitive as Play

erin malone
May 1 · 7 min read

A few years ago, I was working on a project for a large client. As part of that project, we were tasked to create an icon that would be easily recognized and learned, to indicate a particular set of concepts.

Graphic designers and illustrators know exactly what I am talking about, but for those who don’t — icons are intended to represent concepts. Using the theories from semiotics or the study of signs, we can craft these to be interpreted in particular ways. We can use iconic or pictorial language — a picture of a map indicating a map or a picture of a cat for a cat — we can use conceptual or symbolic language — words (all letters are symbols and all words are symbols with meaning defined by the collective acceptance of a culture or language) or a light bulb for the concept “idea” — or we can use indexic or relational language — smoke to indicate fire.

With these different techniques we tap into cultural understanding and metaphor. But all these ideas are learned over time, collectively as well as individually through repetition and association. For example, words may mean certain things as adopted over time by a culture or in current digital experiences, the heart in an app means a favorite thing or the floppy disk icon indicates save or download.

But back to my client story.

This client wanted our icon to be as easily understood as the Play button.

My team spent hours designing hundreds and hundreds of icons, riffing off the concepts developed by the combined client/consultant team in multiple brainstorm sessions. We had several different directions and we developed several hundred ideas down each path.

We developed a plan for how the icon could be locked up with a meaningful word or phrase that would gradually truncate and then disappear over time as the user, used the application, and learned the icon’s meaning.

The client didn’t like this, they wanted no words. They wanted something easily understood and identified, and as they kept saying, as “intuitive as the play button” in a music app.

This request was impossible to fulfill given the multiple abstract concepts we were trying to convey with this single icon and the new, unknown context we were going to be using it within.

And it got me wondering how intuitive the is the Play icon really and what is its history. So I dug in to find out.

Let’s go back to the 1950’s (or earlier).

The electronic symbol for Amplifier used in schematics and diagrams in electronic engineering.

This symbol, a right pointing triangle with a line on each side — indicates AMPLIFIER in electronic symbology. This was used in creating electronic schematics for amplifiers and other sound devices.

Controls for the Sony 101 Reel to Reel tape deck. Circa early 1950’s. You can see the Fast Forward label with the right facing arrow on the right side of the controls.

As early as the 1950’s (exact dates and use is unknown), we see commercial and consumer recording equipment, like reel to reel decks, using a single right facing arrow for Forward or the double right facing and left facing arrows indicating Fast Forward and Rewind — arrows pointing in the literal direction that the tape moves. In many of these cases, the arrows are grouped with the words Forward and/or rRewind or Back.

Later, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, with the creation of the compact cassette (in 1962 by Philips) tape decks start to become smaller and we see the adoption in regular households in the US and not just with music and electronic geeks. It’s here that we start seeing more consistency in the use of the right facing triangle locked up with the word Play on these new devices.

The portable cassette tape decks from Philips (1968) and Panasonic (1967 radio cassette recorder), begin to bring the ability to play and record to compact cassette tapes to the masses.

Controls on the Panasonic Portable Cassette tape deck — circa 1970's

In the Panasonic player, which I had as a kid in the mid-1970’s, we see the Play triangle locked with the word Play and the double triangles used for Rewind and Fast Forward.

It’s not until 1979 with the creation of the Sony Walkman that we start to see an inexpensive portable player in everyone’s bag or pocket. Which means, that everyone with one of these players or the hundreds of knockoffs and releases from the other electronic companies, was learning that the big right facing triangle to meant Play.

The original Sony Walkman with controls on the side. 1979

Later versions of the walkman with redundant visual cues for play — words, colors, size and iconography.

The Sony Walkman Pro controls — circa 1980's
Sony Walkman colored controls — circa 1980's

In these devices we find the play button presented with just the arrow, with the arrow and words and surrounded by a green color or on a totally different color button. All these visual devices are used to teach people which button and symbol means Play and the use of other supporting differentiators, like color and size enhance that meaning.

With the ubiquity of these devices, we see the same iconography showing up on home answering machines and other electronic equipment like VCRs and eventually compact disc players, minidisc players and MP3 players.

Portable CD Player, Sony Minidisc Player from the 1990s. Answering machine controls — circa 1980's.

In the 1990’s the play button on portable compact disc players is often the largest button and in a different shape than the others. These devices have the physical space to create these additional differentiators.

Apple iTunes controls — circa 2000's
Apple iPod controls—2nd generation

By 2001, Apple has come onto the scene with its digital player iTunes and its MP3 player iPod and follows similar conventions as seen in the cassette and CD players. The Play button is often the largest in the digital software and in a strategic spot in the MP3 player. Even though we have now lost the physical association of tape moving forward or back, culturally we have mapped that association of moving forward through the sound to the arrow direction.

Apple Mini iPod controls — circa mid 2000s

By now, in most cases, the words have disappeared and the ubiquity of the right facing triangle is so pervasive that we rarely see the words locked up with the symbol anymore.

Player controls for Soundcloud—circa 2018
Player controls for Spotify—2019
Play button for video on Instagram—2019

Which brings us to today. We see the right triangle — rarely with any embellishment like fake buttons or gradations — and we instantly know what to do. We know what it’s purpose is and we know how it works.

There have been two to three generations of people who have grown up with this symbol in the context of playing media. It’s not just the digital generation. The ability to learn its meaning comes through context and observation so today’s children learn how it works often before they learn how to read.

So that easily understood intuitive icon, for a simple concept of tape moving forward or moving forward through media, has had close to 70 years to infiltrate our collective conscious and to be integrated into our cultural language of meaning.

So back to my client. Ultimately, we created over a dozen amazing icons that tested well through large quantitative studies, as being learnable, but we failed at the original request. And as I later found out, so did 3 other design firms and large agencies known for their successful, award winning logo and icon work.

We did not succeed in creating an icon as intuitive as Play for this client because it was an impossible and unrealistic ask. Any new icons developed today have a long road of learning and context association needed to become that “intuitive” and if they represent multiple abstract concepts that are not tangible, they must be paired with words in order to teach people their meaning and used consistently every time, over time.

erin malone

Written by

I cowrote Designing Social Interfaces. I like to make models to explain complex systems. I design things. I take a lot of pictures.

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