The Fascinating History of the Search Icon

I’ve always been interested in the stories of how our common design elements came to exist, and I think the history of the “magnifying glass” search icon is especially great because it shows how metaphors can creep into our designs and take on a life of their own.

When I went looking, I found that one of the earliest traceable uses of a magnifying glass in a user interface was created by Keith Ohlfs. Ohlfs was brought on as a graphic designer and illustrator for NeXT in 1987 and was responsible for designing the graphical elements of the UI in the NeXT Workspace Manager. It’s possible that his choice of icon for NeXT’s Find feature might have set the precedent that we’ve been following ever since:

But why did Ohlfs use the magnifying glass in the first place?

We used the magnifying glass in a few places… In the case of the ColorPicker, the functionality defined the use of the icon, as you move the magnifying glass around the screen to “zoom” the pixels so you can see the colors you have to choose from. For the other two cases, I think it was more trying to equate the magnifying glass with “finding a needle in a haystack”, and for that metaphor, a magnifier would be more useful than say, a pair of binoculars, a librarian, or a telescope. Plus, I killed three birds with one stone and actually got some sleep that night.
- Keith Ohlfs