The History of 5 Well Known Icons

As an assignment for DesignLab’s UX Academy, I was told to write an iconography article. Personally, I really enjoy history and was inspired to write about the origins of some well known icons.

What is an icon?

Icons are visual representations of objects, concepts or ideas. When used correctly, they can educate, communicate and increase usability.

The most successful icons are those that are universally recognized around the globe. But here is the thing — the most widely recognized icons and symbols are rarely looked at for more than 2 seconds before understanding what the intention is. Meaning, people don’t give much attention or thought to them because they naturally blend in.

In my opinion, a symbol that has become so embedded in mankind's everyday life deserves some attention! So let’s look at how these icons were born.

♻ The Recycle Symbol

After the very first Earth Day took place in April 1970, the world started to give attention to environmental issues. The Container Corporation of America sponsored a contest for design students across the country to create a symbol to raise awareness towards recycling.

While studying architecture, 23 year old Gary Anderson submitted his design into the competition. His design process to create the symbol was fairly quick, as he had already been playing with variations of this design in school. It took him about 3 days to create the finished symbol. Influences for the shape included M. C. Escher’s art, the Möbius strip, the wool symbol and the concept of the mandala.

Anderson with the winning symbol

Anderson’s design, which is still the design used today, was chosen over 500 other entries earning himself a scholarship.

Anderson’s inspiration: The Möbius strip and M.C Escher’s art

☮ The Peace Sign

In 1958, Gerald Holtom created a logo for the ‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ (CND), which was first shown during an anti-nuclear march in England. The symbol was inspired by letters from the Semaphore alphabet. Holtom used the letters N and D which stood for “Nuclear” and “Disarmament” respectively. The combination of these letters created what we now refer to as the peace symbol.

Semaphore letters D and N create the inside of the peace symbol

Holtom came to regret using the upside-down V shape that the letter N represented and said it showed a man in despair as opposed to what he really thought peace represented — a celebration.

The symbol’s first appearance in the 1958 march

The symbol started to gain more traction and was eventually brought to the United States, in the 60's, where it was adopted as the generic peace sign. Today, the internationally recognized peace symbol still remains the logo of the CND, but around the world it portrays a message of peace.

♥ The Heart

The heart shape did not always represent love and romance as it does today. While the exact origins of this extremely used symbol is not certain, there are a few theories.

One theory is that in 7th century B.C. the city-state of Cyrene grew a (now extinct) plant called silphium, which was used as a form of birth control. This plant was so valuable and lucrative to them that they minted coins that had the plant’s seedpod depicted on it. The symbol happened to look like the heart shape we know today.

Cyrene silphium seedpod coin

However it was during the Middle Ages that the heart symbol really took on its current meaning, when devout Christians began to add the symbol into art and literature as a representation of Jesus‘s love. This led to the heart symbol being used for the first Valentine’s Day in the 1600's.

@ The At Symbol

Today, the @ symbol is most popularly used in email addresses and more recently, to tag people on social networks. But the symbol has very old origins with religious references dating back to 1345 when it was used in place of the capital letter ‘A’ in the word Amen in a Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle.

The oldest known reference of the @ symbol

There are various instances throughout history on how the symbol developed, involving monks, merchants, Greeks and the French. Each of those instances essentially used the symbol as an abbreviation.

In 1971 the symbol was introduced by Ray Tomlinson as a way to connect programmers together, which actually was the start of email. He picked the @ symbol for its rare usage, and probably saved it from extinction.

♿ The International Symbol of Access

The International Symbol of Access (or the handicap / wheelchair symbol) was designed in 1968 by Danish design student Susanne Koefed. The original design featured an empty wheelchair which was widely promoted around Sweden that year. Later on, a circle was added on top of the wheelchair to make it look like someone was sitting in it, which clarified the symbol.

Original design (left), current design (right)

When the United States created the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), the symbol became adopted worldwide.

Recently, disability activists have been asking for a redesign of the symbol, as the wheelchair does not represent all disabilities.