creative juice

The history of icons

Image credit: David Hose

Icons have been around a long, long time. From ancient petroglyphs and hieroglyphs to the modern tech world, icons have always held a place of importance in our lives. Why is that? Because symbols can break through language barriers and can convey information immediately without using up so much visual real estate.

Allovus Studios Director Steve Godfrey noted that “Cave dwellers did great wildlife symbols that told stories. Aztecs had terrific graphic symbols that look good on T-shirts to this day. Monks with specialized skill sets created egg tempura masterpieces on bible pages that looked good, and kept the readers interested (I am told this job did not pay well, but the benefits were okay).”


In North America, the oldest known petroglyphs were discovered in Winnemucca Lake, a dry lake bed in Nevada. In 2013, researchers discovered the carvings and dated them to 14,800 to 10,500 years ago. The carvings depict both simple images such as straight lines and swirls and more complex petroglyphs that resemble trees, flowers, or leaves.


Ancient Egyptians used a complex hieroglyphic alphabet of up to 1,000 distinct characters to communicate in a written language. Hieroglyphs combined logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements and is impressive, especially considering they were first in use around 3200 BCE.

Time passed, and still, humans continued to use symbols to convey information. “From ‘Wanted’ posters in the old west to billboards that communicate in two seconds on the freeway, visual designers inform users of important matters,” Steve Godfrey said. “Think about the ‘men’s room’ or ‘women’s room’ icons on bathroom doors. Very important in every culture. The need for good design is understood.”

The information age

As we entered modern times, icons became an important part of the information age. Take a look at this stunning website, History of Icons created by Futuramo. The site will lead you through a visual brief on icon history through different graphical user interfaces in different operating systems. It’s really worth a look!

The Xerox company is credited with creating the first GUI (Graphical User Interface) in the early 1970s. According to the article A Brief History of the Origin of Computer Icons, “This GUI was applied to the Xerox Alto; a research computer that cost an incredible amount of money. Only around 2,000 of them were ever sold and as such, it wasn’t really a ‘consumer’ machine. However, the Xerox Alto would lend all its aspects to the Xerox Star which in 1981 became the first ever consumer release model to use icons. These icons such as trash cans, folders, and printers, have remained nearly unchanged all the way through to today.”

Today’s icon styles are ever evolving, as are the methods used to produce them. What are your predictions for the next trend in icon design?

The talented Allovus icon designers have been in the biz ever since our company was born and before that. If you’re looking for a team or an individual to create a new icon style or create icons within an existing style, visit our Allovus Studios page to read about our process.

Read about one of our icon experts, David Hose, in our article, “All things icon.”

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