The Origin of Everyday Icons in Your Apartment

When rushing through our day, we often don’t stop to think where the icons around us come from.

What’s an icon?

Icons are fundamentally a visual symbol representing something else.

Icons physically look like the item or action they are trying to represent.

Power Icon

Symbol of power on a remote. Excuse the dust!

Where: On any device that runs on electricity.

Meaning: On /Off

History: The power button comes from two separate symbols, “0” and “1" in the binary system.

The binary system is a system often associated with the use of computers. It only has two numbers, 0 and 1, as opposed to our normal 10 count number system.

In the binary system, “0” represents zero current going through the system. “1” represents the electric current going through the system.

A switch where O indicates “Off” and I indicates “On”. (from ​English Wikipedia user Firstfreddy)

Around WWII, people started to use O and I to indicate “on” and “off” on switches like the one above.¹

When we moved to devices that used the same button to turn a device on or off, these symbols were combined to what is now known as the power button.

Plus and Minus Icon

Where: Too many places to list here. Anything needing adjustment higher or lower, such as volume, temperature, distance, etc.

+ Meaning: addition, more

- Meaning: subtraction, less

History: In early 15th century Europe, the letters “p̄” and “m̄” were used to indicate “plus” and “minus.”

These were then further simplified. The + sign is a simplification of the Latin et.

The − sign’s origin is less know. It may be from the shorthand version of the letter m or may be from the tilde written over the “m̄.”

In 1557 a British man named Robert Recorde introduced the plus and minus sign to Britain in The Whetstone of Witte: “There be other 2 signes in often use of which the first is made thus + and betokeneth more: the other is thus made — and betokeneth lesse.”²

Light Icon

Where: Often near a light switch in appliances, vehicles, etc.

Meaning: Turn light on or off, intelligence, idea, invention.

History: To be honest, my research has uncovered nothing. If you have any idea when the icon was first created, leave a comment!

Those Mysterious Icons on Your Clothing Tag

Tag from a piece of clothing.

Where: Every piece of clothing you own.

Meaning: Laundry care icons representing how to wash clothes. Left to right:

  • Washing cycle icon: Machine wash at max water temperature of 30 Celsius on permanent press or delicate cycle.
  • Bleaching icon: Use non-chlorine bleach.
  • Drying temp icon: Low heat.
  • Iron icon: iron low.
  • Dry clean icon: Do not dry clean.

History: In Europe, laundry care symbols were created as part of the International Organization for Standardization. In the U.S. the ASTM symbols, similar to the ISO, was created.

According to GINETEX Switzerland, the Swiss Association for textile labeling, the symbols were standardized in 1963 and originally from Switzerland.

In the early 1960s, the production of new washing and drying machines and synthetic fibers grew, along with international trade. A language understood across the world was needed to communicate proper care of the clothing.

To resolve the issue, GINETEX was established in Paris. There they created the care symbols needed and registered them as trademarks.³

Icons Everywhere!

Take a look around. What icons do you see in your own home that you come across everyday?

Where do you think they came from?



Storyteller and UX Designer