How Apple Borrowed iOS’s Hamburger Icon From Xerox PARC

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 6.18.07 PM

It’s no secret that Steve Jobs was inspired by the incredible work Xerox was doing over at PARC Labs when he came up with the Mac: he borrowed the computer mouse, the desktop, and even the Macintosh business plan from the famous tech think tank.

Now, it looks like we also owe the ubiquitous hamburger icon — widely used in iOS as a menu shortcut, as well as a way to order draggable lists — to Xerox PARC as well. It turns out that the first example of the hamburger icon shows up in a 1981 video for the Xerox Star workstation.

According to designer Norm Cox:

I designed that symbol many years ago as a “container” for contextual menu choices. It would be somewhat equivalent to the context menu we use today when clicking over objects with the right mouse button.

Its graphic design was meant to be very “road sign” simple, functionally memorable, and mimic the look of the resulting displayed menu list. With so few pixels to work with, it had to be very distinct, yet simple. I think we only had 16×16 pixels to render the image. (or possibly 13×13… can’t remember exactly).

Interesting inside joke… we used to tell potential users that the image was an “air vent” to keep the window cool. It usually got a chuckle, and made the mark much more memorable.

One of these days, mark my words, we’re going to find out that Xerox had a working smartwatch in production in their PARC labs.

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About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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