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.

  • Grunt_at_the_Point

    Now that’s what I call innovation.

    • Petar Živanić

      As fresh as your joke…

  • Ruben Martinez Jr.

    Hasn’t Google popularized the hamburger icon in Android more than Apple? I’ve been wrong before.

  • https://twitter.com/anttilk Antti Latva-Koivisto

    Hm, can you point out an iOS app by *Apple* that has the hamburger icon as a menu symbol? I couldn’t quickly find any either on my phone or in iOS Human Interface Guidelines for iOS 6 or 7. I think somebody else started using this as a menu symbol on mobile apps, not Apple.

    • Alex Zimmerman

      The only one I see is in Chrome for iOS….

  • stenro

    Maybe simplistic, but how about an explanation as to what the “hamburger” icon refers to. Many people will look and say the only hamburger is an emoji.

  • http://www.griffininteractive.net/ Jimbola

    Hi John, Sorry but I’ve got to call you out on this one. It was Facebook and Google who were first to introduce the Hamburger – it’s also on the Google Chrome browser.

    Can you please add a screen shot to this article showing where it’s used on the iOS menu, as you call it.

  • Guido Culasso Moore

    Como el pase del Negro Enrique a Maradona en el 86. Dejemonos de joder con Xerox PARC! Steve jobs fue un genio absoluto. Period aparte!

  • Frédérick Parent

    Sorry, but General Electric already had it in their 1959 TV sets ;-)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFKVbA8q5ls

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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