OS X Lion and Google+ Both Use Circles to Frame User Photos. Who’s Copying Who?


Google+ and OS X Lion both use circles for user photos

Have you noticed how Apple and Google have been going round in circles recently? Both OS X Lion and Google’s new Facebook challenger, Google+, sport circular frames around their user photos.

Admittedly it’s a minor detail, but it is interesting all the same. After all, it’s hardly an obvious thing to do. I can’t think of any system I’ve seen before that frames user photos in circles, and yet suddenly, two industry giants are releasing systems that do just that, within a space of a month of each other.

The connection between Google+ and OS X Lion goes further, of course, because Google has famously recruited Andy Hertzfeld, primary software architect of the original Macintosh, to design Google+. But Hertzfeld left Apple almost three decades ago, so clearly he didn’t take the secrets of the circle with him.

The circle motif makes sense in the context of Google+, where the metaphor is extended with the concept of a circle of friends. Equally, in Lion, AirDrop presents its circular user photos in a larger circle, similar to Google’s circle of friends, to illustrate other Macs available around your location. (See pics above).

So who actually stole the circle motif from whom? Or was it just an idea whose time had come? (Like the idea of adding a plus symbol onto the end of your logo, perhaps… hello Nike+). One thing is certain. Framing user photos in circles is a craze that is about to tip. Give it a couple of months and circular photos may be as ubiquitous as those cute reflections under logos that Apple helped to popularize ten years ago.

What do you guys think? Have you seen these circles before – maybe I’m missing something? Let us know in the comments.



Some commenters have suggested I’m getting the significance of circles out of proportion.

Perhaps. But just to be clear, I’m not simply talking about circles. I’m talking about the way in which circles are being used. Both Apple and Google have adopted them as part of their graphic language, to denote user profile pictures. It’s similar to the way in which Apple adopted round corners around a text field to denote a search box (see top-right of Safari, iTunes and almost every Apple app). The significance is not the rounded corners themselves, but when and how they’re used.

This kind of graphic language is very important – it’s far more than a minor aesthetic choice. For example, consider road signs – a circular road sign has a very specific meaning, which is quite different to an octagon or a diamond road sign.

Yes, it’s a small detail, but it’s attention to this kind of small detail that Apple excels at. That’s why their user interface design is legendary.

  • davidgoscinny

    Well the circles at the login screen and friend photos tend to look like some of the icons from the Mac OS X Dock (Mac App Store, Safari, iTunes, etc.) so they could be getting the inspiration from there.

  • tobi_8624

    this article made think about deleting cult of mac from my rss reader… seriously?

  • Delon_Holmes

    Do you really think its easy to code over night?

  • Edward Chamberlain

    am i the only person who read this thinking: its a fecking circle? get over it?

  • Tom McGrath

    They’re just circles?

  • Anon Developer

    Although I personally find this article ridiculous, Lion’s circle stuff has been around for quite some time, particularly AirShare.

  • JonathanRWegner

    They stole the photo in a circle from me, waaaay back from when Quark allowed one to place photos into non-rectangular frames.
    Is this an article an example of the author finding it hard to fill his quota of articles?

  • Collin Wynne

    I think that of a site uses a circle, it has been done before. No one is copying anyone, they are just working on 2 different things which actually have little to do with each other. Everyone steals from everyone. When something new is created, clones get built all of the time. It is normal and a good thing actually. When the ipod came out, MP3 player were everywhere… Gave us choice. Was the idea stolen? sure… So what. It is all about who makes the best product. Did Android Steal the App Store Idea? Yes… but there is a market for it and now people have real choice. Android vs Mac vs Windows Marketplace. Some actual choice instead of letting Apple App Store Rule the day.

  • neilmcd82

    Cult of Mac’s logo appears to contain a circle. They have both copied you!

  • Iscin

    Don’t be retarded and troll-like with you own tech blog.

  • Allan Cook

    Crop circles.

  • Robert Norris Hills

    Any of you calling this article retarded must be siding with Samsung in apples lawsuit regarding having “rounded” square icons. 

  • Ariel Isaac

    T-Mobile’s favorites (myfaves) had the motif circles long time ago… almost exactly to the Google+ circles. T-Mobile’s favs was the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw the Google+ circles.

  • tiresius

    Gee, and here I thought that it was a Lion (King) Circle of Life thing. 

     But I also agree with all of those who feel this is a NOTHING article.  Time for Cult of Mac to create sections, so we can avoid the pieces we really don’t give a damn about.  E.G.  New Game;  iPhone Rumors; Latest Lawsuit vs Apple; One Writer’s Review of Some Product; Real News; etc.

    BTW, the title should read “Who’s Copying Whom?”

  • Barton Lynch

    is this a joke?

  • grahambower

    Thanks for the bracing feedback guys :)
    Maybe the post was a little geeky. But I’ve updated to clarify, because I think some people missed that I wasn’t just talking about circles, the post is really more about graphic language.

  • 300AShareMakesMeSmile

    Apple stole that circle design.  Didn’t Google patent the circle already?  Apple should have used a triangle or a dodecahedron for innovation.  -1 for Lion.  Apple is definitely slacking off.

  • Morgan

    I think you’re overthinking it…

  • aramishero

    Are you stupid? Mac OS X Lion announced last year and already and Google+ just announced… Who stole who? Are you retarded?

  • aramishero

    This is absolutely stupid article… Cultofmac have no quality authors…

  • aramishero

    This is absolutely stupid article… Cultofmac have no quality authors…

  • Robert Mungo

    They’re both copying AT&T. I mean, look at the Circle of Friends that Google created. It’s OBVIOUSLY a Rotary Telephone dial.

    PS: This article is very very silly and I have now learned that I must avoid Cult Of Mac on the weekends, This is the second weekend in a row where I’ve read an article that immediately made me say “Ah, I’m dealing with the B team today.”

    I can understand about looking for themes in design. But seriously, I need more than they decided to put pictures in circles. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • Robert Mungo

    And Alltell had a version of this literally called “My Circle”!

  • crateish

    Doesn’t matter. Few will remember Google Buzz 2 in a few months.

  • justin

    aramishero, u r so right, i agree with u!

  • davester13

    Yes, I have seen faces in circles before Apple or Google seem to begun doing it.

  • nthnm

    You didn’t have an article idea for today did you?

  • bob

    They both stole the circle idea from me….. I have a circle right in the middle of my big fat arse. LOL

  • jody rideout

    I liked your article.  Something I hadn’t thought about and it wasn’t as much as a who copied who article as is was a note in the subtle shift that two large companies were making in their social/personal user interfaces.

    David Goscinny made a good point that the circles “tend to look like some of the icons from the Mac OS X Dock”.

    As for everyone commenting, really they read the article and even took the time to comment, so it couldn’t have been that “overthought” or uninteresting.

  • Jazam2010

    Wow I was talking to my friend about this a couple of years ago. The world would end once people say they’re copying shapes off other people. REGULAR SHAPES! Time to build that arch….

  • Iscin

    If this was Reddit I would downvote this worthless piece of crap jurnalizm into the depths of the abyss.

    Less retarded opinion pieces and more actual NEWS Cult of Mac, you are really trying your intelligent readerbase’s patience now.

  • jeanlouisnguyen

    Slow news day huh? And as far as circles go, I’m sure someone out there has a patent to it. That’s how broken the US patent system is.

  • Victor Thoft


    Apple used the circles before Google even had announced G+. End of story.

  • honkzilla

    I would suggest that Google’s use mimics the idea of a circle of friends, taken literally. Apple’s use may be because in a touch standpoint, which is where they seem to be taking everything, a circle fits a fingertip better than a square.

  • TylerHoj

    Geometric shape wars [Round 1]…ding ding ding!!!


    This just in, Windows, Chrome OS and OS X all use square window panes for their web browsers. More on this news at 11. 


    Samsung copied MORE than just rounded icons. Try phone shape, packaging and marketing. 

    Think before you type dude. 

  • Robert Pruitt

    I just wanted to say this is one of my top 5 favorite blogs.  The article does bring up a good point in identifying a recent design trend.  Admittedly, we have seen this trend before.  However; I think the re-emergance is noteworthy and worth reading a few paragraphs about.

  • oakdesk23

    If you got paid even a dime to write this, then I’m clearly in the wrong business.

  • oakdesk23

    FWIW Samsung uses a squircle which is different from a rounded square. However they didn’t invent it and certainly aren’t the first to use it. Zunes had a squircle button.

  • ctt1wbw

    Dodge is copying Ford because they both use circles as the basic shapes for the steering wheel.

  • Vito Meingold

    Hi Graham,
    Stylistic flourishes aid to distinguish one product from another, which forms one basis on which Apple is suing Samsung for infringement.

    The second “who” should be “whom” to read thusly: “Who’s Copying Whom?” This distinguishes the subject from the predicate. In your usage, there are two predicates, the conjecture being that the first “Who” is the same group of people as in the second “Who.”

    If you’re going to use “who” instead of “whom,” then it’s best to add a comma between “copying” and the second “who” but keep the question mark to emphatically indicate your surprise thusly: “Who’s Copying, Who?” In this usage, the second “who” is merely shorthand for “Who’s Copying?” used for emphasis as in “Who’s Copying, Who (did you say? No Way, Dude)?

  • netnerd258

    “Circle of friends” probably, it would seem like a “square peg in a round hole” if they use a circle of friends type of metaphor but then don’t extend the metaphor beyond having user photos in a circular grid, square pictures in a circular grid doesn’t look as good.

  • Ben Mankoff

    I actually thought this was a satirical article.  I kept waiting for the punchline, the call for a little bit of perspective in tech reporting.  It never came.

  • charlie edwards

    Must be going out of town for the 4th.  Just crap an article out and go see the family.  Awesome.

  • Robert Norris Hills

    Its still part and parcel of their lawsuit Rounded square icons and a rounded corners on their phone :-) Think before I type? I clearly did. Did you? 

  • Norman E Cash

    Google is one of the most unethical, power and information hungry companies ever. They steal other companies ideas… Read this:Scott Cleland is author of the new book “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” (Telescope Books)
    and this link to an article on my facebook page:

  • Norman E Cash

    Google is one of the most unethical, power and information hungry companies ever. They steal other companies ideas… Read this:Scott Cleland is author of the new book “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” (Telescope Books)
    and this link to an article on my facebook page:

  • Khrbt Zyd

    This article had a lot more to it then the tittle suggested. With Apple and Google both framing with circles – an innovative approach to the modern square picture frame – soon enough Facebook, Skype, and Windows will all use circles to frame people. It goes beyond just a shape, its creative innovation. 

    With the whole theme of circles, Apple isn’t only using it for framing faces. Circles are actually intergraded pretty well in OS X Lion. Including the OS X Lion logo.

    This is also Apple’s way of staying fresh. It’s like how the Setting sliders in iOS 5 changed from rectangles to ovals. Anyone using iOS 5 can tell you that it feels like you’re using an entirely new product just because of that little change in appearance.

  • Guest


  • KillianBell

    I think he was joking. Ever heard of sarcasm?

  • charlie edwards

    Happy 4th of July.  At lease society has moved past casting stones.  Although weaker persons seem to think that words hurt more.

  • CharliK

    Mountain out of molehill. This is likely not a detail of such detail that it could be considered trade dress so who cares that Apple released it to public view first (in their Lion preview) and Google could be seen as ‘copying it’. Or that they both ‘copied’ it from the phrase “circle of friends”

  • CharliK

    Don’t forget also that they copied some of the less than intuitive icons. A phone handset for phone is one thing but one isn’t stuck with only using a flower for your photo collection. Apple did it and then suddenly Samsung is going it. Course that goes back to who picks the icons. I suspect that they are not baked into Android or Samsung would have already filed to get that out of the suit cause they had no choice in the matter

  • Dean Lentini

    Didn’t T-Mobile do it first?…

  • Max Walker

    Well Apple moved to circles starting with their Mac App Store and new iTunes logos. And Google seemed to have been with circled for a while as well (Google Chrome logo). I do agree that it will be something that will ‘catch on’ in the design world, especially in new technology, but I reckon it’s just a coincidence. As Ariel Isaac says, many other companies use it, it’s simply a new UI tweak Apple have decided to adopt, and since its Apple, well it will without doubt have an impact on other companies. They are the UI and design ‘trend-setters’.

  • Un_FollowMe

    irrelevant article. 

  • changroy

    Poor Cult of Mac, this site has been getting bad comments lately, lots of it !

  • m_hardwick

    This is just the kind of sensationalist tripe I expect to see over at NeoWin.

  • joewaylo

    The login screen seems similar to Windows 7, except the logins of Windows is a round edged square and the background is a wave aero versus the Apple knit pattern used in iOS 4.

  • grahambower

    I had no idea this was going to be such a controversial post. I actually did consider writing “who’s coping whom,” which is of course grammatically correct, but it just sounded pedantic, and I preferred it in the vernacular for the headline in this instance. Choosing the vernacular is sometimes a legitimate stylistic device – for example, “think different.”

  • Nick Herbert

    you’ve got to be kidding me…