The Origin of The Apple Command Icon

By Norman Chan

It's actually a castle.

I love stories about icon design. And who better to tell them than the first pixel icon artist, Susan Kare. The prolific designer has created innumerable icons for companies like Facebook and Microsoft, but may be best known as the graphic designer on the original Mac team. Kare created the icons that are forever associated not only with Mac OS (think of the smiling Mac icon and the trashcan) but also icons that have become canon in application UI (the floppy disk for saving comes to mind, as well as the MacPaint tool icons in design apps). Like Jamie, Kare was also at this year's E.G. Conference in Monterey to give a talk recounting her career (video embedded below). The stories Kare shares in her talk are fascinating--from how she sketched out pixel art on notepads before there were any image-editing programs to how she designed the playing cards in Windows Solitaire. The story I liked the most was about the origin of the Apple command key.

Photo credit: Flickr user jDevaun via Creative Commons

It's a story shared before by Macintosh development team member Andy Hertzfeld on his Folklore website. According to both Hertzfeld and Kare, the Apple key had to be changed from a pixelated version of the Apple logo when Steve Jobs saw it in a MacDraw menu listing. The mandate to find a difference command key symbol lead Kare to browse through her reference books, eventually finding the now-familiar symbol in an international symbol dictionary. Its origin: Sweden.

In Sweden, the Apple menu command symbol is actually used in street signs to indicate a point of interest or attraction in a campground. Here's an example from the traffic sign found on Flickr.

Photo credit: Flickr user amikeal via Creative Commons

The story could have stopped there, but Kare goes one step further to uncover the what that symbol actually represents. One theory is that the floral-like symbol is a cloverleaf, while another is that it represents a road intersection, much like a highway junction. The most likely answer, however, came from a fan who sent Kare a photo of a landmark in Sweden: the ruins of a castle in Borgholm. The fortress, as seen from above, looks just like the Point of Interest symbol:

Mystery solved, and another bit of interesting design history come to light. Watch Susan Kare's full talk on her career and obsession with icon design here: