Who Designed the Hamburger Icon?

The hamburger icon is a classic. Even if you don't know it by that name, its three black bars are as familiar as your mouse's cursor—a constant companion on your cyber journey since the day you got your first computer. But who designed this icon?

The hamburger is one of those UI features that's so old, so ubiquitous, that it seems author-less. But someone designed this little visual nugget, and software designer Geoff Alday recently set out to discover who. In a blog post yesterday, he described what he found.

It turns out that the burger comes from the Xerox "Star" personal workstation, one of the earliest graphical user interfaces. Its designer, Norm Cox, was responsible for the entire system's interface—including the icons that would effectively communicate functionality to the earliest computer users. The hamburger, which looks like a list, seemed like a good way to remind users of a menu list. Skip to about 21:05 in the following video to see an explanation:

Intrigued, Alday reached out to Cox, who now owns his own UX and UI company, to find out more. Here's how Cox responded:

You've done your homework and found the right guy. 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 16x16 pixels to render the image. (or possibly 13x13... 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.

It's been nice to see that so many of our designs from those early pioneering years have stood the test of time and become ubiquitous symbols in our UI's.

I wonder if Cox could have imagined that his icon would become as familiar as a stop sign, as a young designers in the early 1980s. Thanks to Alday, we can now add the hamburger to a growing list of historic UI mysteries solved. Previously: the mouse arrow, the broken image icon, and the pan hand. [Evernote]