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Early Play and Record icons

September 21, 2006 | Comment?

A new reader, Matt, asked me about who invented the standard Play, Pause, etc. icons and I surprised myself that I haven’t touched on it yet. So here goes.

I’m fascinated by the history of our standard media icons, as I bet a few of you are too. They add a significant story to the history of the button. Icons and buttons go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The standard media transport buttons we have today are Play, Pause, Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop and Record. All six evolved from the previous generations of tape-based recording devices: cassettes, reel-to-reels, dictaphones. When audio went digital and the concept of a “track” was born, we also added Previous and Next.

These functions didn’t always have the standard icons as we know them today. Buttons had labels that were simple words. Then buttons got smaller, too small to fit words. Clever product designers began using symbols to indicate tape movement, eventually evolving into the icons we know today. But like all evolutions, the road to stabilization was funky.

For example, here are the media controls for a Revox C36 reel-to-reel recorder from 1958.

1958 Revox C36 reel-to-reel

(This reel-to-reel is happy to meet all your home recording needs.)
1958 Revox C36 reel-to-reel

Not quite the icons you expect! Yet you can probably figure out what the left three are, and then figure out the one on the right by process of elimination. From left to right are Rewind, Fast Forward, Play, Stop, Record.

Rewind and Fast Forward at this early stage are using the same essential iconic language we still use today. More arrows means it goes faster, with direction. I wonder if these product designers read comics. Could our icons for transport controls have evolved from the comic arrows that indicate movement? I need to re-read Understanding Comics.

Play is beautiful. “Music goes this way.”

Stop. Did they just run out of ideas? How can you really iconize Stop? In a visual language that uses movement to convey what’s happening, Stop is the absence of movement. No arrow? A big hand stopping you? A red octagon? They gave up and just used the word.

Record. How does three wavy lines mean Record? Well, it’s no worse than a red circle.

As we’ll see over the coming weeks, there was a lot of icon churn before our beloved media icons standardized to what we know today.

Plus, the Pause icon wasn’t born yet. Who invented that?

(Nope, I don’t own this recorder. These images came from the fantastic Get Reel CD collections of vintage tape recorders.)

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