The search icon: magnifying glass history, Sherlock Holmes

The search icon: magnifying glass history, Sherlock Holmes

The Search icon with the magnifying glass seems so familiar nowadays: almost every interface, every computer or web browser, and mobile device have it. However, have you ever thought of why and how it became the ultimate symbol of search? Does Sherlock Holmes have something to do with it? Read on to discover the curious and surprising story behind the search icon.

Search Icon: Does Sherlock Holmes have something to do with it?

Wherever we go in the digital world, if we need to find something, we automatically look for this common symbol – the magnifying glass. Every website, browser, or social network has it on its interface. Sometimes it is also used as a zoom tool to see something closer, which rhymes very well with the image of a detective, like Sherlock Holmes, looking for details and pieces of evidence. However, not everything has a reason.

The search icon represented as a magnifying glass was created by interface designer Keith Ohlfs. He worked as a designer and illustrator for NeXT company founded by Steve Jobs after he left Apple. Ohlfs was responsible for the NeXT Workspace Manager interface, the central part of the NeXTSTEP operating system.

NeXTSTEP
© NeXTSTEP

“We used the magnifying glass in a few places… In the case of the ColorPicker, the functionality defined the use of the icon, as you move the magnifying glass around the screen to “zoom” the pixels so you can see the colors you have to choose from. For the other two cases, I think it was more trying to equate the magnifying glass with “finding a needle in a haystack”, and for that metaphor, a magnifier would be more useful than say, a pair of binoculars, a librarian, or a telescope. Plus, I killed three birds with one stone and actually got some sleep that night”,– says Keith Olhfs.

After that, the trend was caught on by Apple’s Newton OS and Palm OS, operating systems for handheld computers. Next, it was Windows 95 and Mac OS 9, who also used this symbol. Funny, but there were also binoculars, flashlight icons for earlier Netscape Navigator browsers, and even the famous Sherlock Holmes hat symbol from Mac OS 8.5, which also have lost out to the magnifying glass.

Mac OS 8.5
© Mac OS 8.5