That icon does not mean what you think it means
January 20, 2015 10:34 AM   Subscribe

How did the magnifying glass and binoculars stop visually magnifying screen-rendered elements and come to prompt for search terms?

When I began doing development, I was using thick client apps with visual content. Intuitively, the magnifying glass meant - surprise - 'magnify'. That didn't last long. As we all see every day, a magnifying glass now is a search-term prompt.

For example, the Chrome uri box, is now a dual-purpose uri/search term box. And the iconography is to have the box decorated with a magnifying glass, favoring the search term functionality.

So how did mindshare for using the magnifying glass as a search term symbol (specifically as opposed to a 'magnify' symbol) arise. What application first popularized it? What user base made it's perpetuation inevitable?

Can someone with a long design background address this? We can all speculate but...
posted by j_curiouser to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Funny enough, I was just reading a long essay about this very topic: The Fascinating History of the Search Icon
posted by gwint at 10:38 AM on January 20, 2015 [14 favorites]


The magnifying glass is associated with Sherlock Holmes, and detective-work in general.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


FWIW, I think the magnifying glass is also still associated with zoom in/out. Even Chrome uses it when viewing an image directly.

That said, I think mobile conventions are reducing its utility, as zoom is now meant to be achieved via gesture (pinch/spread) as opposed to a click/tap.
posted by mkultra at 10:47 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the Mac side, Sherlock (1998) played its part, and Spotlight (2004) is Sherlock's descendent.
posted by holgate at 10:49 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Windows 95 start menu used a magnifying glass in its find/search icon back in 1995. That's not as early as the 1987 NeXT icon from gwint's link, but it may be the first example seen by the vast majority of computer users at the time.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:59 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Internet Explorer 2.0 (and later versions) also used a magnifying glass for its Search icon starting in 1995. (Its competitor Netscape Navigator used binoculars for its Find icon at the time.)
posted by mbrubeck at 11:12 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Via answers on StackExchange, the Apple Newton MessagePad (1993) and the Palm Pilot 1000 (1996) both had prominent "Find" buttons with magnifying glass icons.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:23 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I think the magnifying glass is also still associated with zoom in/out. Even Chrome uses it when viewing an image directly.

This is often clarified with a +/- in the center of the lens, indicating you are zooming in, as seen in this Esri GUI (source), while binoculars are used to indicate search (source) in another Esri product.

I think mobile conventions are reducing its utility, as zoom is now meant to be achieved via gesture (pinch/spread) as opposed to a click/tap.

Don't disregard the stickiness of icons, even when they are thoroughly dated.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


And I think the problem is that there isn't (in my mind) another icon that could replace the magnifying glass or binoculars to indicate "search" in such a simple form. To make this case, here's a Google image search for "search icon" and ~95% of the images are magnifying glasses, ~4.9% binoculars, and ~0.1% other things. But I challenge you to find anyone who would associate an eye with an arrow, a spiral bound book, or a "digital" globe with glowing circles with "search."
posted by filthy light thief at 11:41 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


hi filthy light thief - i'm very familiar with the esri 'magnifying glass' usage. i spend a lot of time in the arc products professionally. i'm just curious about the history of it. the background is, i was turning over the ubiquitous misuse of the term 'meme'. It got me wondering about other web-related distortions of meaning. like the 'floppy disk' save icon. So...origins and distortions is all...

I mean, search and rescue teams don't have magnifying glasses on their patches. There is no SQL verb called 'magnify'. File clerks don't 'magnify for a file'.

Terrific conversation and links so far ;-)
posted by j_curiouser at 2:08 PM on January 20, 2015


I'm guessing you're already familiar with the term, but you seem to be mostly mulling over the idea of skeuomorphism (with a side-dish of the old prescriptivist/descriptivist debate).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 4:05 PM on January 20, 2015


There are various ways to think about it: one would be the implied semantics, which is that searching a filesystem or on the web is seeking hidden answers, and taps into the metaphor of looking inwards to uncover more within a defined space rather than more expansively (binocular / telescope). I think that's an interesting development in the web's early history: the idea that it's contained within the browser instead of out there.

Another is that the magnifier is, well, iconic. It's an easy shape to render, easy to recognise, and works well at small sizes.
posted by holgate at 5:32 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


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