Why are web browser logos all circular?

A thought suddenly occurred to me last week when I was attending a presentation at IWMW about HTML5 and friends. One of the slides contained the logos of the five major browsers. It suddenly occurred to me that they are all round!

Internet Explorer logo
Mozilla Firefox logo
Google Chrome logo
Safari logo
Opera logo
Netscape logo

It is almost as if the circle or sphere has, by stealth, become the standard shape of the web. Because of the sort of person I am, I began to wonder just why this is. After a while, I figured that it was because a circle, or something vaguely spherical, reminds us of a globe, symbolising the ‘world wide’ nature of the web.

None of the logos go out of their way to look like a globe though. The most globe-like is the Firefox logo, and even then it is a made-up map that is mostly obscured by the fox. The Safari logo also features, quite subliminally, part of a world map. But this takes a back seat to the compass.

As many will remember, a globe was a big feature of the Internet Explorer logo about ten years ago. It was the big ‘e’ that rotated to reveal a globe on the other side while a page was loading. But nowadays the only throwback to that is the yellow ring, which looks a bit like an orbital path.

Goodness knows what the Google Chrome logo is actually supposed to be (a gay pride pokéball?). But the spherical nature of it is quite a strong reminder of a globe.

I have been thinking lately about good visual metaphors for the web. I am not particularly keen on the image we currently use in the University of St Andrews web team for the avatar of our Twitter account @stawebteam. I think it looks too much like we are forcing Firefox down people’s throats. The question is how to differentiate our Twitter account from others that use the University crest.

WWW logoA spider’s web doesn’t work — it is cheesy, laboured and just a bit too obvious. The original world wide web logo (on the right), designed by Tim Berners-Lee’s co-conspirator Robert Cailliau, has not aged well and is not particularly versatile.

Maybe the answer is just to somehow adopt the sphere. What I wonder is if going spherical was a conscious decision on the part of the browser logos’ designers — and it is a sheer coincidence that they have all had the same idea. Or perhaps it is something that sits subconsciously in the back of a designer’s head when thinking about the world wide web.

An alternative theory is that the logos are designed not to look like a globe, but to look like the Internet Explorer logo! While having a look to see if anyone had spotted the trend for browser logos to be circular or spherical, I came across another blog post with more theories as to why.

In the comments there, momentum gathers behind the idea that the other browsers are following what Internet Explorer has done because it has become so ingrained in people’s minds that you click the circular logo to surf the web. I particularly like the first comment from Simon:

People got used to the idea that the icon that goes to the internet is the round, blue one, so other browser-makers followed suit with at least the shape.

In fact, looking at the logos again, I think it goes even further than the shape. Many of the logos feature blue prominently. Even Google Chrome’s multi-coloured logo places a blue sphere centre stage.

Perhaps this is the real reason why Opera has never quite got much of a foothold in the desktop browser market! Its logo is arguably the least spherical, and is the only one of the current major browsers that doesn’t feature any blue.

6 comments

  1. fwiw, the Nokia Symbian browser uses an actual globe as the logo, and tends to imply it’s a generic web logo, I’ve seen globes used in buttons and similar for links as well.

  2. Interesting thoughts! Never really considered it before. I’d go for the theory that it’s “World” based, rather than any sort of other meaning.

    It could be argued that both Open Office/Word have rectangular logos, to look like A4 pieces of paper.

    Great post though 🙂

  3. I assume it’s historical, from the days when the IE logo was a globe, and much in the same way everything in, say, Farmfoods, looks *quite like* a branded product in the hopes you won’t notice much of a difference, it was subtly incorporated by the newer browser’s branding.

    That said, looking at my taskbar right now, seven out of ten icons are circular (Thunderbird, Firefox, Spotify, Chrome, Compozer, iTunes, Imgburn), suggesting another reason – there’s only so much you can do to keep things clear and easily recognisable in 64×64 pixels, and a circle fits the bill nicely.

  4. i was just noticing the same thing and basically googled your exact headline, heh.

    I guess it to be the globe theory as well.