Symbolizing undo

Paul Zablosky Paul.Zablosky at ubc.ca
Wed Aug 27 00:09:24 UTC 2008


After Eli's challenge this morning for someone to come up with an undo 
icon, I did a bit of hunting around to see if I could find something 
better than a semi-circular arrow.  A search for "undo icon" turned up 
hundreds of examples, but they were pretty well all just different 
renditions of the arrow, always pointing in a counter-clockwise direction.

 The OED was not much help, although it does tell us that the word 
"undo", with the meaning of /"To reverse the doing or making of (some 
material thing or effect) so as to restore the original form or 
condition" /goes back to 1426 -- so it's not a recent concept. 

I tried to think of metaphors for "undoing" something.  A common 
metaphor for progress is time moving forward, so a clock running 
backwards is a sensible image to convey retrograde motion, but I don't 
think it would work as a symbol.  It turns out that the notion of 
counter-clockwise motion is historically linked to regress (see the word 
"widdershins"), so this explains somewhat the origin of a 
counter-clockwise pointing arrow for undo, and a clockwise arrow for redo.

I agree with Daphne that it's worth looking for something better, but 
all the images I can think of are too complex:

    * unlaying of bricks
    * unspilling of paint -- back into the bucket
    * a vehicle backing out of a wrong turn
    * untying of a knot

Anyone else have ideas about this?  

Paul
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