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I've been wondering why the symbol for 'record' is universally (AFAIK - has anyone seen exceptions?) a circle and usually red. Cameras, VCRs, voice recorders, smartphones, web apps... I've seen cases where even though other controls are just labelled with text, the record button still has a little red circle beside the label.

a sea of round red record buttons

I can make sense of most other playback controls: PLAY is an arrow pointing right, which tends to be 'forward' for LTR reading directions; PAUSE and STOP I'm a bit less sure of, but they feel like static, vertical roadblocks set up in contrast to the horizontal direction-ness of PLAY/FF/RW. My guess is that a circle represents writing to disk or something, but does anyone have actual sources about the design of playback controls?

P.S. My Google autocompletes 'why is the record button' with 'red' :V

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The best I could find is from symbols.com –  stackErr Jun 27 '13 at 13:04
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The "red" component seems obvious: you don't want to push it by mistake when you're reaching for another button, because the record-over operation is not reversible. The "round" component seems less obvious: to me, it suggests an indicator light, showing that recording is currently ongoing. I haven't found any historical physical devices to support that theory yet, but it's perhaps a worthwhile avenue of research. –  apsillers Jun 27 '13 at 13:26
    
To state something that may be obvious, the danger of the record button (because it erases existing information) is less relevant today, when most devices record to a newly created digital file. The convention was established before digital recorders were common. –  Keith Thompson Jun 29 '13 at 0:49
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9 Answers 9

The record button is round because of the triangle the square and the rectangles being already chosen for the play, rewind, forward, stop and pause buttons, and the need for an eye-catcher for security reasons, that is preventing critical information erasing.

When is applied, the red color is applied for the same reason.

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You have any sources for that? –  Grimace of Despair Jun 27 '13 at 12:46
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I would also assume this, but without sources, it could be just after-the-fact reasoning. –  Ilari Kajaste Jun 27 '13 at 13:23
    
This is the simplest and correct answer. I think everybody understands why red color is used for record (overwrite). The shape is used because colorblind people can't see red. –  Sulthan Jun 28 '13 at 9:40
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The symbol on each button was created with references to sheet music and inventor's background.

  • For example, the || in pause may come from the Japanese character リ and/or Caesura.

  • The media control UI were first introduced by Swedish Engineer Philip Olsson while he was working in Japan. He also had a degree from Swedish design school.

The glyphs were standardized by International Electrotechnical Commission in Geneva under IEC417 Graphical symbols for use on equipment

In early 20th century - Record was denoted by 3 wave lines in a ReVox.

revox recorder control UI A 1958 revox recorder

Today's standard Media Control convention as seen on a the Panasonic RX-5150 boombox (which is 2 decades old) RX-5150

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The answer is incomplete (why red? no specific reference for the circle and triangle for record and play) but I learned something new and you've got some awesome historic references in there. What irks me though is that the only other reference to Philip Olsson's role in this that I could find is an uncited line on Wikipedia. –  Koen Lageveen Jun 27 '13 at 10:15
    
I was replying to the OP's "AFAIK - has anyone seen exceptions?" part of the post. The origin of Media control's design & background is currently not in my knowledge pool :P I'm actually waiting for someone to post the reply. +1 fav this Question. –  Rayraegah Jun 27 '13 at 10:20
    
The arrows usually indicated the direction in which the play head spins (back in the day we had magnetic tapes). ">" was play - clockwise direction and normal speed. "<<" rewind - counterclockwise twice the speed. Funny thing is when you "record" 2 heads press down on the tape (at-least in my vintage Panasonic), and the head spins in an unsual speed, which is a little slower than normal, everything that was in the mic range was recorded. My guess is - Red O or 0 meant the replacement of data in the tape (with warning) or just "Silence fools, Miracle in progress..." I suspect BRS influence. –  Rayraegah Jun 27 '13 at 10:55
    
Also, the buttons had colors assigned to them on most cassette players, Play - Green/black, Pause - Yellow, Eject - Blue, Record - Red. Rewind and Fast Forward usually had the same colors as play or just black. –  Rayraegah Jun 27 '13 at 11:01
    
"which is 3 decades old" - That's 'new technology" (soft touch controls, one touch record, tape search and Metal tape compatability !) - See my Phillips image for how things started out :-) –  PhillipW Jun 27 '13 at 11:15
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I suspect it follows the development of machines to play compact cassettes (which were developed by Phillips).

Wikipedia says that this was the first player that Phillips released to play the tapes

Philips also released the Norelco Carry-Corder 150 recorder/player in the U.S. in November 1964.

Here it is: and it has a round red record button.

enter image description here

http://www.shizaudio.ru/audio/data/media/32/86866a_2.jpg

The red colour is logically a warning colour - as pressing record overwrites what you've already got on the tape !

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Ads from the pre-Internet era always make me feel nostalgic. "Circle 51 on reader-service card" - who does that anymore? –  LeopardSkinPillBoxHat Jun 27 '13 at 22:23
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I can partly answer about the colour, but not about the round shape. Colour has culture-specific meaning, and red varies from happiness (in China) to death (in Egypt).

I assume that most European, American, and Japanese manufacturers used and standardised red according to their notion of red meaning danger. Also, because their customers would probably make this association, as these were the profitable markets when recorders were first made, unlike nowadays.

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Excellent answers so far.

I would attempt to connect the dots between recording and red button like this:

Apart from the traditional warning usage, a red light has been used in many scenarios to represent on-going work - radio show room when on air, operation theater when operation is going on, etc. The reason behind that would be the same - it is highly noticeable in the human visible color field. It acts as a signal to someone who might not be aware of what is going on, to prevent them from interrupting the process. This is highly desirable when you are recording something. And it can be easily used in social context: Rather than 'telling' someone that you are recording and they should not make a sound, you can just point to the red dot on your microphone/recorder and they would understand the situation. I have even seen some microphones with a small red indicator on when the device is on.

As far as the button's shape goes, I do not think it has that much history in it apart from a couple trend setters. But, a good explanation would be: All the other controls on a radio/cassette player were rectangular in shape. The record button demanded some extra affordance so that it was not accidentally pressed (overwriting something which you wanted to hear!). A couple options are: give it a different shape - circular button - and highlight it - red color. In many cases you would see just the red color being used (or even just the red symbol on a regular button).

Image of an old cassette player with big red record button next to other black buttons

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+1 this was pretty much the answer I was going to post, if you didn't beat me to the punch! =) Red diods on video cameras, tape recorders etc. is definitely the source for this icon. –  AndroidHustle Jun 27 '13 at 13:23
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This is absolutely the correct reason. –  gingerbreadboy Jun 27 '13 at 14:14
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I agree with the association of the red button with the red recording light. You can see this association take place in successive generations of TEAC equipment. Take a look at the Ampex 300 from 1949. The red light on the left is adjacent to the record button immediately to its right. Now look at the TEAC TD-105, made in the 1950s(?). The record light and the button are still adjacent and the record button is red. –  user1757436 Jun 27 '13 at 16:52
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On the tape recorders like the one shown above, the red button was an indicator of the button's function but it was not the only aspect of the design for preventing accidental recording. You had to press Record and Play simultaneously to start recording. If you pressed Record only, the button would return to its regular position. –  user1757436 Jun 27 '13 at 16:56
    
@user1757436 Yeah, I remember the 'Rec+Play' combo on my old casette players. And the weirdest part was, you had to use a third button (stop) to end it ;) –  rk. Jun 27 '13 at 16:58
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I assume it comes from the "ON AIR" broadcasting signs, which would traditionally have a red light to indicate that the studio was recording.

I assume that other recording items then had a red light, since the "ON AIR" sign would be overkill for a small device.

Eventually, the idea of a light to indicate recording would be too expensive, especially in an era before LEDs, and so the red light was replaced with an iconographic representation - a red circle.

enter image description here

Source: Totally making this up as I go along.

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The usage certainly pre-dates cassette tape recorders. Dieter Rams reel-to-reel tape recorder the TH 60 of 1965 had a red circle on the record button.

http://www.formguide.de/en/designers/overview/dieter-rams/

I don't know if it was established before then.

A possibility is that in the days preceding tape recorders, there were wire recorders. And as a primitive equivalent of the VU-Meter, they used a neon bulb, which would flicker when the recording level was right. Too low and the neon wouldn't come on. Too high, and it would be solidly on. And Neon bulbs were red. So a red circle could have become associated with recording that way.

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I think the circular association with a light, and specifically a light bulb is likely the answer, but that's only my intuition. Some actual historical references would be very interesting. –  chaiguy Jun 27 '13 at 20:51
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Another reason could be that red color is easy to spot. You can distinguish red from a crowd of other colors easily. Same case with green. Our eyes are more sensitive to green than any other color and that is why greenery is soothing to our eyes. So all the important buttons come in either green or red and the button with which we should be more cautious with comes in the red color.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eyesensitivity.svg

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Can you provide references to the sensitivity towards green being highest comment? –  rk. Jun 28 '13 at 18:36
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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eyesensitivity.svg and accompanying article on Color vision. –  Jessica Yang Jul 1 '13 at 1:06
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is it not also a great example of consistent UI across physical products, a level of consistency that those manufacturing computer software, hardware and designing for the web could actually learn a lot from.

i.e. once a few products set the standard is has then been adhered too across pretty much all products so that the user knows what will happen when they press the round, red button

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protected by Ben Brocka Jun 27 '13 at 13:08

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