What is the reason arrows are interpreted as direction? Is this a cultural thing or is there something profoundly intuitive to it?

  • 21
    A circle would certainly not be very effective.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 20:49
  • What else could you use? any point based symbol (like a dot) has no indication of directionality, I guess you could use a line with a base, like some arrows: |-- instead of --> (or even |-->) but beyond that, nothing really comes to mind
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 9:25
  • 4
    You could use a "Hand"-symbol. Maybe an arrow is just an abstracted, simplified hand.
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 12:21
  • Because an arrow points. In a direction.
    – Stephen
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 19:26
  • 1
    Because they Point in a particular direction. --> See? <--
    – jay_t55
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 9:05

8 Answers 8


Arrows have been an indicator of direction for so long that it's hard to say for sure, but my guess would be that an arrow fired from a bow only has one direction it can go, lending ease of communication when direction is needed. And since bow & arrows have been around long enough, and in practically every culture it has basically become universal.

There is a pretty decent article on the history of the symbol on UX Matters but it doesn't delve too deeply into the ancient history of the symbol, more focusing on current usage and trends.

  • 14
    also the barbed nature of arrowheads means they go in, but not out.
    – bkr
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 0:29

Is the arrow symbol truly universal?

The United States launched two spacecraft in 1972 and 1973 with a message for any alien species that might encounter them. The message was specifically designed to be universally interpretable. It built up it's own number system from scratch using the fundamental properties of the Hydrogen atom. The goal was to communicate where Earth was in the universe and what sort of life humans are. There was one symbol, however, that was criticized for being too human-centric: the arrow.

enter image description here

I would say that the arrow is indeed a cultural thing and only makes sense in a hunter/gatherer mindset. Anyone who has hunted or benefited from a hunt understands the importance of focusing on a target with a long straight pointy object. Arrows, as a hunting tool, are only effective in a single direction and usually have a single target so it's easy to see why they would eventually play a role in other forms of communication.

Some cultures even point using their middle finger which mimics the shape of an arrow:

A pointing finger indicates direction ('It's over there'). For a long distance, the finger may be pointed diagonally upwards, as if firing an arrow. The index finger is usually used, though the middle finger or even all fingers may be used.

The thumb may be used as a pointer to something being jerked over the shoulder.

People who are angry tend to point more, including at themselves (when they feel hurt or insulted) and at those who they feel are to blame.

Pointing, especially at other people, can be particularly rude in a number of cultures.

In some cultures the thumb is a phallic symbol and giving a 'thumbs up' signal says 'I want to have sex with you.' or may just be a rude insult. This can cause a lot of confusion between people from the Orient and the Occident.

How old is the arrow?

The Smithsonian Institute places the first arrows at around 71,000 years ago!

enter image description here

When was the first recorded drawing of an arrow?

The drawing below dates between 2,000 and 4,000 BC and although people were probably using arrows to indicate direction before then it's the earliest written form I could find.

enter image description here

In conclusion...

Anyone reading this post (on planet Earth) can be traced back to a period where hunting meant survival. Consequently, the arrow became a universally understood symbol by anyone who has ever benefited from a bow and arrow hunt. Which may or may not include aliens...

☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬ ☬

enter image description here

  • 18
    I'd suggest that until we actually encounter aliens, the arrow could be considered universal. At least, the amount of aliens we need to design for is so limited that the usage case is not worth considering currently.
    – aslum
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 23:56
  • @aslum -- I want to believe! -- :)
    – DaveAlger
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 13:58
  • 3
    Alternatively, if aliens ARE around and have infiltrated our society, they've done such a good job blending in that even if we did try design things would be better for them, they would use it like humans to avoid blowing their cover. Maybe that's how we'll find them, build some UIs w/ aliens in mind...
    – aslum
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 19:10

Just to offer an alternative hypothesis, the fact that the basic shape is two lines converging on a single point, might have something to do with perspective:

enter image description here

In this case the sense of direction is created by our very own direction. There may not have been very many highways in paleolithic Africa, but the plains may well have had some similar features. At the very least, simple roads existed by the time symbols began to emerge.

I don't expect this was a conscious choice in any way, but since our visual cortex is fine-tuned for observing just these kind of depth cues, to help us reconstruct a 3D world from a 2D signal (cf the Ponzo illusion), it may help to explain why the arrow evokes such a strong sense of direction.

Addendum Some examples our ancestors might have come across:

Wavy dunes Footprints Beach

I'm cherry picking here, and searching for evidence to fit a hypothesis, so take it for what it's worth. The footprints are particularly notable, I think, because early man would hunt by stalking animals, so following footprints is a key survival skill, and an important indicator of direction.

  • 5
    That's a compelling hypothesis, but perhaps you could avoid the chicken-egg paradox (road-arrow) by finding a picture of a suitably straight river or other natural formation. Rivers were the earliest thoroughfares, after all.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 18:16
  • That's a good point, but I'm not sure that rivers usually that straight. Also, early man wouldn't often find himself in the middle of a river I expect. I think I'll just have to accept it as a weakness of the hypothesis. Still, you get converging lines even without a road... I'll try and find an example.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 23:07
  • you get converging lines even without a road agreed. You could easily get the effect of a river converging to a single point by standing on the bank. Straight lines do occur in nature, just not as frequently as with manufactured things. Also, spears are simpler weapons than bow+arrow with all the same pointing characteristics. You can witness a perspective convergence by exaggerating it, looking down the long dimension of any roughly straight and narrow object (e.g. a stick, spear or arrow shaft).
    – Patrick M
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 23:20
  • 1
    if paleolithic cultures would have realized the converging line thingy, I'd expect proper perspective to appear much earlier in art then it did. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 7:05
  • 1
    @DA01 Ancient arrows looked more like teardrops than converging lines. You need some pretty advanced metallurgy to create those to thin barbs and actually make them strong enough. I'm not saying ancient humans were referencing something. I'm saying converging lines are a depth cue, which is why our brain associates them with direction, which is why the arrow symbol works. In this view, the symbol wasn't really consciously designed: it emerged because it works.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 18:59

I think the Arrow symbol is pretty universal, even without spears or perspective.

Easy task: Specify a certain point / direction with colour on a wall. If you just paint a Dot it is hardly visible. A line may provide direction, but is ambiguous as it points in two directions. The best way to explicitly point to one direction/think is having multiple lines, which point to the same target, so two or three lines converging in a single Point will specify a direction.

If I use colour to paint, I will also have a thick base where I start painting and result in a small pointy edge where I finish - this will also have a shape which reminds of a broad arrow: I believe an abstract arrow shape could easily have developed from these crude pre-forms of pointing forms.

crude pointers

  • 3
    This is a nice approach from first principles, but I think you should distinguish between a point and a direction. For a point, two lines in a cross is probably more natural, while for a direction, two converging lines is the simplest way to do it.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 11:09
  • 2
    Agree with @Falco here. The key to indicating direction in this symbol isn't the "arrow", it's the chevron which forms the arrow's head. Its shaft is a later addition.
    – keshlam
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 23:40

The arrow predates recorded history.

enter image description here

Physically, arrows go in one direction--the direction of the point at the end.

A drawn arrow is a representation of a physical arrow. It's an object that has been known to mankind for most all of human history. Most people would intuit the direction from the pictogram.


What are the reason arrows are interpreted as direction? Is this a cultural thing or is there something profoundly intuitive to it?

I think it’s actually both so the answer is two fold:

Arrow - Intuitiveness

Intuitiveness is directly linked to affordance or rather perceived affordance.

Norman thus defines an affordance as something of both actual and perceived properties. The affordance of a ball is both its round shape, physical material, bouncability, etc. (its actual properties) as well as the perceived suggestion as to how the ball should be used (its perceived properties). When actual and perceived properties are combined, an affordance emerges as a relationship that holds between the object and the individual that is acting on the object (Norman 1999).

So how did the arrow come to exist?

We could safely assume that in a hunter-gatherer society the use of objects based on their actionable properties would have been an essential survival skill. Stone blades are a case in point here as their actionable properties lend them to a number of uses: If we are to describe these properties, these blades will acquire a number of adjectives such as penetrating, piercing, sharp etc. that of course goes to reinforce its possible usage for example carving, hunting etc

At some point in the evolution humans were able to combine objects based on their inherent actionable properties to create tools, and through usage these tools became culturally embedded. The arrow is a prime example of such a tool; stone blade as an arrow tip combined with a shaft (light weight wood) and feathers to help to pull the arrow into line and increase accuracy of the projectile.

So affordances help shape everything that goes into an arrow, the same of course applies to the bow created from bendable wood and animal guts to provide elasticity. so all what's left for the arrow is to find its target!

While affordances help shape tools the representations of these tools is a matter for semiotics, which brings us to culture.

Arrow- Culture

We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans - meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of 'signs'. Indeed, according to Peirce, 'we think only in signs' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. 'Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign'

enter image description here

According to Pierce: signs are divided into three categories, indexical, iconic and symbolic, these categories are based upon the relationship between the signs and the objects they refers to.

The index, literally meaning “to point out or to indicate” has a direct relationship to the object it refers to; for example footprints on a sandy beach or smoke emanating from fire.

The icon is a sign which preserves resemblance yet has no direct connection to its object of which common examples are most of road signals as well as computer icons, these are visual re-presentations.

Finally, the symbol is the most abstract of these Signs as it is arbitrary and based on a convention of use such as languages (although some languages are iconic). Symbols are also re-presentations.

The arrow acquired significance and meaning because of its inherent properties which are (related to the index), historical usage and most importantly from symbolism attached to it through representations that are either iconic or symbolic. For example :

Native American Indians were a deeply spiritual people and they communicated their history, thoughts, ideas and dreams from generation to generation through Symbols and Signs such as the Arrow symbol.

enter image description here

Arrows also signified direction, force, movement, power and direction of travel.

  • I really like the point about affordance. Consider this: once you associate an arrow with direction, there's really only one direction it can indicate. Use it the other way around, and it's a very vague and ambiguous indicator. This may not be why the original 'designers' drew it that way, but it's a clue as to why it worked.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 19:53
  • @Peter you are spot-on. Affordances are actually signs and are perceived as such. so when you say "the fact that the basic shape is two lines converging on a single point" you are actually describing an affordance.
    – Okavango
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:08

Visually, the tapering form of an arrow also justifies its use to indicate direction since the visual asymmetry interests and guides the viewer's gaze along itself. The biggest thing in common between arrows represented like this →, ▶, ➢, or much more abstract shapes is the taper. Why does the human eye naturally respond to this particular asymmetry/taper by following it as opposed to looking away from it? That may be a question more suitable for biologists and neuropsychologists to answer.

Circles, on the other hand, have no beginning or end and hence no direction to follow: they may be points of interest in themselves but will guide the gaze to a stop, not conduct it further. Lines without arrows have a beginning and an end--but which is which is up to you to decide, if at all. As such, they are visually direction-agnostic. They demarcate space/length without favoring any particular direction.

  • In some very informal tests I've conducted, I've noticed animals (or at least cats) don't seem to understand pointing at all. :P I know there are dog breeds that do point by arching their body similar to the tapering shape of an arrow, but I don't know if that behavior developed specifically to be "human-readable". I know dogs also tend to respond to the pointing gesture. Another behavior picked up as part of domestication? In all seriousness, I have never seen dogs point things out to each other. Is this different for primates, who have fingers and sophisticated socializing similar to humans? Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 18:55
  • 1
    Dogs have actually learned from us or rather learned us due to the long domestication history, for example dogs know how to read our emotions by looking at the right side of our face. Not sure if understanding pointing gestures is part of their " repertoire" but their is considerable research that suggests that we have underestimated their intelligence :)
    – Okavango
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 19:32
  • Thank you! I did suspect that...though apparently, cats have either not been affected by their long association with us or they choose to disregard the vast majority of our attempts to communicate with them. :P Do primates use the pointing gesture though? That might give a lot of clues as to the how or why humans started using it. Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:03
  • 1
    you will probably be interested in reading this "Dogs succeed while chimps fail at following finger pointing: Chimpanzees have difficulty identifying object of interest based on gestures" > sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120208180251.htm
    – Okavango
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:18
  • That is fascinating. The article links to a few more that are equally compelling: apparently ravens (sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111129112319.htm) and elephants (sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131010124559.htm) DO use pointing as a gesture to direct attention towards something without even being trained to do so. Ravens and elephants, not exactly the first animals you think of when hear "domesticated". I'm even more intrigued. Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 21:29

Further to this, it can be surmised that direction could be interpreted from the drawing of a line in a particular direction (the action of drawing the line from East to West for example indicates "to the West"), BUT once the action of drawing the line is complete, there is no way to indicate what direction the line was originally representing (say to a later party who saw the drawn line), and therefore movement needed to be "captured" in the image.

As many people have already stated the reasons for an arrowhead come from the fact that arrows are likely the earliest understanding of "something that can only go in one direction" and so were used.

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