Look at your cursor.


What's the purpose of its tail—the small rectangular portion at the bottom-right? To me, it follows that it would be equally useful without a tail. I can certainly see why its designers would choose a triangle-shaped body, but decision to tack on a tail remains an enigma to me.

  • There' s a long and interesting history of how the cursor was developed. Much of it, if I remember correctly, had to do with the limitations of early monitors.
    – Mayo
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:55
  • 33
    because Paramont would sue for infringing Star Trek's copyright. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 7:48
  • 1
    I did. It looks like this one: i.imgur.com/kecHpfR.jpg (first image I could find, mine is in HD). I am using it since the 90s.
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 8:53
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    Somewhat related, you'll notice many video games do have cursors that is just triangular, or just the arrowhead.
    – Sidney
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 14:50
  • 1
    If the mouse is set up is too fast you don't see the mouse at all during movement. If someone is just shaking the mouse (they do) there is a visual feedback.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 18:01

4 Answers 4


To add to DA01's great answer, here's the history of cursor arrow.

The link also links to a well known document from Xerox with further explanation, from which I took the image below.

Quadrature Encoding of Pointer Motion on a Bitmap Display System

However, this document doesn't explain the reason behind the tail. This being said, the reasons for tilting explain why tilting was needed. Now I'll take the same image and take the tail out:

enter image description here

OK, now, where is the arrow pointing at? Keep in mind this was used in low resolution screens with bitmap pixel rendering. It's easy to see the tail solved this issue.

To add to the rendered digital representation, take a look to a 1972's Plato Terminal keyboard:

1972's Plato Terminal keyboard detail

Same goes for IBM keyboards (1981' Model F below):

1981' Model F keyboard

If you take the tails off, you won't be able to tell where are the arrows pointing at, so this is also a digital representation of an analog process, a concept known as skeuomorphism (also, see DA01's "indian" arrow where the concept of Archetype is used).

  • 30
    +1 - Didn't even think about how the arrow tail provided a better direction indicator on otherwise ambiguous low resolution triangle, seems fairly obvious now.
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 19:23
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    You've taken out more than just the tail, you've also taken off the flanges on the side.
    – Random832
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 21:08
  • 4
    You had the no tails option in Vista, that list is taken from the available options in Vista's Aero, or do you think I made them up? As for @Random832 , you're correct, I just did a straight line cut, see i.sstatic.net/9HWpT.png for a real size representation (at 72PPI!) of what a Mac Mono (pre-Lisa) would display.
    – Devin
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 21:21
  • 4
    @Devin I don't think you made them up, but these appear to be the original creation of the DeviantArt user "yethzart" rather than factory-provided cursors from Microsoft.
    – Random832
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 21:25
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    To nitpick...this isn't skeuomorphism. You don't interact with the arrow like you would an actual arrow. It's merely a representation.
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 22:48

It's an arrow:

enter image description here

pictograms of arrows have mostly always had at least the arrow head and the shaft:

enter image description here

Whoever drew the cursor as we know it was drawing an arrow. It became the default standard.

You are right, it probably would work without the shaft (or tail) just as well. It's just that it's not what the UI designer chose when it was created and we've decided to stick with it.

Also, the pointer is uses as a cursor for your mouse, but it's also often needed to be shown as a tool (for example in software where the pointer is to select objects, but you use other cursors for other functions). For example, look at the toolbar on this early GUI (The Apple Lisa, which borrowed heavily from Xerox Parc's Alto):

enter image description here

Adding the tail makes it much more distinct as a tool icon than a plain triangle would be by itself.

DasBeasto provided an excellent link in the comments that talks about the design of the Alto Pointer:


It appears the designer was Douglas Engelbart and the angled arrow has a lot to do with the limited resolution of early GUIs. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates "borrowed" the idea and we've decided as a culture that it's simply the way mouse pointers are supposed to look forever more. :)

  • That works for me. Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:51
  • 3
    As for the "whoever drew the cursor" bit there's a little info here that says who. It also says it was an "arrow" pointing up lending credit to the fact he was just drawing a typical arrow.
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:55
  • 1
    @DasBeasto it was a pure guess on my part that the Alto was likely the earliest example. Based on your link, it looks like I guessed correctly. :)
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:56
  • 3
    Going full circle, the article on fastcodesign.com cites an answer elsewhere on UX.SE Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 21:06
  • 2
    Arrows as direction tools existing long before the computer. They were extremely common in printed materials and signange and maps, etc. (as were pointing hands).
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 15:02

look at how your finger points it could also be a wrist. people also see based on shapes and the cursor as is has more breaks and easily stands out on top of pages than a triangle.

enter image description here

Also a right handed person pointing explains the direction of the cursor. Read more about it from the question why the cursor is tilted and not straight

enter image description here

  • Yeah if you keep only the pointing finger, the whole thing becomes much less clear :d Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 8:08
  • The picture I saw years ago was a fist with just the index finder extended. But yes your right just the finger leaves a huge gap between it and the cursor. Also these were hypotheses that I have read i have never seen that it was confirmed to look like this. Though it was said as to why it points to the left rather than the right. Ie a rightys finger Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 12:35

< works well but yeah it looks like a sideways V. The little rectangular chunk adds to the "arrow" effect to it. It looks less like an arrow and looks more like an image of an arrow. I agree with the other one about the Star Trek copyright issues but also consider that fed ex might have issues with the arrow as well.


  • 1
    What do you mean by "issues with the arrow"? FedEx being a transportation company, I would presume that the apparent arrow is intentional, given that arrows are quite sometimes used as a symbol for movement, transportation, and speed (cf. various railroad logos). Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 15:58
  • 3
    Simple geometric shapes are not protected by copyright; there are no Star Trek or FedEx copyright issues here. The FedEx logo is a trademark, but nobody's going to look at a mouse cursor and think that your operating system is a FedEx product or service, so there's no issue there either. Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 15:45
  • @TannerSwett: "nobody's going to look at (...) and think that your (...) is a (...) product or service" - if only trademark lawyers thought in such reasonable ways ;) Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 15:54

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