The stories behind well-known tech logos and mascots

PicMonkey Collage transparent

Ever wondered what a fat little penguin has to do with a certain open source operating system? Or why Macintosh has become synonymous with an apple that has a bite taken out of it? We take a look at some of the more famous logos and mascots of the tech world and the stories behind their conception.

Tux the Linux penguin

Even people who have never used Linux have probably seen Tux, the penguin mascot of this open-source operating system. Tux was the result of a competition held by the Open Source Software community to find a mascot for Linux. In the forums Linus Torvalds, Finnish creator of Linux, mentioned an encounter he had had with a penguin at Canberra’s National Zoo and Aquarium. Linus claims that he was bitten by a penguin and because of that he was supposedly infected with a disease called “Penguinitis”. This disease caused him to become fixated with penguins.

Of Linux Penguincourse, Linus wasn’t really bitten by a penguin but merely loves chubby water-bound animals. Now, this fantastical story spread like wildfire through the forums and the penguin soon became the icon to represent the OS. Torvald explained to designers that he wanted a penguin that appeared slightly overweight carrying a satisfied smile that looks like he just had a big meal.

The name Tux comes not from the shortened form of the word “tuxedo” (which penguins often look like they are wearing) but is actually an abbreviation of (T)orvald’s (U)ni(x). Unix is the name for a multi-tasking computer operating system. This name was actually chosen by forum members when Linus wasn’t around to influence the result and he came back to find his beloved penguin with a new moniker.

An interesting fact about Tux is that the image is not owned by Linux or anyone else. So anyone can use the image and manipulate it to their liking. Because of this, Tux has had many different incarnations such as Indiana Jones, Rambo and a Rastafarian. The Linux team has even adopted a colony of penguins at the Canberra National Zoo where Linus had his first experience with the “predatory” penguin.

Apple Computer’s bitten apple logo

The bitten-into apple that we are all familiar with today has not always been Apple’s logo. When the company first came to life in 1976, Ronald Wayne (co-founder of Apple) designed a retro-looking black-and-white logo. It showed Sir Isaac Newton (the well-known physicist) sitting under a tree, reading a book with an apple dangling above his head (the famous image we associate with the concept of gravity). The words “Apple Computer Co” were displayed in a ribbon at the top and bottom of the image. A nostalgic quote was also placed on the logo that said, “A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought … alone.”

Apple First Logo

The above logo didn’t last very long as Steve Jobs thought it was too “arcane” (i.e. mysterious) and scrapped it after a year. The rainbow apple with the bite in it came right after the first logo met its demise. Some used to believe that the bite in the apple was a reference to Apple’s now-defunct tagline “Byte into an Apple” but the designer simply didn’t want the apple to be mistaken for a cherry tomato. The rainbow also had the green colour moved to the top of the apple by Jobs because it made it clearer that the top is the leaf.

Rainbow Apple Logo

The iconic rainbow apple stuck around for 22 years but soon tech geeks were complaining that it would look silly to put that type of logo on a sleekly designed MacBook. So the colour was changed to something more simplistic and monochromatic. The colours and sizes of the Apple logo have varied through the years but it is highly unlikely that a complete overhaul of this iconic symbol will happen ever again.

The blue bird of Twitter (and the infamous fail whale)

Twitter’s blue flying bird has become instantly recognizable to people who frequently use the Internet (or even those who don’t). Most people don’t know that the blue bird used have a name (Larry) and that it looked slightly different than it does now.

The reason behind Larry, the previous name of Twitter’s iconic bird, was that Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) was a big fan of the basketball player Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Larry now only exists in archives and was replaced by another bird (the one we know now) that is simply known as Twitter Bird. The Twitter bird is supposed to resemble the Mountain Bluebird, a native species of North America. The logo used to include the word Twitter with the “t” placed in lower case but now the bird is the sole symbol of the company.

When the startup was still finding its feet, an image was purchased on iStockphoto.com for just $15. It featured a white bird perched on a branch and set against a blue background. Simon Oxley is the British designer who made that image and sold it on the stock image site. Later, he saw it on CNN during a television spot about Twitter and realized that it is being spread across the world as the mascot of a very successful startup. He had previously sold many of his images on iStockphoto.com for a small fee but, after his unexpected success, has now moved on to personally designing logos for big sites like Github (the octocat) and Bit.ly (the pufferfish).

failwhale v2

A few years ago (the company was started in 2006) Twitter’s Fail Whale was almost just as famous as its blue bird logo. Seeing as the company was a small startup at one point, it couldn’t always handle the amount of users it was getting per day. Fail Whale would pop up to show users that the site was experiencing an overload. The Fail Whale depicted a whale being towed across a body of water by a flock of birds. This was a sort of metaphor for the struggle the servers (portrayed by the birds) was going through. A 2013 interview with the senior VP of Twitter, Christopher Fry, confirmed that Fail Whale has been taken out of production and has now been replaced by broken robots.

Android’s BugDroid

Most everyone now associates Android with a little green droid (apparently made to resemble a stick figure). But he was not the only mascot that Android has had. Before BugDroid there were the Dandroids. The Dandroids were four robots, each a different colour (blue, green, red and yellow to be specific), and with slightly crazed-looking swirls for eyes.

Dandroid & BugDroid

The Dandroids were actually not a pre-planned mascot but merely a stand-in until something better came along. Google engineer and then head of developer relations, Dan Morrill, was responsible for giving a presentation to Google developers about Android. The presentation was made in order to get feedback from developers before Android was to be publicly released. In a quiet moment before the presentation started, Dan decided to add something fun to the slides. And so, the Dandroids were born (named after Dan Morrill obviously).

However, the Dandroids were never to be seen by the public and was unfortunately only somewhat popular among Android team members. Soon Irina Blok, previously creative director at Google, drew up the Android logo that we now all know and love, and the Dandroids were never spoken of again (until Dan found them in his archives and made a Google+ post about it recently).

A fun fact to mention is that the internal developer launch of Android was called R2-D2 (yes, a Star Wars reference) which stands for “Release to Developers 2”. Another fact that people may be wondering about is the reason why Android releases have sweet names like Cupcake and KitKat. Simply, all of the good, recognizable robot names were already taken and trademarked so they turned to confectionary goods instead.