This week, the Museum of Modern Art added the @ symbol to its permanent collection in the Department of Architecture and Design. Although it stands out because it’s intangible it carries just as much history and impact. For starters, did you know that @ has been around since the 6th or 7th century to denote a unit of measure? It’s been used for commerce since, made its way into the typewriter in 1885, then in 1971, Ray Tomlinson decided to use it in the first email system, giving it new purpose in the age of computing.
The story of the @ sign and its entry into the MoMA is also a fascinating lesson on what design can do:
The appropriation and reuse of a pre-existing, even ancient symbol—a symbol already available on the keyboard yet vastly underutilized, a ligature meant to resolve a functional issue (excessively long and convoluted programming language) brought on by a revolutionary technological innovation (the Internet)—is by all means an act of design of extraordinary elegance and economy. Without any need to redesign keyboards or discard old ones, Tomlinson gave the @ symbol a completely new function that is nonetheless in keeping with its origins, with its penchant for building relationships between entities and establishing links based on objective and measurable rules—a characteristic echoed by the function @ now embodies in computer programming language. Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future. He therefore consciously, and from the very start, established new rules and a new meaning for this symbol.
The article continues on its value as a different kind of design piece: “It does not declare itself a work of design, but rather reveals its design power through use.” Around the world, different countries have composed different mythologies for it, and its uses are still expanding both socially and technologically.
This is probably the greatest kind of design—the @ symbol is both ancient and modern, local and universal, practical and beautiful, by continuously evolving in its meaning.