How to graphically represent time

I’m involved with a project that needs a few icons to represent some categories. Some of them aren’t that difficult to represent graphically, however I’m having a hard time thinking of how time is represented graphically.

Specifically, I need two simple icons to represent both past and future. I tried looking up other representations, but the best I can find are arrows pointing left and right. However, these are very unclear and would just be confusing to the user.

My question is, how has time been graphically represented throughout history?

EDIT: This edit is for my specific purpose. However, I’m still really interested in the bigger question of ‘How was time been graphically represented’.

Since I didn’t provide context, I’ll clarify a bit. I’m working on an app that allows users to take a picture of something, tag it with 1 of 5 categories, and then upload it so that everybody can see all of these notes (optionally sorted by these tags) on a map.

The purpose of the app (right now) is specific to Madison, Wisconsin – and is trying to showcase the cool things the city has to offer.

The 5 tags are Madison Culture, Must Do Things, Innovations at UW, ‘Stories of the Past’, and ‘100 Years From Now’.

Stories of the Past are cool things that have happened in the city, excluding inventions and such (innovations) – so not really ‘stories’ in the book sense.

Past: I’ve thought of making a moldy tome, or silent film representation of our famous State Street.
Future: A flying car by the state capitol.

The problem with these ideas, is that they are only supposed to be small annotations on the map, and I’m afraid that these are too detailed and will be impossible to decipher.


  • Sprout and tree
  • Baby and old man
  • shiny and decayed
  • Rotary phone and smart phone
  • horse and cart and automobile

Just a few idea. Context means everything. I’m sure there may be objects which fit within context of your project which may reflect time in a similar manner.

Based upon the edits….

  • Quill vs. screen
  • wheel vs. rocket
  • torch vs. flashlight
  • sundial vs. pocket watch vs. wristwatch
  • bowler hat vs. baseball cap vs. space helmet
  • Wright Bros. plane vs. biplane vs. jet vs. rocket
  • Horse vs. Model-T vs. modern car vs. flying car

I may opt for color coding the same icon though for clearer readability. Perhaps an icon for the type of attraction and then a corresponding color for the age of the attraction. Although from your list perhaps portray the intention of the location – Culture, To Do, Innovations, Stories, and Future – rather than focusing on time specifically. Stories could be a book, a speech bubble, a storyteller, etc. and Future could be rockets, flying cars, spacemen, etc. This allows the representation to be more independent than trying to create corresponding icons to reflect both intent and timeframe.

Maybe more of a UX question in there somewhere.

Source : Link , Question Author : Katamaritaco , Answer Author : Scott

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