The Evolution of the Button: From Fabric Fasteners to Digital Dashboards

The Evolution of the Button: From Fabric Fasteners to Digital Dashboards

Button up!

Buttons have been key in both functional design and technological interaction throughout history. Originally, they served purely as clothing fasteners but have evolved dramatically to become integral components of modern technology.

button (n.): “knob or ball attached to another body”, from Old French boton.

The journey of the button began as a practical solution for fastening garments but quickly transformed into a symbol of style and status. In the mediaeval period, buttons were not just utilitarian; they were lavish ornaments that reflected one’s wealth and social rank. The evolution from decorative clothing elements in Europe during the medieval times to essential items in the 13th century marked a significant shift in their functional use​ (Encyclopedia Britannica)​.

Transition to Technology: The Push Button and Video Games

The late 19th century marked a turning point with the introduction of the electric push button, an innovation that inspired both fascination and fear. Initially seen as a novel way of activating devices, the push-button simplified interactions with technology, turning complex processes into simple tasks (JSTOR Daily). This ease of use was both celebrated and criticised, as it removed the need to understand the underlying mechanics of devices.


The idea of a ‘doomsday button’ first emerged during the Cold War era. It captured the collective imagination through its depiction in films and literature. It symbolised the extreme brinksmanship of nuclear warfare, where a single press could potentially trigger global annihilation. This button, often portrayed as a red button under a flip cover, became an iconic representation of ultimate power and peril. It showed how tense things were between the superpowers, and how scary it was for those who could actually press the button. This showed us not only that we should be careful with nuclear weapons, but also that peace is very fragile.

By the 1970s, buttons started appearing in video games, becoming an essential part of controllers. This was the start of a new way of interacting with technology. Over the next few decades, we saw the rise of virtual buttons in computer interfaces and the advent of touchscreens, which added a new level of interaction – buttonless buttons that respond to a simple touch.

Evolution in Digital User Interfaces

The evolution of digital user interfaces, particularly through the design and function of buttons, has significantly shaped how we interact with technology today. From the tactile feedback of physical buttons in early computing devices to the sleek, flat design of touchscreen icons, each iteration has aimed to enhance user engagement and intuitive use. For example, the introduction of ‘ghost buttons’—transparent button designs with a thin border popularised in the mid-2010s—combined minimal aesthetics with functionality, emphasizing a clean interface while still guiding users with subtle visual cues. Another example is the rise of hamburger menus on mobile devices, which compact multiple navigation options into a single button, reflecting a shift towards space-saving design and improved user experience.

The transition from physical keyboards to the seamless, touch-sensitive interfaces of smartphones and tablets marks a significant change in personal technology use. I recall the satisfaction of clicking away at the keys of a BlackBerry in the early 2000s, a tactile interaction that felt both immediate and reassuring. Compare this to today’s use of virtual buttons on smartphones, where features like haptic feedback try to recreate that sense of physical touch—it’s clear that while the form has changed, the fundamental need for responsive interaction remains. 

This shift underscores an ongoing dialogue between technology users and designers about balancing aesthetics, functionality, and accessibility.

The Future: Will the buttons disappear?

Looking ahead, we can expect to see more technology integrated into our physical environment. This will make it easier for us to interact with digital interfaces. Augmented reality (AR) and voice-controlled interfaces are already making it easier for us to interact with digital applications without using traditional buttons. This suggests that we will see more ‘natural’ interaction methods in the future. For instance, AR projects virtual buttons and controls into our real-world environment, allowing users to interact with digital applications through physical gestures. Meanwhile, voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri let users do things they used to do by pressing buttons with spoken commands. As these technologies get better, the role of the button is likely to change from a separate thing to something that’s more integrated and almost invisible in the user experience.

Despite the changes that are coming and happening before our eyes, I predict that buttons will stay with us – in their original form. A virtual entity will never be able to button our shirts or trousers.