The Ouroboros as a “Sustainable Virtual Design” symbol

It’s important to differentiate the unique features of “Sustainable Virtual Design” from other discussions of sustainable design. One way is graphic symbolism. Ideally, symbols and logos used to denote a ‘sustainable’ website or interactive experience should use a common visual language.

Equally important may be not to just lump everything in with “green” – leafy web pages and happy forest creatures gazing at visionaries in hemp togas, green leaves, green this backgrounds, green-ness. Also, many of the current ‘sustainable’ motifs (think of the three arrows for reduce, reuse, recycle) may seem trite. Also, when we do sustainable web design we may be supporting “blue” rather than “green” design – blue means putting back more that you took.

In thinking about the topic, I considered that certain symbols exist already that are related to sustainability, at least the energy efficiency area of the discussion – spinners. Sites that are efficient should have a minimum of spinning logos, and inefficient sites will frequently display spinning logos. So, the current design of spinning logos (common during Ajax calls or page loads on the web) suggests a shape for a Sustainable Virtual Design logo – a circle that spins.

Is there something in traditional symbolism that has this shape and (apparent) movement? There is – the Ouroboros, or world-snake that constantly devours its tail while constantly regrowing its body. In many ways, it is the ancient expression of a schematic of a sustainable process – inputs matching outputs, eternally spinning along.

A search on Googles shows that the Ouroboros is a widely used symbol for sustainability, though not in traditional “green” pages. There are lots of references to Ouroboros from a 1970s project – The Ouroboros Team ( is a group of artists trying to create massive Ouroboros symbols worldwide, visible from space.

The Ouroburous might also be seen as a symbol for software recursion (a function calling itself), as well as reusable code modules in general.

The other features of the Ouroboros that make it interesting is its ancient lineage, and vaguely creepy aspect (a creature committing self-cannibalism), plus the very fact that it is a snake…as a visual icon, it can have an impact.

To begin exploring this idea, I’ve been creating some examples of a Sustainable Virtual Design Ouroboros. First, check out the Ouroboros (SVG graphic on Wikipedia)

Neat. One can imagine variations of this design (often more abstract historically)  replacing the “wait” spinner found on so many websites today – when the site is documenting itself to be sustainable in operation.

Now, put a “network/world wide web” symbol inside. Here’s what you get:

Sustainable Virtual Design Ouroburous
Sustainable Virtual Design Ouroboros
Typical animated 'loading' spinner iconds
Typical animated 'loading' spinner icons

This is just a start – there are LOTS of interesting design motifs that could be riffed off this basic idea. In particular, low-color, non-shaded designs might be effective as small replacements for “spin” and “load” icons on websites. More to come

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