Graphical User Interface (GUI)

What is a graphical user interface? 

An interface is a point where two things meet and interact. A graphical user interface, or GUI, is an interface through which a user interacts with visual elements like icons or buttons (also called GUI objects) on the screen of an electronic device using a pointer, keyboard, or touch screen. 

The Apple Macintosh, released in 1984, was the first personal computer to use a GUI. Prior to this, users could only execute actions through a text-based command-line interface (CLI). A CLI required users to know and remember a lengthy list of specific commands.

For example, a CLI command might be “C:\Windows>”, which would execute the opening of a Windows folder on the screen. As you can imagine, navigating a computer using text commands was a tedious process. Thankfully, the GUI revolutionized computers by making them more intuitive and user-friendly. GUIs account for nearly all digital interfaces today. 

GUIs are designed differently depending on the controlling input. A desktop computer is controlled using a pointer and keyboard shortcuts, but a tablet or mobile device is controlled by touch. GUI objects must be designed differently for pointer vs touchscreen. For example, a touchscreen requires larger icons (think of the apps on your phone) than a desktop, where you can access smaller icons using a pointer. 


A user interface (UI) is the interaction between a user and a particular device. The user provides input and then sees the resulting output. 

Therefore, graphical user interfaces and command-line interfaces are actually subsets of UI. They both include interacting with a device, but utilize different inputs. 

How does a graphical user interface work? 

A GUI uses windows, icons, menus, and buttons to show the user how to execute commands. This can be done with a pointer, keyboard, or touch screen. For example, you can open a file icon on your desktop by pointing and clicking with your mouse. 

Behind the scenes, the GUI interprets and executes the command. A simple way to think about this is in terms of a single or double click on an icon. A single click tells the system to highlight the icon, but a double click tells it to open the folder or application represented by the icon. The GUI is what facilitates the transfer of information from the input to the device. 

Advantages of GUI 
  • Easier to learn and use than command-line interface 
  • Faster than command-line interface (visual elements rather than memorized commands)
  • More aesthetically pleasing 
GUI examples

There are many different types and versions of GUIs. Three common GUIs of today include: 

  • MacOS 
  • Windows 10  
  • Chrome OS

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