Outdated iconography - or, why is the Save icon a floppy disk? | Perficient Digital

When was the last time you saw a floppy disk (outside of a museum, or your friendly IT guy’s stash)? In all likelihood it’s been a while. There may very well be some of you reading this who have never actually held a floppy disk, let alone used one. Oh man, that makes me feel so old…

Anyway, throughout our interfaces – both online and offline – we still use this outdated metaphor to indicate “save”, when an increasingly-large proportion of our user base actually has no idea why we’re using that icon. For a generation brought up with cloud storage, and auto-sync between devices, it will seem incredible that we ever had to carry around those little disks that only held 1.4MB (or 720KB back even further in the day!)

So the question becomes this: Should our industry start a conversation around changing this icon? And if so, what should it become?

I read an excellent comment on an old Slashdot article about this very topic that neatly and succinctly explains the problem, and a possible solution:

The whole concept of saving files (including the word itself) is counter-intuitive to most people. If you know that the computer makes a temporary copy of the file and then wants to copy the new file over the old one, then the word makes sense. You’ve made changes to a different file. But the average user doesn’t realize this, nor should they. They think that what they see on the screen is the file. When I edit a file, any fool looking at the screen can see that the changes have been made. Why would the computer ask you to do something you have already done? Intuitively, the screen represents the current state of the file, so if I wish to stop working on a document, it implies that I’m satisfied with its contents. If I create a new file, add some data and then try to close the document, at that point the software should intervene and ask me to pick a name for the file.

I could see a person accustomed to using the word ‘save’ in the phrase “I’m not sure I really need this any more, should I throw it away? No, I’ll save it, just in case…” to interpret the save prompt in the same way, i.e. I’ve decided to discard the changes I’m making, but maybe I’ll save them in case I want to make a permanent change later, more like a recycle bin.

My suggestion is get rid of ‘save’ altogether, and replace it with something like ‘Confirm your changes’, and a big green check mark in place of the floppy disk. Why bother the user with an icon representing the mechanics of the operation?

(Comment on “Modernizing the Save Icon“)

Logical. Still accomplishing the same thing, but in a way that makes sense to a user unaccustomed to iconography like floppy disks.

The thing is, I’m rather fond of not upsetting the status quo too much. Icons can become…well…icons, if you pardon the pun. Why change something so integral to the mechanics of computing? After all, sometimes context changes…

A police telephone box. Or the TARDIS, depending who you talk to

When the BBC first aired Doctor Who in November 1963, the Doctor’s time machine (his TARDIS) was seen for the first time. It was disguised as a police telephone box, a well-recognized symbol of law enforcement in the days before portable radios where a patrolling officer could call into the station and check in, or report something. The TARDIS remains in that shape to this day.

Ask British children what the image to the right is, and they will answer with absolute 100% certainty that that is the TARDIS. Not a police telephone box. The cultural icon (the police box itself) that allowed the BBC to make such a brilliant (and financially necessary) design decision to use the shape for the Doctor’s time machine, has now been completely reversed.

Does it matter that almost no-one knows what the police box used to be? No. Everyone knows what it is now. And that’s what matters.

Should we change the save icon? Probably not. It really doesn’t matter that a generation of users have never used a floppy disk. To them, that icon means “save”. Its history is irrelevant.

4 responses to “Outdated iconography – or, why is the Save icon a floppy disk?”

  1. Erin Moloney says:

    Awesome post, Martin!

  2. Great post. I recently experienced this very “icon”-delema when I was talking to my daughter. She lost a document and had not ‘saved’ it. I showed her the save icon, and she said “why is that a save icon”. I had to explain a floppy, and a brief history.

  3. Interesting post Martin. I think that saving will become obsolete, especially as large-screen experiences are influenced more and more by mobile. We will likely see more “done” or “back” buttons with automatic saves after each piece of user input as been cached. I think save will be reserved for instances when saving would overwrite an existing file.

  4. Scott says:

    Coming from an illustrative background, this topic hit home. I love when I get a project assigned to me where I get to create some Iconography. However I never thought of the ‘floppy’ as a irreverent icon with today’s audience. Makes total sense and as you said makes me feel old. As designers, we have inherited responsibilities that we such continue to massage into our designs – color theory, font methodologies and of course iconography. I don’t own a magnify glass, but I know it means ‘search’ as does a ‘bullhorn’ for communicating. Great Article Martin.

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