A floppy disk is a bygone tool, a symbol of early personal computing days, a precursor to USB flash drives. It’s also still in use today — as a symbol for “save.”
It’s kind of bizarre to think about, that something most people haven’t touched since the late ’90s is still being used to represent an action we take every day. And the floppy disk isn’t the only outdated symbol on our modern tech: TVs are represented with knobs and bunny ears, phones with rotary wheels and antennae, hyperlinks as chain links, color pickers as eyedroppers, voicemail as recorder tape, digital pens as fountain pen nibs, and search tools as magnifying glasses. We see these digital symbols everywhere; they’re in apps, software and websites. But why do we use these objects as icons when we don’t actually use these objects anymore?
Using icons to represent abstract ideas pre-dates the internet, like with the icon for ideas themselves—the light bulb. So it’s no surprise that when we got new tools (the computer), we kept using symbols as shorthand. Even though we often think of the Internet as a reservoir of unlimited space, our screens still limit us to certain dimensions. An image of a floppy disk is nice and square, and takes up one character space, where “save” is four letters and is wider than it is tall. Just look at the jumble of icons at the top of your word processor or e-mail, and image how much more crowded it would be if all those actions were written out. Plus, it can be more visually appealing to use colorful symbols, and it’s also an opportunity for software to brand itself with stylistically coordinating icons (like Adobe products).
There’s another reason we use outdated icons — we still put bunny ears on TVs, rotary wheels on phones, and use chunky monitors to mean “computer” because modern versions of those objects all look a lot alike. Some icons for “phone” use the distinct iPhone design, but even that might be mistaken for an iPad. At first glance, a minimal drawing of these objects would look the same, and every opportunity for a person to misread an icon defeats its purpose.
Most importantly, we use outdated icon because they’re often our last tactile relationship with the words we want to represent. The floppy disk was the last physical object to reference “save” at the time that the save icon was created. And now that the floppy disk has been established, the word “save” is so abstract that it’s hard to come up with an alternative to something that already works. Over time, the floppy disk will become more and more obsolete, until perhaps its only connotation is “save icon.”
Some of our icons are not necessarily outdated but simply the most handy illustration for a hard-to-pin-down idea. If you have ever used a magnifying glass to search for something you are using the wrong tool, unless you are searching for a scrap of your dignity in a pile of garbage. Magnifying glasses are meant to be used to see things up close, not to find things. But the symbol works, because we’ve been using it, because we’ve agreed to it (Sherlock Holmes probably had something to do with that). And our battery percentage icons look most like AA batteries, instead of the lithium rectangles that actually power our devices. But people wouldn’t necessarily read a laptop battery right away, and an AA battery is instantly recognizable, even if it’s not 100 percent accurate. We’re sacrificing accuracy for understanding, and that’s OK.
Most modern tech objects are pretty boring and homogenized. Even when we come up with new services, we stick to old, recognizable objects to represent them. The symbol for cloud computing comes from the fluffy objects we all probably think of when we think about wireless internet and fax machine signals and radio waves—it’s abstract, somewhere in the sky, not totally tangible. If we used an image of a computer server, where the files actually reside, it’d be less understandable — and frankly, less fun.
So, bring on the icons. Sensible or not, they’re here to stay, until someone comes up with a better alternative. We gave it a shot; here’s a free download of some icon alternatives. Happy icon-ization!
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A general phone icon to keep up with the technology.
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One message moving to another—replacing the envelope with a new icon for email.
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A big rectangle you watch moving pictures on. Say goodbye to bunny ears.
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You're saving, but where does it go? In the future, we'll save to the cloud, not a floppy disk.
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Since when have we used fountain pens to draw in Illustrator?