The floppy disk Save icon: Visual language of an era long-gone
The technology behind the classic save icon is past its prime, but has its symbolic meaning withstood the test of time?
Icons are special in the way that they communicate actions, ideas, or feelings with just some simple lines and imagery. They are valuable shorthand in the digital arena where every bit of screen is prime real estate.
Chances are that whenever you’ve worked on a digital interface, you’ve needed to use an icon displayed on a button to perform an action or navigate to a set of tools. One of the most common functions for software is to save your work for later.
Those of you familiar with popular applications like Microsoft Word are likely familiar with their version of the save button, the iconic floppy disk.
The save icon in MS Word 2016. This icon has continued to represent the action to save work long since floppy disk technology became commercially available in 1971 (1). Image Source
As we tread further into the future, many have started to question the floppy disk’s anachronistic place in the pantheon of common iconography.
Why has the image of an obsolete technology many have no knowledge of kept its place half a century after its commercial availability?
8-inch, 5 1⁄4-inch, and 3 1⁄2-inch floppy disks used for data storage. Floppy disks were popular digital storage options during the 1980s and 1990s, though were barely used in personal computers by 2006 (2). Image Source
The floppy disk save icon has become problematic to those who don’t recognize the technology it represents. The tweet by Twitter user trihex seen below showcases a Japanese user of Microsoft Excel mistaking the save icon as a vending machine with a dispensed canned beverage.
Trihex then touches upon the key issue with icons depicting older technology, musing that younger people today may not recognize dated technology like VHS tapes and floppy disks.
What this tweet reveals is an inconvenient truth for all skeuomorphic icons: If your design is based on a real object, eventually you run the risk of falling behind the times.
Skeuomorphic design is often very useful for introducing a new concept to users, since it helps teach them how to interact with the design by relying on their past experiences with a real-world object (3). However, what happens if they have no experience with said object?
The rapid pace of technology, especially within the past several decades, makes the decision to use skeuomorphic iconography somewhat risky. As a designer, you run the risk of alienating generations of users unfamiliar with the technology you depict.
If you are unaware of the terms skeuomorphism and skeuomorphic design, you can check out my writeup on the topic here.
This isn’t the only example of skeuomorphic design featuring older technology symbolically prevailing into modern times. The dock on my iPhone running iOS 13 features three skeuomorphic designs for the phone, mail, and camera app.
Left to right: The iOS 13 phone, messages, mail, and camera application icons.
Phones no longer represent the ergonomic handsets of yesteryear, physical mail letters have been eclipsed by digital e-mails, and phone cameras are minimal lenses appended to the back of your smartphone.
There’s interesting arguments for refreshing such classic icons, specifically on the aspect of universality. If these applications are designed for mass use, the iconographic systems they rely on should reflect their function, not real objects.
Without working knowledge of these real objects, users can become confused by your design (4). The argument is for universally intuitive and explicit designs that do not require exterior context.
Left: Microsoft Word 2016's side menu with explicit, written options. Right: MS Word’s top menu with the floppy disk icon.
There’s always the design option to literally write the word “save” and slap it on a button, especially if you have the space to do so. Microsoft Word 2016 maintains both the explicit menu and the floppy disk icon in its top menu.
In response to the floppy disk icon, alternative save icons have emerged, that ditch the floppy disk, using arrows and a target zone or tray to symbolize that an item is being saved for later. In my opinion, it becomes tricky, because the icons listed above are ambiguous, and make me think more of a “download” function, rather than save.
This leads me to the counterpoint of established meaning over time, as Bill Gross’ tweet implies:
While the tweet is intended to be humorous, and those who know the true history and use of the floppy disk can share a laugh over getting older, the tweet showcases something fascinating.
The floppy disk outlived its obsolescence and has cemented itself as the symbol for saving, even among younger users (5). The floppy disk icon lives on as technical shorthand instead of a physical object, nowadays representing more of the concept of saving, more than it represents floppy disks.
This aspect of established meaning over time poses new questions. Regardless that the floppy disk is no longer used, would the uprooting of its symbol as a save icon be more disruptive than installing a new, universally understood icon?
Would a company like Instagram be as instantly recognizable if they changed their logo from their iconic Polaroid camera, even though Polaroids are obsolete? With the prevalence of online work and autosaving, does a deliberate manual save function need a dedicated icon?
Such questions cannot be answered over the course of days, weeks, or months. It may take the passing of many more years to truly understand the trajectory and fate of the floppy disk save icon. Until then, I guess the floppy disk will take a few more victory laps, celebrating its half-century reign.