From save icon to global communication

— Hey listen, you work with, you know, users. Can I ask you a something?
— Oookey, go ahead..?
— Why do you think we still use floppy disk as save icon? Isn't it outdated and about time we create something new and smarter?

I've heard that question many times, on the surface it seems legit as we don’t use floppy disks anymore and haven’t in years (my kids haven’t even seen one). But is it such a bad icon and are people really having a problem understanding the save icon?

Personally, I don’t think it should be removed, it’s a good representation of saving something for later. If anything, we should get rid of the need to save things at all, but thats another story. But why do I think it’s a good icon, what arguments do I have more than a gut feeling? Time to dig deeper.

Let’s start with some time travel

Let’s travel back a few years and look at some other famous icons and pictograms for comparison. And I’ll start with an ox and a house and people called Phoenicians.

A few years back, two icons were created to represent what was important to humans at the time. OK, maybe more than a few, more like 5000 years.

Anyway, number one was the ox. Talking with your fellow Phoenician you would call this Aleph. Naturally you would write down this with the symbol of an ox head. Fast forward a couple of centuries and the symbol was still in use, but now it meant the A sound of aleph and was simplified a little bit for all the speed writers out there. A few centuries later it was simplified further. If we create a time-line of these change and simplifications up until the Roman days, where they called this symbol alpha we get this view:

Spanning 5000 years of refinement

So the second most important thing to humans at that time (and it still is I suppose) was a shelter or house, as a Phoenician you would call this Beth. As with the ox we can follow this little icon from the word of house to sound of B and get to what the Romans called Beta.

Putting those two important items together we get Aleph and Beth and got ourselves a good start on the alphabet. There are similar stories for every single letters in our alphabet.

And this doesn't just work for the Roman alphabet but is true for most written communication. Let’s have another look at the Chinese and Japanese Kanji, these are not simple sounds but more concepts. Let’s focus on the Han character. That character can be traced back to a pictogram of an elephant used in bone script (If you can’t see the elephant, try tilting your head to the right)

Around 4000 years from bone script to current Chinese character

Chinese and Kanji characters follow other types of logic when they got created from 4000 year old pictograms but that doesn't matter. The fact is that we have pictograms that transformed into symbols that gets simplified and now have deeper meaning.

Back to present day

So let’s look at the floppy disk again. Save today is no longer related to any physical action, even the USB drive is getting old, and the cloud is too generic and fluffy (is that icon save or a weather report?). With the floppy we have a simple symbol, just a rectangle and a square with a chopped of corner and you’re done, that represent the action. Today this has been imprinted in millions, spanning a multitude of languages. It will take some time for people to unlearn and relearn a new symbol.

So if we really set out to reinvent the save icon, what would be your suggestion?

Furthermore, if we start with save, we have to follow up with lots of other odd symbols. Think of these examples:

Crop and mask tool

When was the last time you used this little bad boy to crop the photo with your brand new Durst DA900 enlarger? And still you think the crop symbol is good to use in a photo editing app on iPhone.

60 min micro cassette

And I hope the micro cassette tape was included with that phone, as they are hard to come by. Yep, an audio tape symbol seems appropriate for voice mail of today.

So what do these examples have in common with the old Ox & House?

  • They are based on something ubiquitous and important at the time of creation
  • They can be represented with a simple and distinct symbol
  • The symbols became something with deeper meaning than the initial physical object

The longer I think about it, I realize that in some ways the save symbol is actually better than spelling it out as a word. How about the following problems that you have to consider:

  • Save can mean a lot of different things; to make someone safe, keep something for later, stop wasting things, and catch a football
  • We need to translate save to every language we want to support, and hopefully we are translating to the correct meaning
  • When we design, we can design for a symbol with know size, not all various sizes; save in Greek becomes αποθηκεύσετε and in Burmese ကယ်ဆယ်

Actually, the translation above, I have no idea. I just said what Google said, but it doesn't matter, it actually underlines the second argument.

So what to do?

I think that instead of trying to come up with the next save icon, embrace what we have and what works today. I've lined up the arguments for you here.

Instead of challenging the icons, challenge the concept. An old icon probably means old concept, maybe it’s time to move past make that obsolete; when we no longer need to worry about saving things, it’s OK to drop the little disk.

For the future, I’m curious to see if the floppy disk, magnifying glass, telephone headset, and tape symbols will survive the next 30 years. Think about it, currently it represent written communication that can communicate with people regardless of language, and it didn't take 5000 years to develop.

from 8 to 3.5

Now go look for outdated icons and symbols!

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