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When Will the Floppy Disk Die as a Save Icon?

Pete Brown - 18 November 2008

I was snagging some icons to go into a comp of a Silverlight LOB application today when I realized that some of the metaphors used in the software we're refacing (Silverlight front-end to an existing LOB application), just don't hold anymore.

While it is instantly recognized by folks who have been with computers for a while, I think the 3 1/2" floppy save icon needs to die.

Back when we had 5 1/4 disks, the save icon (for GUIs) was often a 5 1/4 disk.  When 3 1/2 disks came out, folks switched to that as the icon. Now that we generally use internal or network storage for everything, why does the 3 1/2" disk persist (no pun intended, really!). My last several laptops at work had no internal or external 3 1/2" drive. My last couple home-built desktops have no floppy drive. In fact, if you go to a retail store and look at all the laptops and desktops for sale, you'll be hard-pressed to find one with a floppy drive.

Here are some snags just from applications on my own machine


And before anyone runs out and says it is just Windows, take a look at apps on the Mac:


and Linux…


Even online applications like Google Docs fall victim to the classic imagery:

 Yes, I know that is a rev behind on the UI, but the new one uses the same icon

Before everyone started emulating the exact look of Microsoft office, the save icon for some applications was a stack of platters, like a hard drive. I recall PowerBuilder and perhaps some other apps from the early days of Windows. It made for a pretty ugly and unrecognizable icon, but it worked. Some database applications had an icon like a little arrow pointing to a large barrel-like drum (a reference to early storage devices). Of course, that was even uglier and less recognizable than the platters.

That said, I'm willing to bet that a fair number of kids in school these days have never seen a 3 1/2 floppy disk and therefore would not intuitively make the connection that the disk is a form of storage and therefore the icon might mean "save". It has no more meaning to them than a splat of color or that old drum with the arrow. Instead, it is something they have to memorize based on a pure on-screen message with no real-life analog.

What do you think would be an appropriate save icon these days? (well, after all us old farts stop using toolbars anyway)

posted by Pete Brown on Tuesday, November 18, 2008
filed under:      

47 comments for “When Will the Floppy Disk Die as a Save Icon?”

  1. Wasabisays:
    Quite frankly I believe the best save icon is indeed the floppy disk by now, because simply everyone seems to associate that to saving to disk. If u were to replace it with, say, a harddisk icon (which would be technically correct), then i doubt people would associate it with saving (but instead expect it to open the file explorer). Same goes with using the image of a CD/DVD (associated to disk burning)...
  2. Andrésays:
    Well, your totally right!

    I don't know what would be a good icon, but I think it should be more "universal", i.e., not dependent on the medium on which the save is being done, so that whatever new medium is created and used in the future, the icon will still be relevant.
  3. Mike Perrysays:
    I say keep it. Just because someone doesn't necessarily know the origin of something doesn't mean they don't what it means. No matter what you use, unless it says "Save", there is a learning curve to using any icon, all be it small. Besides, there are plenty of words/symbols that we use to communicate with each other that no longer have the literal meaning they once did. I think that's what makes our languages and communication interesting, that they have a history. It's also kind of human nature it tends to bind us together.

    I still find it amusing when I'm in my car and someone outside of the car makes a fist and cranks it like they are trying to winch something. I know they want me to role my window down even though I haven't owned a car that had a manual crank window for several years. Someday, I'm sure my future kid will ask me why they do that and I'll explain to them that in the days before you rolled your window down with mental telepathy, you actually had to use your hand and a crank.
  4. Tom Holdersays:
    I have always wondered this, hoever, does your average user really understand the process of saving and a file system anyway? Frequently I see people assuming their files are gone for good because it's not in My Documents.

    It's also difficult to replace it with something more suitable when there's so many possible places to save a file to. Hard drive, Flash, Internet, CD, DVD, Network.

    I'd prefer to keep it as it is, a bit of nostalgia never hurt anyone.
  5. Pete Brownsays:
    @Mike agreed. I forgot all about that. There are a number of gestures and phrases which make no sense in today's context, but are just learned by rote.

    I suppose icons will end up fitting in that category, even though it smells really wrong to me.

    @Tom the "Open" is represented by a folder, which while also somewhat nostalgic tends to have visible representations all over all the operating systems. Perhaps "Save" could be a variation on that, but different enough to be picked out by eye?

    @Ryan, cool, then "format" could just be a nice sunny day :P

    @Wasabi agreed on currnet users. I'm thinking about future users. One of the main thing that drove the adoption of guis was the idea that you didn't have to train users as much. Before windows, people were memorizing alt/shift/control function key combinations to do everything, or purchasing wordperfect keyboard overlays and templates.

  6. Jérémie Chassaingsays:
    Actuly, the concept of 'Save' is perhaps outdated.

    When you use Word on Windows Mobile you don't have the ability to Save ... ok it's a very limited version, but it is quite interesting.

    When you create a document, it IS persisted. The you can create a copy or delete it. But you don't have to worry about its pesistance in a first place, you don't have to save it to avoid losing it.

    If you had no fear to lose high amount of in memory data, you would not have to 'save'. You would only need to 'copy' or 'export' data to other places. And there are quite good icons for that.

    What's your opinion about it ?
  7. wekempfsays:
    Hard to represent, but if you want to go with the "folder" theme used by Open, Save should probably be a file cabinet with the folder being inserted. Good luck doing that in 16x16 pixels, though ;).

    I never thought of this before, but it's a very interesting question. I do think the floppies should probably be replaced. Just have to figure out with what, develop a decent icon for the idea, and convince others to use it. Again, good luck with that.
  8. Adriansays:
    The 3.5 floppy is still the best save icon. The only exception that I think really makes any sense would be a little folder with an arrow pointing inwards. Sort of like a reverse of the open icon on the mac pic, except make the arrow red to help differ between the two.
  9. wekempfsays:

    Really? Kids save their documents to their iPods?

    The drive metaphor has to go away. The technology changes to frequently to remain relevant. We need a more lasting metaphor, preferably not computer related (like the folder concept).
  10. Pete Brownsays:

    Just considering future usability. Lots of things that "just work" in reality, could work better.

    Chances are, anyone reading my blog knows what a floppy disk is, so we're not captured in the persona I'm thinking of here :)

  11. Ravi Nagarajansays:
    Very interesting thread ... I have a huge pile of floppies which were were replaced by my IPOD and then by a USB drive. Probably the best argument in favor of the floppy image is that it is familiar and, even for those who have never used a floppy, has a nearly universal meaning of "Save". Still this is dangerously close to "it has always been that way so lets keep doing it that way" logic which at some point stands in the way of coming up with something better. Always good to take a fresh look at these things.
  12. mike wolfsays:
    Ok being devils advocate is there really a need for a save icon anymore period. With the blurring of the thick and think client in the ria world, shouldnt simply closing something be a save of data? I think the younger generation is getting more and more used to apps like gmail that automaticly saves drafts, and facebook where you click a field to edit, not an edit icon.

    seems to me the new save icon, will simply be confirmation of save or ignore on close, and notifications of auto save on use.

    good thread
  13. Josh Riverssays:
    I agree with Jeremy. The 'save' concept is outdated. It takes me back to saving my work on a Mac Classic back in college. Saving is something you have to do because storage bandwidth is narrow, and background threads nonexistent. Todays applications should always be writing changes to the persistent store, and the 'save button' should be a status icon / send-receive button.

    Better metaphors would be 'commit', 'check-in' or 'file' (verb form). I think apps should be versioning or saving an undo history, and the only interaction I have with persistence should be "something's gone wrong, please fix".

    Once we have a better metaphor, a better icon will appear.
  14. BrotherWolfsays:
    The problem here is trying to describe an action with a picture - anyone whose played Pictionary knows actions are the hardest to draw.

    Taking the point that a floppy disk is an outdated technology, a balance would need to be found between the learning curve adjusting to a new storage device symbol and the relative permanence of that device in the market place. So is a USB drive really a suitable symbol?

    Perhaps as symbols go one dissociated with computer technology would be better? The suggested folder with arrow pointing to it, by Pete.Brown, is reasonable as is Anthony's idea of a safe (my favourite so far).

    But will software technology change though?

    Google Docs saves as you type, as does JetBrains' IntelliJ. With more people having access to back up solutions such as TimeMachine and with Version Control systems more readily available perhaps a local copy of a document/photo/code will just be work in progress and when you're happy you "commit it".

    In this vision (with all software auto-saving) the floppy-disk icon would become redundant and we could then worry about committing icons instead :-)

    Perhaps it's best to stick with the floppy icon for the moment and see whether the way things are done changes?
  15. Chase Saunderssays:
    I agree with a previous commenter... Save is obsolete. It's totally unnecessary, except that people get paranoid if they don't have 'Save' to click.

    As a software architect, I encourage programmers never to use what I call a 'Make It Work' button... that is, a button that 'makes it work' when the computer could have done so automatically. 'Save' is the mother of Make It Work buttons!

    There are many ways to avoid asking users to save without losing functionality. For example, most programs already keep a long UNDO history. Automatically saving (and restoring) this undo history would gives users the ability to recover many "previous versions". You could also just periodically save versions and store them all within the same file. Alternately, you could expose a version number and save whenever the user changes it.

    The only vendor I've noticed attacking this on a traditional PC is Google. Specifically, gmail does not require saving... it saves in the background every few seconds. With typical ingenuity, Google has solved the problem of user paranoia... they just include a save button that's completely unnecessary. An improvement on this would be to use this redundant Save button to explain to users that Save isn't necessary, and then disappear it. Since 'Save As' is still useful, it could also be used to provide this explanatory function.

    As far as icons, we have a bit more room now. Open and Save (or Save As) could both be depicted as a folder and app window side-by-side, with an arrow between them. For Open, the arrow would go from folder to app window, and vice versa for Save

  16. Tim Haynessays:
    Here are my thoughts:
    Save = a folder with a big swooshy arrow going into it
    Load = a folder with a big swooshy arrow coming out of it

    Or if you only want to replace the Save icon, how about a picture of a safe or vault?
  17. ..aleesays:
    amazing post. It made me smile and also to scratch my head, What could be the alternate?

    Well, honestly, the save option is so much associated with the "Floppy" image that it's really hard to think about something else. However, a file icon having 0101 on it, would be more appropriate. Since it's independent from the storage medium and the 0101 text could be highlighted if there is some DATA to write and if there is no DATA then the 0101 text would be Grey.
  18. Pete Brownsays:
    Great stuff, guys.

    Thinking about it, I'm with the wolf brothers and those of you who said "Save" itself might be outdated.

    Those of you pointing to gmail as the only example of this have never used OneNote. While it initially takes getting used-to, OneNote does not require any explicit save - it simply saves constantly in the background.

    So perhaps the approach will not be about Saving, it'll be about some other state change (changing location, changing draft to final etc.)

    Bizapps have additional concerns (when to store a snapshot, when do versions get considered for history etc. and of course, transactional performance with the database), but those are solvable in a number of ways in many cases.

    Great discussion. Looking forward to other ideas here too :)

    [PS, sorry Community Server munges all your line breaks. I see them in the notification, but the style or something nukes them from your post on render. It'll be fixed when I finish my move to Graffiti]

  19. Alan Shutkosays:
    It's interesting. I started opening up apps on my Mac to look at their save icons. Numbers, Keynote, Pages, Illustrator, Indesign... none of them have save icons at all. All of them work on a document basis and still make you save, but save is just in the menu.

    To me, that makes sense. Saving isn't something that needs to compete on a toolbar with things that I use frequently.
  20. Hannonsays:
    Well, in first place, there's no need to.
    In second place, we should change the white paper when meaning something new, it's an icon from typewritters, and a floppy disk are younger.

    Another reason to leave the floppy is for next generation knowlage. Changing that icon would make people forgive the origins, as more than 70% of computer users don't know about tapes (msx) or cards.

    We should leave it for history!
  21. Pete Brownsays:

    The Gnome save icon doesn't pass the non-techy test. Linux is showing its roots there. (no pun intended, really!)

    Most folks who haven't cracked open their computer won't know that that is a storage device. Of course, it doesn't directly represent network storage, SSDs, flash drives etc. :)

    I'm of the opinion that if we're going to continue to require users to save, the icon needs to be technology and culture agnostic.

  22. antoniosays:
    I don't know if this is right but I sure would like the floppy shape remains as the ubiquous save icon and in the future it will become an ideogram for saving files with no one actually knowing its ethymology.
  23. Luissays:
    For logical coherence, the save icon should be related with the load icon.

    The load icon is usually just a folder, so if it is transformed into an open folder with an outbound arrow, the save icon can then be the same folder with an inbound arrow. Other variations depending on the skill of the designers can be better, e.g. a document going out of a folder (load) or into it (save).
  24. Ibansays:
    I though on this some time ago, but then I realized it was a bit nonsense... so I don't agree at all. It's true that things change with time, but when something is set as a standard and is understood by all, why change?

    I can't think on english words right now, but in spanish I got some examples. Lets say, in cars, the place where you initially placed the gloves to drive is called with a name that basically says "place to put gloves". Same with the trunk. Now you don't put gloves or your bagage, you put more stuff like the shoppings, or the condoms. Why not change it to "front-small-storage" and "back-storage"?

    Maybe the notebook icon for "addresses" or "contacts" should also be changed to a PDA icon too.

    Or scisors... why should I know they are to "cut" something? Or why should I know that two piled pages means copy? And what about paste?. Maybe I know them because I use them?

    Icons must not always represent the thing in real life. We don't cut pieces of text from a document or pictures and paste them into others (usually), but we all know what those icons they are for... because we use them. So let the floppy icon stay there. The first day someone uses a computer application he will ask how to save, but he will also ask how to copy, paste, delete, or open.

    Just my opinion.
  25. Patrick Burrowssays:
    The idea of "saving" is just a metaphor itself. Even in the floppy days you weren't ever "saving" anything (except, perhaps, the time it would take to retype everything in). You were persisting (and with many apps you were persevering).

    Removing the idea of "save" you have a whole host of other verbs that might be more icon friendly. I like the cloud idea earlier. I also like the idea of minimizing the situations where a user is forced to choose when to persist data. Of course, you can't get rid of it completely -- you still need to choose what to name the document and where to put it.

    But in those situations, perhaps the icon simply becomes something that represents the verbs "naming" or "placing."

    And while we're at it, folders as an organization medium are outdated too. Tagging is far more natural (especially because it allows multiple tags without extra copies of the document running about). And tagging + search should mean that my mom never has to remember where she put that letter she wrote and have to call me at eleven o'clock at night wondering why her computer ate her very important file.
  26. Richardsays:
    Why change the icon just for the sake of it? You'll just get lots of confused users who don't know what your new icon is for, and by the time every application has been updated to use the new icon, it won't be relevant any more.

    On a related note, why do people still mime rolling-down a car window when they want you to open it? When was the last time you drove a car without electric windows?
  27. Bradensays:
    Couldn't believe a quick google search turned this up! I was thinking the same thing today while working on some documentation and then decided to see if anyone else agreed. I think the idea of saving to a USB stick is the best substitute until everything goes totally to "cloud computing".
  28. Ingulitsays:
    Complete bump, but I want to point out to any of the people who still read these responses that the save function is NOT outdated, and is very useful in high-end software. Any 3D modeling package relies on constant saving to ensure no mistakes, and with the models becoming so complicated, a save-as-you-go technique would be unfeasible. Also, the save feature allows you to save a version of something you create, undo a few times, and then create a different version starting from the same point. Also, I've run into countless experiences where trying to print a document has, through an error in the printer software, closed the document editor before saving. I'd hate to have to close out the editor and re-open it just to make sure my document was saved before I print. Also, I personally hate the auto-save feature of Word Mobile; I've opened a document to read it and have accidentally changed it without noticing, and then have closed the document only to see my work had disappeared. Beyond that, I fall asleep uncontrollably, and many times while typing a document I've fallen asleep and have accidentally held down a key for the better part of fifteen minutes. If there was a save-as-you-go without a true save feature implemented, my entire work could be gone when I wake up (if I was holding backspace, for example). In short, the save feature is a wanted and needed feature, and I'd hate to see it go.

    I like the safe and the file cabinet ideas.
  29. stevesays:
    It might be better to ask "What does 'Save' mean?" than "What's a better/more contemporary icon than the floppy disk?"

    When you save something, you are putting it somewhere for later use or storing it. We're getting bogged down in choosing literal storage devices that will all eventually be obsolete. The folder and arrow idea (in another post here) didn't seem right because we're used to folders being a way to organize files, not as a storage device. And of course you don't necessarily need a folder to save.

    <a href="http://gs166.photobucket.com/groups/u81/O8XP26APXJ/th_2010-04-05_160126_2.png">So here's one proposal using the concept of an abstract cube being placed inside another cube - or placing an object inside a box.</a>

    In hindsight the gold looks too much like a Windows folder. Maybe this could instead be pages/files in a box...? Don't bother with "thinking outside the box" jokes because I already thought of that :)
  30. Jonsays:
    Symbols and icons have cultural meaning, not contemporary. Now, the 3.5 floppy disk is the symbol of the save as, not a storage device.

    The old school telephone still the best phone symbol, Who will recognize an smarthphone in a highway sign?
  31. Mary Branscombesays:
    replace an arbitrary but well known symbol with some other arbitrary but unfamiliar symbol? who does that help? because there is no longer a universal natural iconic equivalent, anything will be a splat of colour to learn - whatever hardware you make it represent will be obsolete in time.

    LibreOffice replaces the floppy icon with some arbitrary thing they say is more representative; over a week of using it I could never find it without looking and using tooltips. The stick man on the restroom sign isn't representative but we all recognise it.
  32. Deysisays:
    Was going to upload it on fwyspoplop.co.uk but they haven't updated in a couple years I guess, and Dex and the City used to do Floppykillerz but their domain expired apparently. I'm gonna email McFiredrill and see if he wants to do a release on SuperButton. Maybe here on LLR as well, so then it'll be out in three formats: tape, .it files on disk and .mp3s. Next up I want to do a release on microcassette using BackToBasics but those dudes want 40 bucks to register their program and I haven't used it in like ten years so I'm not sure if it can do what I want to Then a limited run of VHS tapes, maybe a minidisc run and I'll have a fucking corner on obsolete formats! At least the ones prevelant during my youth, I'm not gonna put out a 78 or something. Whoo, I've had too much coffee, this could've been a new post instead of a reply almost.[EDIT!] Never mind, those dudes want 20 dollars for BTB! I might just buy it.

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3 trackbacks for “When Will the Floppy Disk Die as a Save Icon?”

  1. When Will the Floppy Disk Die as a Save Icon? | Silverlight Guidesays:
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  2. Think Before Codingsays:
    Pete Brown noted in this post that the save icon is still a represented by a 3 1/2" floppy by most of the application. But what does the Save button really mean ? Back in the floppy days, there was no fast persistent storage...