is the design of kevin kennedy

Saving an Icon

When computers were new and fresh, early interface designers had to figure out a way to translate some pretty novel concepts to the world.

From those early days, we now have things like “folders,” the “desktop” and “documents.”

The digital versions of these items, however, are not the same as their real world counterparts. For example, a document is a binary repository of bits, but visually, we show the user a piece of paper. We do this because we want a user to understand its function, so we wrap it into a real world item, since a real document also contains information.

We can delete, rename, and transfer real documents, but that’s about where the metaphor breaks down. We can’t perform a full text search of our office to find a document. We can’t duplicate them perfectly and instantly, and we also can’t change their contents and apply the new content to the existing document. This is called “saving” on the computer.

The word “save” is simple enough to understand, but the problem is that in the real world we save things in more than one way. We save by moving an item from one location to another, but we also save by physically altering items, as in writing something down or folding the corner of a page.

Eventually, the idea of saving came to be associated with the floppy disk because early computers didn’t have much permanent storage, so the act of saving required external media.

Today, that icon of the floppy still persists as a symbol for saving, but that piece of technology has completely vanished from the computing landscape. Now I admit I’m probably about 2 years late to this discussion, but the question I’m pondering is, why are we still using it, and do recent computer users even know what it means?

The answer is complicated.

Some feel that since the metaphor no longer has any connection to our current computer technology, we need to move to something more abstract that more fully embodies the current state of saving.

A home plate was proposed, as in your data is now “safe.” Others have considered a checkmark alongside the icon for editing, a pencil (itself a somewhat outdated metaphor). The concept being, now I have made my changes, so please commit them, check them off.

By far the most common treatment is that of an arrow moving towards some kind of container. The logic being, please take my output, and store it.

To my knowledge, none of these have caught on. Even though the floppy is outdated, it is still pervasive. People don’t necessarily need to know what it means or where it came from, just what it does. With metaphors, it is often a best practice to use what works, rather than confusing the issue for the sake of intellectual purity.

In considering this myself, I was struck by how at first, I had to search my hard drive for an application that even had a save icon. Many have stuck that option in the File menu, so there is only the word “Save,” no icon. Most heavy computer users will also use keyboard shortcuts to save, no word or icon, just the action. Other applications have adopted a completely transparent method of document saving that requires no user interaction at all. A document is edited, and it is saved automatically, a modern feature that is much more akin to how documents work in the real world.

The web has contributed much to how we think about documents as well. The necessity of a connection to do work has forced web application developers to think differently about how things should be stored, defaulting to save always and frequently rather than waiting for a user to command it.

So what is to be done with the floppy then? My conclusion: the issue will correct itself. The problem here isn’t that we’re using an old metaphor, it’s that we are outgrowing the need for one. The floppy icon, much like its real world analog, will simply no longer be needed.