Save the floppy disk icon
January 10, 2011  

Actually I’m not a big fan of the floppy disk, but in reading posts on the pros and cons of skeuomorphism I’m reminded that the humble floppy disk “save” icon gets a lot of grief that it doesn’t deserve. True, the floppy disk is an obsolete technology that many in younger generations have never seen or used, but that’s not a great argument against its use as an icon. Case in point:

An arrow. Remember? We used them to kill prehistoric bison. The business end is pointing in a direction, maybe there is something interesting there, or we should go in that direction, I don’t know. The last time I held an actual arrow was probably in 10th grade gym class, and I don’t doubt that many folks have never seen one in person, much less used one. Nevertheless, you’ll find one or four on every computer keyboard, that is, if your computer has a keyboard at all. Even if your computer does not have a keyboard you’ll probably see some arrows on screen:

The big arrow(head) here means, “play the music”, maybe because that’s what it meant on this piece of ancient technology:

Note here that the arrow points to the right, instead of some other direction, because it indicates that the magnetic tape on the left spool needs to be moved to the right spool instead. Everybody knows that.

The last computer I had that used a cassette tape was an Apple II, Integer ROM edition (thanks for that, Woz). Which reminds me of this:

It’s a stick. A single, solitary stick. One stick. They’re used for counting, as in “Apple II”. The sticks have a buddy:

That’s a circle containing no sticks at all. Zero sticks.

I don’t know about you, but the last time I used sticks for counting was Never, BC. So many people have forgotten the connection, and computer scientists are so dumb, that we have introduced the following variant of zero:

Yes, a circle containing one stick. You might want to keep that in mind the next time a computer scientist gives you advice on icons or graphic design.

Floppy disks are obsolete, and it might even be that explicitly saving is obsolete. But that’s no reason to discard the floppy disk icon. If anything, the reason to do away with the icon is that floppy disks became obsolete too quickly. They just didn’t stick around long enough to cross the uncanny valley between the physical and the symbolic.