Why Is The Save Icon Still A Floppy Disk?

Applications like Microsoft Office undergo regular interface revamps, but one element weirdly persists. The icon for Save in many applications remains an image of a floppy disk, even though the floppy is now a moribund storage format.

Main picture by Chris Phan

I started reflecting on this after seeing a tweet from Fast Company writer Anjali Mullany discussing the weirdness of seeing a floppy disk on your screen on a regular basis:

Funny that in Microsoft Word the icon for "save" still appears to be a microfloppy in my version. Do the youngsters have no idea what it is?

While the floppy might seem old-fashioned, any change to the interface of a popular program will lead to howls of protest, as Microsoft learned with the Ribbon. Even if an actual floppy is no longer the storage medium of choice, the familiarity of the icon ultimately becomes much more important than the original "logic" behind choosing that symbol. (Some people simply won't register it anyway: as a keyboard shortcut junkie, I rarely look at icons unless there's no other alternative.)

This is a solid example of what semioticians call the arbitrariness of the sign: it doesn't matter what label (or image) we attach to a particular concept, as long as everyone in a given community is in agreement on what that symbol means. We're fond of trying to find logic in those associations (often after the fact), but logic is, in this context, far less important than continuity.

There are plenty of other old-fashioned icons around. Check the icon for making a call on your mobile; chances are it looks like no other phone you handle regularly. Which other icons do you find the most bizarre and arbitrary? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments

    i've wondered this.. floppies are so last generation.

      last last last generation

        Doesnt matter which generation we're on though. We the ones who used floppies are still alive - the concept lives on within out minds. Maybe in the future it will be replaced by the cloud icon (for when everything is store on the cloud).
        I rue the day when we get implantable storage. You'll have random appendages as icons. And it will be awkward.

          I'm part of 'this generation' (born '96) and still remember what floppy disks are. I suppose the cloud option might be likely, however it's just one of those things that we all get used to. Like men's/women's toilet signs, they're recognizable to anyone who's seen them before. The 'save button' is the 'save button' no matter who looks at it. That's why I think it'll stay the same in future. If everyone already knows about something, why change it and complicate things?

      What was the symbol before the floppy disk I wonder.

        Before the floppy, m'dear, there were no graphical interfaces, ergo no icons. ;)

        Gramma

      I don't think it matters as long as people know what the icon MEANS, I have not checked later issues of Autocad but for years if you typed oops you undid the last command even though it was not listed as a command

    How about the icon for email generally being an envelop? I don't find these bizarre or arbitrary though, as you say above, people recognise it as the 'Save' icon, regardless of what the image is actually of.

    I still refer to the recording of a program as 'taping' it, even though no tape is involved anymore, and hasn't been for some years!

      haha you should talk to my parents they still refer to the radio as a wireless.

        I never understood that. It's not like there was a "wired" system they needed to distinguish it from.

          Yes there was. The telegraph. That evolved in to the wireless telegraph and the wireless part of the name hung on when sound started to be transmitted rather than just dots and dashes.

          The telephone existed before radio. Telephone is wired... radio wireless

          It's not like there was any need to distinguish it from anything (nothing) else that was wireless either.

            Umm, perhaps you should have read the responses above before posting? They actually explain it fairly clearly ... when technology transfers from a predominantly "wired" basis to a new format of "wireless", would this not make sense?

    Is rather amusing when you think about it, but then, it's so established it would be hard to imagine changing it. What we change it to anyway? a picture of a hard disk? A cloud? Actually with the way things are going a cloud might just work...

    And why is the "folder" icon still a filing cabinet folder? How many of us have ever used filing cabinets?

      People still use filing cabinets... unless you don't work.

      Yeah I agree with Robert, the manilla folder icon is one of the ones that is actually still relevant to real life.

    I taught primary school kids computing for six months, and tried to explain the potted history of the floppy disk. They were not impressed, and said: "ok, whatever, so to save we just click this button?" and were fine.

    Soon the floppy will mean 'save' and people won't realize it had an actual physical world equivalent.

    The 'new tweet' icon on twitter, the feather pen, is a bit pretentious though.

      Now that's an interesting idea... getting to a point where people won't even realise floppy disks were real, physical objects. I wonder if the 'file folder' image (among many others) will have a similar fate?

        That already happens in a way. When I worked as a secretary, I was highly amused to discover from my former secretary great aunt that the 'carbon copy' put on correspondence came from the fact that you would literally put a piece of carbon between sheets of paper in the typewriter to create multiple copies at the same time. Up until then I'd assumed that the carbon was merely a figure of speech.

          I still use carbon copies regularly. Granted it's blue paper so probably not actually a "carbon" copy, but it's still out there

      "The ‘new tweet’ icon on twitter, the feather pen, is a bit pretentious though."

      It fits in with the whole bird theme they have going though.

      My son will never know what a floppy disk is until he digs up info on it on Wikipedia etc. Technological evolution. Last week it was floppy disks, yesterday it was optical disks (CD/Bluray), today its USB and tomorrow its cloud storage.

    well microsoft removed the "file" menu for the "office button" in office 2007, but users didn't know what the hell was going on. it was especicially problematic when written in user guides. "click the office button" -> what?
    MS quickly reverted back to "file" menu in office 2010.

    i think it's good that things such as the file menu and the save icon are ubiquitous.

    I still have boxes on boxes on punched cards, lets not get into my 8inch floppy collection

      All 1MB of storage :)

    I still have boxes on boxes on punched cards, lets not get into my 8inch floppy collection

      Yep read it the first time - still doesnt make you any cooler dude.

        Hey Ash, settle down mate, you are burning up!

        Continue flaming and we'll call you Burnie!

    I kind of like the fact that these older technologies that would otherwise fade from memory get to live on after their time has passed. For an industry that is so forward-looking, it's nice to have a little acknowledgement of what came before.

    See also: 'Video' icons are still overwhelmingly filmstrip-related; Email almost always uses some variation on an envelope. I'm not a fan of Apple-style skeuomorphism, but I guess icons have to resemble something other than bits of data interacting with other bits of data.

    Simulacra and Simulations - the symbol has become much more permanent than the underlying reality.

    Why do we say dial on the telephone when we actually press buttons? Anyone remember old phones that actually had dials?!!

      Yeah...? Are you joking?
      I still plug in my old dial phone from time to time, but they're a bugger to use with so many crappy automated push button tone oriented systems around these days. - but they're so solid and so much better constructed any literally any consumer phone currently available these days.

      I found one on the side of the road the other year. Turned it into a giant bluetooth headset , but the novelty wore off pretty fast...so now it's whiling away time in my cupboard.

    The problem is, what would you change it to? It's hard to think of an equivalent to the humble floppy disk that really represents the concept of saving.

    Of course, Apple would have us all believe that the concept of saving is a little outdated anyway. Why do we need to explicitly command the machine to save our document periodically anyway? Can't the modern computer just keep track of the changes automatically for us and then allow us to go back and forward to any point. Apple's new document model was definitely flawed, but the concept makes sense when you think about it, "saving" is a bit old-fashioned, so maybe the old-fashioned floppy disk makes sense!

      Personally I find auto-saving very troubling. Not only can it easily overwrite something it's not meant to, it also means on large files the computer can lock up a bit when you'd really rather it doesn't (I work in CAD and even with 2D files they can get pretty bloody huge). Not to mention you casually make people unlearn that they need to keep track of their data, which is pretty bad if you need to keep track of specific file revisions and such.

      Anyway, now that I've finished going off on a tangent, I like how you say it kinda makes sense to keep it a floppy. As for what you'd change it to? I think a USB stick might be kind of appropriate. Although it still doesn't have that perfect iconic look of a floppy. I mean USB sticks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, floppies though have to be pretty much the same by design.

        Well said!
        Autosave only is fine for Google Docs and things like that, but when doing serious video editing , sound editing or image creation you really have to know exactly what you saved and when, especially when your work is hugely resource intensive.

        One of the reasons I'm uneasy using Microstation. Their autosave system terrifies me.

      Well you could change it to a HDD image, but that'd just be a gray rectangle. To most people i'd guess a cd would be read only, so that would't work either. How about a halo, click save, pray, and hope it doesn't get corrupted.

    I love it. It's a homage to what isn't anymore.

      "A homage"? Where do you live such that homage begins with a consonant?

      ... No, really; I'm curious.

        Anywhere without a French influence.
        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/homage

    I've thought about this for a while but funnily Gnome and Xfce and probably other opensource desktop environments actually use a hard drive for the save icon.

      I've noticed that too, and after a brief learning curve, thought it made more sense. Libre Office uses a filing cabinet icon instead.

    This is very spooky Lifehacker. I wondered about this just a week ago; and this is not the only time it has happened. Other very random things have come up in Lifehacker after I thought about them. How is this happening??

      Oh man you can see into the future!

      Time to dust off the al-foil hate, Mike.

    Another legitimate question is why mobile phone apps still have a picture of an old telephone handset?

    I suppose the floppy disk icon has been the symbol for saving documents and its a little too late to phase it out now without people bitching that they cant find the save function.

      "Another legitimate question is why mobile phone apps still have a picture of an old telephone handset?"

      Because Apple has already patented the rectangle with round edges.

    I've noticed that railway crossings still use steam engines on they're warn in signs. I have'nt seen a steam engine on a main line for nearly fifty years.

    Like a shutter sound on a digital camera.

    Language deriving from railways - going off the rails, on track, derailing something

      Unless you are talking about phone cameras, digital cameras still have shutters.

      we still have railways! See futuristic bullet trains, Japan.

    Can you come up with a way of distinctively representing a hard disk in a tiny space? What about a thumbdrive? Cloud storage? Making a 16*16 graphic to represent the concept of saving a file isn't easy.

      It's definitely possible to respent a HDD in such a small space. Typically a short cylinder icon is used to represent the drive's magnetic platters, and this icon is usually used near your computer's power button, which has an LED that constantly flashes to represent reading/writing of data. A stacked variant of this cylinder icon is also very popular in database software I've noticed.

      Anyway, this is a picture of the icon I'm describing: http://i.imgur.com/NmWAa.png

    A little box with the word SAVE in it maybe?
    Why does it have to be a picture?

      Because then it works in any language.

        or for dyslexics, young children, and other people who can't read.

          Yeah, all of those people who cant read or write but still find a use for MS Office?

      That's easy it's an image is a universal language an does not need translating into sufferer languages. Its the same with road signs make the images universal for the foreigners so any and everyone can understand the. Even if they don't know the local dialect.

      Symbols are also easier to process than text.

    The American letterbox with it s flag up and down is also a bit strange to me.

    Cut is still represented by scissors, but I haven't used scissors on my computer in years.

    I remember reading a similar article recently that went over a list of icons and images that we still use, though their content is a bit obsolete or outdated. Here it is in fact: http://www.hanselman.com/blog/TheFloppyDiskMeansSaveAnd14OtherOldPeopleIconsThatDontMakeSenseAnymore.aspx

    It doesn't stand for floppy discs. It stands for Save. And a word to the wise. The bits in the Recycle Bin are not actually recycled, either.. : )

      Actually they are.

        How exactly?

          The bits are deleted and are there to be re-used

          Because you're reusing the space on a disk where data just was, but is now deleted.

          The computer doesn't actually delete the data as such - it simply marks the sector as "Empty". Once the sector is "Empty", it can be Recycled? That's the only way I could make the phrase work...

    I think the sync icon (2 arrows making a circle shape) could be used. Saving is pretty much just syncing your changes to the file, document, etc.

      Oh, you mean the refresh icon?

        No the refresh icon is a single arrow - sync is two arrows going in a circle.

          depends on which browser you use! IE has the two, I think. And disturbingly close to the 3 arrows of the recycle bin "ah! rotating arrows! I don't want to trash my file!"

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