Why Redesigning the Save Icon is Important

The floppy disk has served as the representation of the save icon for decades. It’s widely accepted as a standard and well recognized. It is also a bad icon that we shouldn’t shy away from changing.

About a week ago, I started a Branch discussion on redesigning the Save icon. I never saw the Branch as the actual place where the icon would literally be designed, but I thought it would be a good hub for conversation. To my amazement, the thread took off and grew far beyond the bounds of that single discussion. As the days went by I found the meta-discussion more interesting than the discussion itself. A significant amount of people considered the exercise a waste of time for one pervasive reason. The icon, albeit antiquated, had become the de-facto for save and had transitioned into an abstract symbol. People know what it is, so why waste our time making something new?

I noticed an interesting pattern, through almost all those individual arguments. Very few, if any described the current Save icon as being good. There were plenty of mentions of it being established, understood, standard, etc. But rarely, if ever, referred to as good. The sense I was getting was, “Yeah, it’s old and kind of silly, but it works. If it’s not broken, why fix it? Imperfect as it may be, we’re stuck with it”.

First and foremost, the Save icon is broken. Objectively broken. I won’t go into the details of that in this article; I’ll be writing more about that in the near future. Initially, my interest in redesigning the Save icon was purely due to the fact that the design is not clearly communicating the concept of “save” and that it can be made better. However, after reading through the meta-discussion, I think it’s important to redesign the icon just to dispel the idea that we are somehow stuck with the current icon or with anything for that matter. Nothing is forcing us to continue to use an antiquated design and we shouldn’t feel beholden to some tenured relic that’s only redeeming quality is it just happened to be around before anything else. We’re not talking about legislation or physical infrastructure. We’re talking about the most fluid, dynamic medium around – information. If we can’t redesign a stupid icon, how can we expect to change serious things.

The aforementioned arguments for keeping the old floppy disk around aren’t new. It’s the same basic argument that has kept the imperial unit system around in America. Replacing an established standard isn’t easy. People won’t like it—mainly because it has the unfortunate quality of being different. That dreaded learning curve of “different” often scares people towards safer paths. Yes, new things need to be learned. But learning is a basic function of the human experience. The goal should be to make something worth learning. By avoiding tackling old, outdated and flawed standards, we are missing out on meaningful design challenges.

I am convinced we can make a better Save icon. It’ll be hard, but I truly think a symbol can be made which more accurately, elegantly and timelessly communicates the concept. I’m also convinced we can make a lot of other things better—really important things. However, many of those things have established norms that aren’t going to be particularly easy to replace. That’s the risk. If we succeed, the reward is the chance to make profound impacts.

The age or establishment of something shouldn’t preclude it from scrutiny and/or replacement. If anything, that should make us all the more eager to pull it down from its pedestal. Our job is to make things better—or at least try to do so. The Save icon is not good enough. We should try to make it better.

45 thoughts on “Why Redesigning the Save Icon is Important”

  1. I wrote this on Designer News, but it’s worth reproducing here:

    “I think this is the right answer to the wrong question. The save icon is indeed a poor depiction of the action it represents, but we should really be asking ourselves how we can make the idea of saving obsolete.

    Remembering things, comparing things, performing intermittent mundane actions—these are all things at which computers are much better than humans. Why not try to improve the whole process rather than just sticking a bandage on its face?”

  2. Very interesting article. I had never thought of it before but it makes sense.

    Here’s maybe an argument we can use as well to try to change it. As you wrote ” People know what it is”, i ask myself, but for how long? My sister is 20 years old and i’m not even sure she knows what a floppy was. So my point is, how even younger generations will react in the near future about that floppy/save icon?

    Going to read to discussion on branch to get the whole topic.

  3. Why you people don’t understand that the save icon has to remain as it is? Agree that floppy disks aren’t used anymore, but the floppy is a part of a language. It’s like changing the alphabet…

    People come up with shit concepts for a new change icon and nothing works. Why bother? Designers nowadays got pretty bored…

  4. @Jake: Couldn’t agree more. I think the whole process can and should be on the table for re-thinking.

    @Kevin: That’s a pretty core part of the argument – this particular icon is going to continue to degrade in meaning. It’s bad and it’s not going to get better.

    @Cosmin: No, it’s like changing words and words do in fact change. Our languages are not static and neither are our visual languages.

  5. The entire Latin alphabet, and most other European scripts for that matter, are derived from a single set of obsolete Phoenician pictographs. In my opinion, such cases as this are evidence that a universal understanding of a symbol is proof of its virtue regardless of how closely it eschews to a representational pardigm.

    Certainly attempts have been made to develop revisionist, more appropriately abstract character sets. None have gained much traction except maybe Klingon.

    1. @TJ: I definitely see that point. I just think the relation of an icon to a letter is flawed. I’m my opinion, an icon is an abstraction of a word. Words change, go-away and are replaced with better ones.

      That being said, crazy as it may sound, I would love to see more ideas on better character sets.

  6. I’ve actually heard a story about a coworker who spoke to a student that thought the save icon depicted a garage, because that’s where her family kept their storage. It just goes to show that once people understand a concept, they’ll apply any relevant visual metaphor to make it work.

  7. @P.J. You say “No, it’s like changing words and words do in fact change. Our languages are not static and neither are our visual languages.”

    I think this is where you’re missing something important, though. Our language changes very gradually, and usually inadvertently, over time. In only very, very few occasions is one group able to change a word deliberately. Usually, such attempts fail. Our visual languages, like our spoken-word languages, resist engineering from above.

    I think it’s a fun exercise coming up with alternatives, but I’m not sure whether the gains *are* worth it. Our languages are imperfect, but that’s what makes them interesting and alive.

    1. @Mark: Yeah, it definitely takes considerable force to change a piece of society’s lexicon – especially quickly. I’m not sure if redesigning the icon would be coming from “above” or “below”. My interest in a project like this is to just try to make something better, propose it as a different icon to use and see how it works. If it catches on, great. If not, that’s the way it goes. I agree, it’s a fun and fascinating exercise. I personally think the gains would be worth it, but that opinion is obviously going to vary from individual to individual.

  8. The same logic applies to almost any icon on both sides of this debate. Open up outlook on the PC, probably one of the most used programs in the world and look at the random pictures that try to describe an action.

    Theres no need to reinvent the wheel just because circles arent cool anymore.

    1. You’re missing the point. My argument is that the icon is broken. I could care less if it’s cool or not cool. The icon is poorly designed. And you’re right – there’s a ton of poorly designed icons out there, all of which should eventually be on the chopping block.

  9. Its an interesting debate P.J. Onori.

    In my opinion exchaning one arbritary geometric shape for another arbritary geometric shape needs some serious justification.

    I look forward to reading how you show that the save icon is objectivley broken as i think there are millions of people that know and use that icon that are going to make it a very tough job.

  10. @Sean: It’s a very tough job, no doubt about it. That’s what makes it so fun!

    The point of the exercise is to not use arbitrary geometric shapes. It’s to create some serious meaning behind them. For myself, that’s what makes the radiation and peace symbols so timeless. They have a strong conceptual meaning behind them. You may not know what it is, but it was the meaning that drove the design. As long as that meaning stays true to its subject, it’s valid and successful.

    That’s my whole point, I want something less arbitrary.

  11. By the way, I think it’s worth mentioning that I’m thoroughly enjoying this conversation (both on this site and on the Branch thread). Don’t mistake my fervor for hostility.

  12. The proof is in the pudding. Discussion about whether a new icon will work is fascinating but it now depends how it’s done.

    If you create enough groundswell and enough people use the icon because you’re telling them to, it will work from an authoritarian perspective. Much like it did originally: the public weren’t in control of the design, it was created and adopted as a standard by corporations or groups. Same goes for the biohazard and CND icons.

    If you anonymously drip feed the icon into popular consciousness you’ll see if people adopt it ‘naturally’ as a superior alternative to a disk.

  13. Yes and No. I think that’s the way to think about reinvention. Instead of whether we should do it or not, can anyone come up with better icons or representations?

  14. @Mat: Truer words have rarely been said. I’m going to keep trying to tackle this problem and the final version is going to end up in the release of Iconic. We’ll see how it’s received. I have no qualms of sticking my neck out on this. 🙂

    @Margo: That’s the goal. Something of this complexity is just going to take time though. I can only speak for myself, but the discussion over the past couple weeks has been absolutely invaluable for me. I feel like I have a much stronger handle on my thoughts/opinions on the subject.

  15. I’m not sure exactly what is the different. The common understanding of the letter /A is the it depicts the head of a bull or an ox.

  16. the save icon is universally understood, even to those who’ve never used a floppy. I’d say that’s not a *good* icon, but a great one.

  17. The save icon is beyond good.

    It’s amazing.

    It grounds us in history and inspires passionate conversations. It creates a common bond between generations. It reminds us of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

    Breathtaking, in its own unique way.

  18. I really can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a floppy disk used as a save icon, other than perhaps a search on iStock. I’m a firm believer that words should be used in place of icons when possible. When space doesn’t permit it however the check mark is pretty common these days.

  19. Also if you’re talking about redesigning the save button because its out of date you might as well take a stab at the search icon. When’s the last time you used a magnifying glass? Especially to “search for something”.

  20. I wrote something a bit different on my blog.

    A question: Across all of your devices – Your iPhone, your iPad and especially your Mac, how many apps use a floppy disk as the save icon? I don’t use Microsoft Office, but it’s the only one I can think of that does (which speaks volumes). Everything else simply has a red dot inside the “Quit” button to denote unsaved changes. We already did re-design it, and it’s pretty simple as is.

    Check out my blog post about it:
    Is The Save Icon Really A Floppy Disk

  21. I appreciate and really admire the passion you have shown here: but when I think of what’s “Really important” things like weekend hunger and poverty spring to mind more than any design issue I can think of. In fact, if I were an American I’d be far more eager to try and use my energy to promote the adoption of the metric system. But then again, this is from someone who has a while blog about why flags are wrong for languages…

  22. This is change for change’s sake. My 18 year old sister-in-law has never seen a floppy disc in her entire life. Do we – as designers, tech enthusiasts, etc – take issue with that fact that the icon does not represent anything physical to her, and all those in her generation? Apparently, yes.

    But as many others have said, we may cringe at the fact that it doesn’t represent anything physical anymore, but that is completely irrelevant to my sister-in-law. And it is technically false, because it does represent something to her: Save.

    At the end of the day, people learn that the weird looking square with a corner cut off means save, just the same that they learn that two vertical lines with a line connecting them in the middle means “H.” They learn that meaning, and the move on, never giving it another moments thought.

    If the icon is to change, it will be much like the alphabet – gradually over time, in very small ways. In 100 years, those of us in this discussion may not even recognize it from what it used to be. But it will happen naturally, and not through a brute force effort.

  23. The icon, good or bad, is here to stay. People know what it means and like it or not, that’s the reason it will be with us for a little while longer.

    Some things just stick I suppose…

  24. The only time I see a save icon is in the brief moments when I open something in microsoft office. The save ‘icon’ is: command + S 😉

  25. I would propose addressing more than just the floppy for save. How about the padlock for security/access for one if we’re going to go there. Fundamentally I don’t see anything wrong with real items representing computing concepts—paper for document, tabbed folder for folders, Oscar the Grouch trash can for unwanted files, a bird for tweeting, etc.—they make digital actions more relatable for many who would otherwise not get the action right away. (Even if some of those are antiquated.)

    In the end who would decide upon a new representation? I could see a danger in fragmented adoption of a variety of new save symbols, making a user experience the opposite of what were really striving for.

    So I’m not for or against a change, but I am for doing what we foresee being the best solution for current and future users in regards to all of the different concepts and actions of ‘Save’.

  26. The save icon isn’t broken, much less *objectively* broken. What makes an icon work is simply recognizability. If the meaning of an icon is widely recognized, even by people who don’t understand the origin of the icon, then that icon is objectively *working*.

    People don’t own many things with actual gears these days, or use the gears to adjust the device on devices that do have gears. Even people who grew up in a time when *all* alarm clocks had gears never once adjusted their alarm clocks by touching the gears in any way, as far as I know. But if gears are recognized as meaning “this is what you use to adjust settings” then it works as an icon.

    I looked at a bunch of programs, and only found an actually floppy save icon on one old X11-based program, probably going back to the days of actual floppy disks. The next closest thing was a box with a line on an old copy of Neooffice that I’m guessing was meant to be a floppy *drive*.

    But if there is an actual need for a new icon that means “save” I vote for a piggy bank:

  27. When I think about saving, I often visualize it in terms of picking up an object, working with it, then setting it down. I want to know that I can walk away from it and return to find it safely in the same state as when I left it.

    There are various methods of saving something; in the email draft model, there’s only ever the latest saved version; in the traditional file format model, there are as many versions as there are separate files; in the Google Docs and Time Machine model, there are node-like versions stretching back in time. They all represent securing or “saving” the object that you’re working with; in the mental model of physically manipulating an object, the system waits for me to momentarily be idle (stop handling the object) to record an image of it (set it down). When I begin manipulating it again, the current state of it is in flux, yet there is still a version of it that equals that which I last set down. To that end, I sketched the following:

    Save Symbol: Various States

    Thank you for a thought provoking discussion. While I do agree that the state of saving is changing, I think there will always be the need to know that your data is safe, and there will always be the need to refer back to a previous state of your work. It makes sense to address these through our icons. Maybe search and filesystem icons should come next…

  28. This is the wrong debate.

    I think “saving” is an antiquated concept altogether. It’s an ontological extension of computer speak, where things are either discarded or written on disk (saved). Humans don’t work like that, everything is saved and tagged contextually and seamlessly, and we can retrieve things from our memory at will. If the piece of information is not useful, it gets gradually discarded until retrieved.

    Auto saving and keeping a readily available history of what we’ve done and giving the ability to go back and cherry pick things from the past is the way to go.

  29. …oh and lol to ron’s comment. I’d have to agree “The save icon is: command+S”. His comment brought to mind the following point. I find that most applications I use autosave, keeping revision or version logs. Even a newly created document is saved just by the act of giving it a name different than the “untitled” that is highlighted for you to change when you first create it and then saved again upon exiting the program. But, I guess there’s still Save As. I still think you made spot on remarks regarding the importance of a willingness to reevaluate the established and continually strive to make things ever more apt for their purpose.

  30. Unsolvable problem that doesn’t really need to be solved. Only designers (including myself) ever complain about this. It’s kind of like asking for a different icon for “email”. Theres is a given level of acceptance through exposure. Does it make it right? No. Does it make it wrong? No, as well.

    It’s not hurting anyone except those of us that get lost in the hyper-sensitive weeds of literalism. Probably could solve 3 other more valuable UX issues in the same amount of time one may devote to trying to “solve” this.

    Shoot…we should just label the damn thing “Save” and forget about the icon.

  31. The save button did change, since you are not talking about desktop applications.

    It is a star when you want to bookmark a page in Chrome.
    It is an envelope when you send yourself a mail so you can keep in your mailbox.
    It is a printer sometimes…
    For me its a drop when I use Dropmark and a P for those using Pinterest.
    Its a folder or a label when I am saving a specific message on Gmail.

    Sometimes times even it is nothing : when I write a message in Gmail it becomes immediatly a draft and there is no “save” anymore. Same thing in Gdocs : the save button has even disappeared some time ago.

    “Save” is dead, therefore its icon.

  32. The title of this article is kind of misleading.

    It’s called “Why redesigning the save icon is important”, yet when it comes to explaining why redesigning the save icon is important, you simply say, “…the Save icon is broken. Objectively broken. I won’t go into the details of that in this article.”

    That’s seriously frustrating for the reader! Even more so than some antiquated icon 😉

  33. Using a familiar scenario:

    a dog.
    a bone.
    a hole.

    the bone is the data
    the hole is the storage medium
    the dog is the actor to communicate what is to be done

    an icon of a bone with a magic poof on the top corner is “create new file”
    an icon of a hole with a magic poof on the top corner is “create new folder”
    an icon of a hole with a dog with his mouth open and bone between dog and hole is “save file”
    an icon of a hole with a dog digging, with a part of bone exposed is “open file”

    Then there’s the business model

    the file (which one sheet of paper)
    the folder (which is a manila folder with a name, holding a file, or files)
    the filing cabinet( which is a set of drawers, with folders inside)
    the asexual person who is filing (an arrow)

    poof on file – create file
    poof on folder – create folder
    poof on filing cabinet – create new project
    files (stack of paper) with arrow pointing into folder – save all files
    file with arrow pointing into folder – save file
    file with arrow pointing out of folder – open file
    files with arrow pointing out of folder – retrieve all files
    folder with arrow pointing into filing cabinet – save all files in folder to project
    folder with arrow pointing out of filing cabinet – retrieve project

  34. The semantic and philosophical discussions have missed I think one point about the existing floppy “save” icon. What is saved isn’t information (Raphael). It’s a file. The dog/bone metaphor misses it as well. There is data, there is a storage medium, there is a user (actor). There is also a “thing” – the file containing the data, which is the organizing framework for storing the data. The file is “saved” and continues to be “saved” by anyone who works with files.

    As a web and print graphic designer, I work with files day in and day out. Saving is a crucial concept, and is extremely important in differentiating one document from another (Save As). Where it’s saved isn’t as important as that it is saved. Autosave does not replace Save. As soon as I close a program that autosaves, I’ve lost all the versions of the document, and the document is Saved in its last state. As soon as Google’s cloud servers disintegrate, I’ve lost the file I Saved in the cloud, and hope I have it Saved on my hard drive, thumb drive, iPhone, SD card, etc.

    I agree the floppy icon isn’t good enough, but the reason it works is that everything used to be saved onto floppy disks, so the floppy icon physically represented “Save.” Nothing else does that now. The floppy icon has become standard the way the logo in the upper left of a web page has become standard: through the folk process of repeated use of useful forms.

    Until our folk process throws up another iconic image, I’ll continue to use the floppy icon, or a graphic that references it.

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