Metaphors, Idioms and Why the Save Icon is Broken

In a recent post I promised to write a follow-up article on why the save icon was “objectively” broken. I know this topic has run its course, so I will keep this brief. I’ve started to think more broadly about this save icon subject—specifically around using metaphors in design. The metaphors for computing concepts established decades ago are starting to show their age and time has exposed the weaknesses of relying too heavily on them.

Metaphors make ephemeral concepts tangible. It’s a very natural way to communicate. This approach was core to the Star Operating System and has stayed so to this day. It was a huge success.

Metaphors vicariously describe a concept, but they don’t directly articulate. Therefore a metaphor’s efficacy relies on both subjects maintaining their relation. Once that relation breaks, metaphor becomes idiom. Raining cats and dogs is an example of a outdated metaphor that no longer makes sense. Idioms are a nightmare for people trying to learn a new language because they seem like nonsense to the outsider.

There’s also a relatively new problem with metaphors—they don’t last as long as they used to. The world is changing so quickly (especially in the digital world) that metaphors are losing their relevance sooner. Since metaphors rely on both subjects maintaining their relation, change is a metaphor’s greatest enemy.

My Gripe With the Save Icon

The save icon is essentially an idiom in the form of an icon. It once made sense and no longer holds any relevant meaning to people under 30. Idioms are a bad way to communicate if your goal is clarity and universality. The core purpose of an icon is clarity and universality. This is a problem. There are times when an idiom can be a fun, quirky way to get a point across, but it has no place for one of the core functions of computing.

Save designed by Cris Dobbins from The Noun Project
Save designed by Cris Dobbins from The Noun Project

As soon as an icon becomes the visual equivalent of an idiom, its form has no decipherable meaning to those without context. Even worse, its form has no relevance to its the subject. In my opinion, this makes it objectively bad. The save icon is a great icon for floppy disk, not so much for save.

That’s my main gripe with using metaphors for icons, but there are other problems. For instance, once you use something else to describe a concept, there’s nothing stopping you from using that something else to describe another concept. Clear as mud? OK, let’s just jump to an example. We use the magnifying glass to communicate search.

Search  designed by Egor Culcea from The Noun Project
Search designed by Egor Culcea from The Noun Project

But we also use it to communicate zoom in/out.

Zoom designed by Egor Culcea from The Noun Project
Zoom designed by Egor Culcea from The Noun Project

We use the magnifying glass to communicate two entirely different concepts. On their own, they work (although I always thought the magnifying glass for search was a stretch), but as a part of a system they break down. This is the equivalent of to, too and two in the English language.

That’s my problem with metaphors, they make a lot of sense in the short term and for a single solution, but in a broader, longer view, they begin to break down. My guess is that we will have more icons with problems similar to the save icon in the years to come.

Here’s the snag. Designing entirely symbolic visual representations for abstract concepts is really hard. For every success, there are a multitude of failures. Metaphors have less of a cognitive learning curve than abstract icons. I don’t think we should stop using them,but I think we need to be aware of their pitfalls and make the necessary adjustments.

Metaphors in our interfaces will need constant maintenance and updating. My main issue with the save icon is that we let it become an idiom. While I would still have philosophical issues with using a modern storage device to communicate save, at least it would be within the realm of decency.

I still prefer meaningful symbols to metaphors to communicate abstract concepts. The radiation trefoil is a great example of a meaningful symbol. If I am right and metaphors begin to suffer reduced longevity, it’ll make symbolizing concepts all the more important.

In short, a good metaphor is a useful way to communicate an idea at a specific point in time. Not so great for a prolonged amount of time.

7 thoughts on “Metaphors, Idioms and Why the Save Icon is Broken”

  1. I’ve never liked the notion that a gear, or cluster of gears, represents “settings”. I’ve always thought the concept was better communicated via a wrench or a set of sliders.

  2. Interesting read, but a couple nitpicks:

    “Raining cats and dogs is an example of a outdated metaphor that no longer makes sense.”

    This makes no sense. Saying it’s ‘outdated’ implies that there was once a time when it did indeed rain cats and dogs, but no longer. It just means it’s raining hard, and that concept is pretty date-proof. Unless you meant to say it’s ‘old-fashioned’, which is completely different (and pretty subjective) value judgement.

    “I still prefer meaningful symbols to metaphors to communicate abstract concepts. The radiation trefoil is a great example of a meaningful symbol.”

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘meaningful symbol’ here. It’s a symbol that means something by virtue of someone assigning meaning to it (it doesn’t have an intrinsic meaning). I think that semantics aside, this is also true of ‘metaphoric icons’. They have a meaning assigned to them by an outside entity. We know what they are because we’ve been taught what they mean.

    Ultimately, how are ‘meaningful symbols’ and (metaphoric) icons really any different from one another?

    1. @cena – There is a reason why the saying exists, we’re just not exactly sure what that reason is. But if you had no context to that saying and someone said “It’s raining cats and dogs”, you’d have no idea what they were talking about. The aforementioned idiom is the the quintessential example of an outdated saying.

      What I mean by “meaningful symbol” is something that has meaning beyond some arbitrary assignment. I think there are good examples of symbols with intrinsic meaning. The radiation symbol is communicating a rather abstract concept, but it’s doing so in a way that is accurate and descriptive of the subject matter. I could draw a circle and declare that it is an icon for a pencil. I’ve assigned meaning to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good representation for the subject it’s trying to communicate.

      The main difference between “meaningful symbols” and metaphoric icons is that one tries to directly communicate a concept while the other tries to communicate a concept by relating it to another. There’s a big difference between the two – those differences really begin to show themselves over an ample amount of time.

  3. Last paragraph sums it up, icons are only good for as long as they’re relevant.
    But they’re not something you change everyday,
    hence why things like save will remain a floppy disk for years to come

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