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Floppy disks, Sturdy symbols

2010 April 28
by Matt

That piece of non-news about the floppy disk has apparently sparked the interest of others. Since my own post, BBC Magazine has looked into the big question I was left with and considered who exactly is still buying floppy disks, and at least managed to offer some speculation.

Meanwhile, NPR’s All Tech Considered blog has chosen this occasion to ask why the floppy disk is still used as an icon to save documents in “the epoch of cloud computing.”

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This is something which I, and no doubt many others, have considered in the past. The persistence of the floppy disk as an icon for a “save file” function in software is, from a design perspective, fascinating and vexing. One may see this virtual anachronism a bit less often, nowadays, but it’s still there long after the physical object it depicts has effectively vanished from our lives. It’s in office software toolbars. Dig around in the options for Adobe Reader and it still uses a floppy icon, as well.

Like NPR’s Sara Sarasohn, I imagine that this is largely for want of any obvious alternative symbol; I haven’t spent a great deal of time on the subject but nothing springs to mind. A flash drive might work, but the main feature common to such drives is simply a USB connector, which is shared with countless other devices.

Meanwhile the result does at first seem weird and faintly troubling, as a designer. Has today’s typical college graduate ever used a floppy disk? And if not is the symbol becoming obsolete? Should we (or at least, someone) be concerned with replacing it?

All in all, I suspect that the answer is “no.” From a specific and practical standpoint, it simply isn’t a big deal. And in a broader perspective, stop to think about it and you realize that this kind of thing goes on all the time. Take a moment to consider how many of the icons and symbols in our computerized environment are based on physical objects. Right now, just in my WordPress editing window, I can see icons depicting: a house, a pushpin, a page-per-day calendar, a camera, a hammer and screwdriver and a computer screen with text on it.

Already, the floppy disk is by no means unique in being “orphaned” by the physical world. The toolbar in Photoshop, for example, includes icons of a rubber stamp, a cropping tool and a dodging tool for darkroom photo developing. I’m familiar with all of these things, even the last one though any proper name that it has escapes me, but how often does anyone use them? I’m pretty sure that I’ve never actually used a “real” cropping tool, in fact.

The reality is that our cutting edge technology and virtual workspaces frequently employ the images of physical world objects, many of them to some extent archaic. And this is sure to continue. Consider the camera, frequently used as an icon. Even in our digital era, the traditional image of a box with a circle on it and a button on top is still fairly representative of objects used in the physical world. But for how long? At some point, might the camera not disappear almost entirely? It’s already embedded into tiny mobile phones. Will it be integrated into glasses in ten years?

And how long until the irony of iTunes’ icon becomes complete: a program for managing electronic music files which is represented by the image of a compact disc? Not to mention the way that nearly every e-mail program ever created has, from the very first, incorporated into its icon a representation of the communication platform which it makes largely obsolete.

Looking at some of the comments to Ms. Sarasohn’s blog post, it seems that most people are making similar points about the frequency of “archaic” symbols, or simply shrugging their shoulders. By and large, I think that we take the disassociation of icons from physical world sources in stride. (Though it impresses me that so many people seem to realize that they do so.)

Essentially, people have been doing this for the length of recorded civilization: all of the characters in our alphabet (and probably nearly all systems of writing) began as a depiction of some physical object or other. But over time they were reduced to a standardized simplification, at which point it no longer mattered what became of the physical objects that inspired them.

We constantly use metaphor, after all, and not only in visual communication. It has even been suggested that consciousness itself is only possible through the use of an extended spatial metaphor. Some of these metaphors become archaic, in a sense, but they still work. Even though Newcastle’s coal resources are essentially exhausted and, what’s more, Newcastle long ago ceased to be a familiar nearby location for the majority of English speakers, the expression “carrying coals to Newcastle” still carries meaning for people around the world.

Likewise, even though I’ve never used a physical cropping tool, I understand instinctively that when I see that particular configuration of lines, I can use it to crop an image (or even an audio or video file). The symbol represents what it represents, rather than representing an intermediary thing in the “real world” which in turn represents the actual meaning.

Will the floppy disk as an icon for saving changes to a file stay or go? I don’t know. But on reflection, it may be just as well to leave it alone. If we decide to start intentionally expelling “archaic” symbols from our iconography… where do we stop?