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Old People Icons That Don't Make Sense Anymore (hanselman.com)
314 points by joeyespo on May 9, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 267 comments

The problem is that if we modernized most of our iconography, a heck of a lot of things won't be able to be represented simply with something distinctive enough. This is largely due to what I'll call the merging of things into the same form largely driven by computing. For example...

Icon for a phone - rectangular screen

Icon for a TV - rectangular screen

Icon for a tablet - rectangular screen

Icon for a camera - rectangular screen (with a little dot in the corner)

Icon for a video recorder - rectangular screen (with a little dot in the corner)

Its true that most icons refer and represent a visual form of something from a decade or more ago. But what do you replace them with that will be any better when a lot of these things have no distinctive visual form anymore?

Not only that. We appear to be far better at learning the meaning of new unknown symbols than one would expect.

Anecdotal evidence: when I first encountered a floppy icon, its purpose wasn't obvious to me at all, despite I've already used a floppy before. See the Chinese writing example in this thread as well. Apparently, prior knowledge of the real-world object doesn't affect usability as much as other visual features of an icon.

This makes me believe that, in future,

1) younger generations won't have any trouble with icons that represent old things they'll never see;

2) icon design business is going to profit.

"2) icon design business is going to profit."


The real change is that up until now many icons got away with implying a mash-up of result, media and interaction in one clear glyph.

Even when the old-school icons were developed, the result for many things was a rectangular screen. Which is why they emphasized media or trappings, which had the useful side-effect of implying interaction. (bunny ears vs film strip vs VHS tape vs film camera)

As you correctly note, the problem now is that all media is digital. There are no distinctive trappings. There isn't anything to imply the interaction mode. (are you taking, browsing or sharing photos when you click on that picture icon? And when sharing, via what 'channel'? web service? email? mms?)

Further, we've never really had to worry about so many of these icons in a single app or on a single device before, because it was largely inconceivable that a single thing would do all of this to any acceptable degree. Even 10 years ago, what general purpose computing platform had all the features of a modern smartphone? Including access to multiple networks and services for transferring data at varying degrees of synchronicity -- think capture video vs broadcast video vs video chat. What app was commonly used by regular people to handle capture, editing, review and multiple sharing options for both photo and video?

A single glyph is simply not enough anymore. We can reasonably distinguish between text-in-a-box, still-in-a-box (cliche landscape) and video-in-a-box (stick figure with action lines). But we'll need multiple glyphs in combination to distinguish between video-to-be-streamed-down, video-to-be-broadcast, video-to-be-sent-via-email, video-to-be-captured, etc.

And this won't be too difficult. To some extent we're already doing this, with arrows and combo glyphs to distinguish between things like Save/Delete/Copy/Burn/Share.


I realize Scott's article was tongue-in-cheek, but this is all nothing to worry about. It just means that icons will have a history, an etymology, just like words, or Chinese pictograms, or, hell, even the symbols in our Latin alphabet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A

Exactly, I suspect there is nothing we can replace it with. A TV with rabbit ears will always be a TV - perhaps a hundred years from now?

This "nothing we can replace it with" sounded wrong to me, so I spent a moment trying to quickly draw on my tablet some possible alternate metaphors for many of the things used in this article, and I came up with these:


(Disclaimer: my ability to draw is very limited so this looks unintentionally minimalist, because my "boxes" are just squares.)

You could have some convention which says, say, "the present file is a sort of ball or rounded object, the filesystem is a box where we can put our balls, the clipboard is some sort of stack of stuff," and so forth. Phones could look more like mobiles do now, if you put them in a bit of perspective and gave them a keypad. Rather than using the page for a generic document, we have the ball for that purpose, so we use the page instead to indicate printing, since you're converting the ball into a piece of paper.

I think wrenches, magnifying glasses, and binoculars can stay as iconic things -- but since people now use magnifying glasses for "zoom" we should perhaps stabilize on binoculars for "search"/"find". (And come on, I'm not Sherlock Holmes. I'm not trying to find a clue, I'm trying to find last night's homework.)

Email is much trickier; if we don't keep using envelopes, I don't know how we would iconify that.

I like the look of those, but I did laugh when I saw the cell phone with an antenna on the top.

I actually spent fifteen minutes or so going back and forth on that. My old cell phone had one, perhaps for style, yet my new phone doesn't. And I was thinking a lot about that bizarre V-shaped TV antenna, too. ^_^

I like your general icons, but your phone is already obsolete. I'm also not sure why the last two represent real world devices rather than abstract concepts, given that your other icons are pretty intuitive.

There's a problem with "search" in particular because I just have too many ideas. Almost all of them suck.

What's the most iconic image of search? Finding a needle in a haystack. Well, that won't do. Second most iconic image of search? Police searching a home. Looking for your keys. Rummaging couch cushions for change. Steal the Google logo.

Some ideas of search are okay, but don't play well with the other icons -- a piece of paper with text, one of the lines suddenly jumps to a fragment of blue text. (It works if your "find" highlights a word with a blue box when it finds it.)

The closest I have come to another good icon for search is to try to denote the question, "where is it?" This could be a question mark with the "box" which represents the filesystem. Perhaps many balls are shown coming out of the box. Or perhaps a stack of notecards with one of them being pulled out.

"Call" is different because I have too few ideas. A phone, perhaps. Two faces seen in profile could mean "converse" with the implication that there will be voice. Or an ear, perhaps, with its oblong shape. Telephone wires are iconic in parts of the US, but are an oddity abroad. And beyond that, I'm a bit lost.

As an answer to your question regarding an icon for search. How about an eyeball? Searching is very much a visual process. Both binoculars and magnifying glass requires eyes to be useful in practice. Combining an eyeball with other icons doesn't feel impossible.

Nice. I particularly like your zooming icons.

This reminds me very much of how the genesis of ideographic writing (such as Chinese characters) was related to me. I'm not at all certain that it is correct, but gist of it was that these forms of writing start with illustrations but gradually become encoded over time.

Not only that, but the author also seems annoyed by older terminology taking new meanings, as with "radio buttons", "bookmarks", and "folders".

The irony here is that he has no problem calling the device he uses a "computer", despite the older definition no longer holding true, or especially referring to "files", which is certainly not a term used in the old sense.

Dijkstra's "On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science" rails against analogies (the source of these terms) at length, but I'm not certain that there's much validity to the argument when the new meaning of the term eclipses the old one.

I quite like the idea of doing an app where all the icons are Chinese ideographs with native language tooltips and descriptions.

It would be a little like living in the Firefly universe but with more iPhones.

It won't make much sense to do in one app. Users (except for Firefly fans and/or Chinese learners) will hate it, because the complex design of hanzi is optimized for having thousands of these characters to distinguish between.

Now, if we had all the icons in all apps replaced consistently with Chinese simplified characters—that would be fun. I don't think it would be such a disaster (except to icon design business profits), after we rediscover how functions map to pictures again we'll continue to utilize UIs as usual. Admittedly a bit slower because of more complex hanzi shape, but without having to deal with badly designed or inconsistently used icons[0].

And also we'll be sure that when a new concept appears we will have an icon for that. If not—well, we'll start combining hanzi.

[0] An example of one such goof: http://plus.google.com/photos/108564542236590882918/albums/p...

And it will always have rounded corners, long after everyone forgets what a TV tube looked like.

I'm not sure the whole icon thing actually works.

For MacPaint with 8 functions it was great. For picking one of a dozen apps on an iPhone - fine.

But the last version of the 3D cad package I used had over 5000 commands - and each one of those was represented by a unique and (supposedly) intuitive icon! That's getting close to the Chinese alphabet

CAD is definitely one area where UX is so far behind it's pretty much useless. The command line is the fastest and only useful way to be productive. Rather than spend all their time coming up with icons for each little dot it sure would be nice if they'd do a little research on exploring alternative UIs (hint: simply allowing me to customize toolbars is not the answer).

This is awfully condescending towards people in their twenties and younger.

> Want to indicate Settings or Setup to a twenty something? Show them a tool they've never used in their lives.

> If you don't know who Johnny Carson is, how could you know that this is a old-style microphone?

> No one under 30 has seen a Polaroid in years but we keep using them for icons.

We don't live in a cultural vacuum where everything that existed prior to our birth ceases to exist or be represented. We watch old movies, we watch old TV, we read old books and we see old photographs.

Some things go missing and some things stick around. The icons that stop having a useful meaning will either disappear or be transformed and some icons will come to be a somewhat abstract representation of what they do, even if they're based on things that existed in the past.

I don't understand people's obsession with telling everyone they should modernize their icons - if you think so, then you should do it. See how your users react.

I too think this was condescending, arrogant, and off the mark. I was born well after rabbit-ear TVs, but I know one when I see it. Ditto, Polaroids were a quaint novelty even when growing up, but I still know a "polaroid border" on an image when I see it. Indeed, the old style microphones (a la Siri) haven't been used in decades before I was born, but yet the iconic shape is unmistakable to anyone in my generation.

Indeed, the author seems out of touch with the state of 20-somethings right now - if anything present-day 20-somethings are the most Polaroid-obsessed generation in quite some time. The market for old, restored Polaroid cameras has exploded in recent years. That iconic Polaroid camera icon on Instagram is quite recognizable to the youth of today.

As iconography this seems hardly relevant. When's the last time the author used a magnifying glass for real? Hell, even in the old days how often did people ever use magnifying glasses? But it certainly has no trouble being the universal symbol for "search".

This is the power of iconography - they are not the objects from which they are derived, and over time and use they take on meaning of their own.

For many of these it's more than just remembering them.

The following items I've used in the past week: Clipboard, bookmark, calendar (physical), folder (physical), handset phone, envelope, screwdriver.

And in the past decade: a microphone that looks exactly like the one pictured (use plenty of slightly less retro ones all the time), a Polaroid camera, a magnifying glass, binoculars, a voicemail-inspiring cassette, an address book, a floppy disk.

Over time they may become more and more forgotten, but a lot of them aren't that old - I'm 22 and the radio-button radio is the only one on the list I've never used.

I didn't like the post as much as I expected to.

The floppy disk as an icon for save is a legitimate complaint, in the sense that it is early technology that has been deprecated by later technology, and [almost] nobody will ever use one again.

That said, good luck finding a new icon. The difficulty is that the concept of "saving" only came about with computers, and unlike zooming or even grouping things together in folders, finding a real-life pictorial representation of saving is... difficult.

But the others... The last time I checked, bookmarks, calendars, envelopes, magnifying glasses, and screwdrivers all exist in the real world and are used regularly by a lot of people, and they aren't going to go away any time soon.

Also, it's not hard to find microphones today that look a lot like the one in the icon.

I'm glad we're using a floppy disk rather than the alternative (dead now) "piggy bank".

Imagine how confused most people are seeing a tiny pig in the tool bar. It's an effort to get from "little pig" to "piggy bank" to "save". And that's for people with english as a first language.

True, I was stretching on many of them. I ended up not having a good way to end the post, and it seemed like I was saying that "these are all old" when I meant to say "these won't always be around."

Actually, I find the article quite funny and thought provoking. It makes you wonder how long icons like these will remain the norm, and if they'll ever change.

I'm nearly 40 and I've never seen one of those old-fashioned microphones. According to the author, it seems I should have trouble recognising it.

I think calling it "condescending" is awfully uncharitable. It seems obvious to me that any curmudgeonliness was tongue-in-cheek, but maybe that's because I'm more familiar with Scott's writing.

There's a good article to be written on this subject, but this isn't it.

"folders": we can go back to "directories" if you'd like. It's still what I say most of the time.

"wrenches/screwdrivers/gears": This was the most baffling one. Who's never used a screwdriver? And he says it as if it's obvious.

"phone": 75% of the US still has a landline (as of a year ago anyway), so I find "you haven't used this in 20 years" to be a rather dumb statement too.

"tv antenna": Antennas have actually come back recently when broadcast stations switched to digital and HD feeds. This would have been a better criticism ten years ago, and makes him the one that sounds out of date.

When I saw the article title, I figured "floppy disk" = "save". And sure, that's somewhat valid. But as others have pointed out, it's idiomatic. It happens in language all the time: people still say that someone is given "free rein" even if nobody involved has ever ridden a horse.

I agree, I was very surprised that he doesn't even mention the "hourglass". It's true that it's less and less frequent but I would argue that it's more common than the floppy disk.

I chuckled when I read your post, because at TripAdvisor we have one in every meeting room. And they actually get used.

While "hourglass" may not be a commonly known term, I would imagine plenty of young kids still recognize it thanks to boardgames that involve them. Well, I hope plenty of young kids play boardgames, anyway.

Good one, hourglass, pointer arrow and filmstrip were all obvious ones I missed.

The obvious response to all his critiques is that they're all idiomatic. Apple didn't choose a handset icon because everyone is familiar with those old handsets, they chose it because everyone will know that the icon means "telephone." Sure, it's fun to go back one more "etymology generation," but it's not necessary.

"phone" - The shape he's talking about is this one[1]. While the Wrench/Screwdriver etc. are in common use, the shape here is from the rotary phone, which is not in common use.

The page I linked was literally the first google image result for me, and that top cluster of images includes many recognizeable clip-art phones, all with the same rotary phone shape.

1. http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/01/getting-the-intervi...

The Western Electric handset was still used for years after touchtone phones became commonplace: http://www.telecomwholesalecentral.com/catalog/2500%20WE.jpg

At the last two offices I've worked at, the landline phone (VOIP Handset) looked like this :[1]. Not a whole lot different from the smartphone Phone app icon.


That isn't necessarily true. He doesn't specify rotary phones.

Even if he did, like the folders and envelopes he also mentions, corded phones which look like the picture are still quite common in office places and thus many peoples lives outside of silicon valley.

we dial a phone number as well - I haven't actually seen a dial phone in 20 years.

And he missed the "film" icon for movies. I think about this one when I see the stylized movie-chain trailers in theaters: What percentage of the audience even knows what that strip is supposed to be?

Do directors still say cut? Or do they now shout fclose() at the end of a scene?

If it's a really good take - do they say that's "a burn to disk" - instead of a print?

Fun read. However, if the suggestion is that we force ourselves to constantly update iconography because the metaphors are outdated, I don't agree. Sailors still say "knots", but I bet young ones don't all know why. People say "breadboard" all of the time when building electronics.

Similarly, the very letters of our language evolved out of symbols that meant something to some humans long ago, just as words have an etymology.

People simply start to associate icon with action. Mail on my Mac is represented by a postage stamp. I never realized that until I just analyzed it. Good icons are subconscious like that.

For us young ones: How do sea navigators measure their ships speed? http://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae400.cfm

Another interesting word is 'log' which we use daily in a digital sense but it has a very physical nautical origin:

log: "from log (n.1) which is so called because a wooden float at the end of a line was cast out to measure a ship's speed. General sense by 1913."

Source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=log&allowed_in_...

That's interesting. I just assumed it was a sound-alike for "nautical miles per hour", spelled "knots" instead of "nauts" for some arbitrary reason.

> Mail on my Mac is represented by a postage stamp. I never realized that until I just analyzed it. Good icons are subconscious like that.

Honestly? I don't believe you. The postage stamp is in no way subtle - in fact, it couldn't be more obvious.

Perhaps to you. But a lot of icons you never really look carefully at and realise what they are. They are merely coloured shapes which you use to interact.

I'd love to go to schools and get kids in groups like <15years or <10 years and ask them to design icons for these things and see what they come up with. They have a lot less cultural history and technological history. might be interesting.

Or maybe they've learned all these icons and while not getting what they did mean, they understand what they mean now, like letters of a new alphabet. Like how many Asian script characters are descendants of more obvious pictograms of actions. They still have meaning even if they've evolved a bit and even changed.

From the stackoverflow thread linked by rapidnsnail:

> I tried this on my 9 and 13 year old nephews. I asked what does this button mean? "Save" they both answered immediately. Then I asked what the image looks like? They had no idea - not even a suggestion (which is fair since they haven't ever seen a disk). So I guess the meaning has overriden the image itself in the icon so we're stuck with it.


Well that particular one we don't have to worry about. The expectation of having to explicitly 'save' an electronic file is (finally) on its way out.

Really? Than what do you call the action of making particular snapshots of file state?

In the future, there is no such action. Everything is recorded with an infinite rollback history.

That doesn't fit many use cases. What if you want to preserve a particular version of the file? Yes, I understand all versions are kept in the infinite rollback history, but what about the UI element?


Save is going away. Save As is going the way of "duplicate"/"fork".

... only in Lion.

I've been using that workflow for nearly a year now, and it's still driving me batty. It's inconvenient and backward, and I hope it gets reverted.

In anything with an auto-save-by-default workflow. Consider draft messages in modern mail clients. Some still have a manual 'save' button. But that's a transition thing. They'll go away as users learn they can trust the autosave.

Most of the awkwardness in Lion came from the shortcut keys having been wrong and the effect having been jarring for its lack of vestigial commands to ease the minds of those not-yet-convinced.

I find this new workflow nice by itself, but what's driving me batty is having two models side by side i.e some apps use open/save/save as while others use open/autosave/versions/duplicate.

My SO, though, finds it downright fantastic.

A camera? (snapshot)

What's a camera? You mean the photo app on my smartphone?

Hmm.. maybe, but camera is often so overloaded.

that reminds me of when, in 1999, some researchers installed an internet kiosk in a poor village, and children taught themselves to use it, despite not being able to read the language.

> Children invented their own vocabulary to define terms on the computer, for example, “sui” (needle) for the cursor, “channels” for websites and “damru” (Shiva’s drum) for the hourglass (busy) symbol.

from http://hole-in-the-wall.com/docs/paper02.pdf

This experiment made me happy. I remember times in the school computer lab when we surfed and did whatever we liked with the installed software, all during our computer literacy classes...nice to see people everywhere having at least the chance to do the same.

In another of his papers, Prof Mitra wrote about how "aspirational learning" could be conducted, in the sense of letting children watch interesting and inspiring videos from TED Talks, et al, which would inspire kids to consider what they could do for the world with dreams, technology, and hard work. I think that's absolutely a great thing to spread. In too many places people don't do new things simply because they don't realise they are possible.

UI designers are constantly forced to come up with new icons for crazy new features.

It's a common practice to look for it on Google images, i.e. "Save Icon", and see if there's a common metaphor. If not, you look for similar use cases - something so that it's much quicker for users to grok what it does.

That's the fundamental purpose after all.

This was the problem with Google/Android's new icons as well as GitHub. Google got caught up with minimization and left out the telling differentiators. Githup went nuts on illustration and lost the original meanings.

Yep, and you have supposed "leaders" like Apple that just give up and stop trying. Apple widely just throws up a button with a "gear" on it when they're too lazy to organize functions properly. And there's no telling what the gear button will do.

Even worse is the Easter-egg UIs that are becoming a widespread problem: There's no icon (or even control) at all until you accidentally roll the cursor over the area. WTF? Are users supposed to sweep across every pixel on the screen now, looking for hidden goodies?

Not sure what the gear is you mention, but I can't think of another company that has Apple's drive for intuitive UI, which is the fundamental purpose of icons.

In contrast, HN is a text-dominant application designed for text-dominant users...

Innovative doesn't mean intuitive - why is pinch zoom? Wouldn't it be more intuitive for pinch to close an app - after all you pinch things closed ?

What flat surface do you close by pinching it? Moreover, it seems you're trying to equate "intuitive gesture" with gestures people use with (non-computer) everyday objects, but I don't see why that is a requirement for intuitiveness.

Pinching to zoom in and out makes a lot of sense in my mind. Place your thumb and index finger at two points on a map/image/website. Those two points are two corners of a visual area. To make that visual area larger, expand the points outward. To make the area smaller, pinch inward. This conceptual mapping is very straightforward.

Four finger pinch does close apps, though. And pinch as zoom makes sense if you ever played with newsprint transfered to silly putty!

Pinch isn't zoom. Unpinch in zoom. It would be intuitive for pinch to close an app, but not more intuitive, because in some apps your intent to zoom out could be confused with wanting to close the app (mobile Safari) and for other apps accidental finger brushes might cause an accidental closing of an app. The way touch gestures work now actually make a lot of sense. It seems like you're reaching.

I've often thought about the issue the author brings up. I'm not sure what the case is now, but when I was a kid (15 or so years ago), cartoons were full of anachronistic items that I probably never would have seen otherwise.

Generally when you farther back, items become more differentiated and easily identifiable. A lot of these cross over with computer icons - telephones, antennas, alarm clocks. I really wish I could find a good listing for this type of thing, but my google fu is failing me.

I think those symbols are just learned.

Take folders. They look like this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Earthwise.jpg

That makes it obvious where the symbol is coming from. The only problem is that those kinds of folders are not commonly used in Germany. I think I never saw a folder like that before I started using computers.

Folders look like this in Germany: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/Lever_arc...

The word that is used in Germany to refer to folders („Ordner“ in German) actually refers to ring binders.

Yet I had never a problem dealing with folders on computers, even though the visual metaphor was unfamiliar to me.

It took me many years to work out that that the Mail icon I saw everywhere with the little red flag was a U.S mailbox. Where I live mail comes through a slot in the door.

It does in city/residential neighborhoods in the US as well. Outside of that, a mail man cannot walk door to door, so he delivers them from a car. I'm now wondering how that is handled in your location?

The idea that people don't know what a cog or a wrench is seems like the author is taking this a step too far. I wouldn't call those things "shrouded in mystery".

Similarly there are still plenty of microphones that look like that, they're professional microphones, not "old fashioned" ones.

Other things I still see regularly in my day to day life, know (young) people that use them or even use myself sometimes: address books, calendars, manila folders, phone handsets, magnifying glass, binoculars, envelopes, screwdrivers, carbon copies of stuff

Plus, once a reference is established (like the floppy disk) it's idiotic to always replace it with the latest tech (we'd have zip drives in the nineties, usb drives in the '00s, the cloud today, etc etc..)

Exactly, who cares if an icon is based on a dated object if it's understood. All things become dated eventually, especially in the tech world

What's the alternative, pick something abstract that confuses people. That didn't work out so well for the recent GMail redesign.

We might similarly go to another extreme and phase out the use of 'alpha' and 'beta', or just the ancient Greek alphabet altogether.

It's thousands of years old, thus despite our ability to record and learn from history, we should replace it with something more modern.

If you phased out "alpha" and "beta", you'd have to call the alphabet the aybee.

A lot of people DO call it the "Ay-bee-see"

> Plus, once a reference is established (like the floppy disk) it's idiotic to always replace it with the latest tech (we'd have zip drives in the nineties, usb drives in the '00s, the cloud today, etc etc..)

And crashed beige boxes for Windows machines mounted on Macs: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.engadget.com/media/2007/10/generi.... :-)

Floppy drive -> dresser, dresser drawer, kitchen cabinet ... File cabinet. Although I suppose not-old people don't do paper anymore. Plastic storage container? Warehouse. Glovebox (and why is it still called a glovebox anyway?). Bookshelf.

It doesn't really matter as long as it's roughly ubiquitous, which the floppy drive is. It doesn't even matter if no one's seen a floppy drive; if someone doesn't recognize what the floppy icon does, then the rest of their computer is new to them and they're learning. Once learned, forget about it.


This goes back a lot further than computer icons.

Road signs for railway crossings still show steam trains. Men/Women signs for toilets show women in skirts that nobody wears, on images that hardly resemble people at all.

My car has a snowflake for the AC button, even though snow doesn't come out of the vents when you switch it on.

Interestingly, signs that ban music players in certain areas now look like Gen 1 iPods, even though a modern iPod (or any other player) doesn't have a clickwheel.

The point is that, iconography is meant to be clear and concise. As long as everyone agrees on what something stands for, then it doesn't matter what that is. Generally, that thing refers to a classic image of a thing, because the original shape will always be associated with the modern version.

People have made hay about the save/floppy icon for some time. This is the 1st time I've ever realized where the term `radio button`. I've successfully used them countless times and none of my coworkers/clients has ever been confused by the term.

It demonstrates to me that it doesn't matter what the icon is. What matters is convention. Nobody has to ever see the original as long as there is universal acceptance about what the icons mean.

I've wondered how non-english speakers learn Java. I don't think they really have to know what the translation for `public` and `class` are as long as they understand how they work.

Same here, I just learned why the radio buttons were called radio buttons with this article. I had never seen them, but never had a problem with them.

Also, as a non native english speaker, I learned several words in english by programming. I remember seeing the word "if" out of a programming context for the first time, and I knew what it meant because I remembered of c++. :)

So yes, convention is more important. People will learn the convention and won't know why. Just like we don't know the exact etymology of every word, but we still can communicate fine. And when we do find how each word or icon was originated, it's interesting, but we honestly could live without it.

I am a native english speaker and it was only in high school I heard syntax outside the context of BASIC's "syntax error"

Indeed. This one used to mystify us on the UK driving test 25 years ago - way older than steam trains, and presumably anachronistic even when it was standardised: http://wwwdelivery.superstock.com/WI/223/1848/PreviewComp/Su...

It's not a UK sign. Most Europeans will recognize it, but I doubt it travels well, and even where it has local currency, many peoples grandparents won't remember these in real life.

As an American I had to use TinEye to find out that this image was of the Deutsche Post logo.

Then I realized it was a horn, and understood the connection. But only because I had once seen this faux historic mailbox in a SkyMall catalog or the like:


I recognised that one as a horn, but I had no idea what the connection to post is, and still don't. Just took it for one of those weird corporate logos that meant something to someone at some point but doesn't anymore.

Here's the explanation:


The post horn...used to signal the arrival or departure of a post rider or mail coach. It was used especially by postilions of the 18th and 19th centuries...The instrument is still used as the logo of national post services in many countries.

The logo I posted was for the German mail service, but you'll see variations of that image used to mean 'post' all over Europe, and in Australia.

I have a handset in my house.

Envelopes are still used for lots of things. I still get mail.

I use screwdrivers pretty often, and I have access to wrenches.

I recognize the old microphones from movies (and even if I didn't, they look similar to newer mics.)

I've also used a polaroid in the past 5 years.

I've also seen TV sets with "rabbit ears" in the past 5 years.

The others I'm at least familiar with. I'm 18.

The hot trend for visionary types to do today is wax on about how kids these days only text and use Facebook between Netflix show. Everything else is just too difficult, supposedly.

You are a renaissance person. I asked my 16 year old niece and she gets envelopes and tools but that's it.

Yep. I'm pretty sure Blue and others sell mics designed to look exactly like those old chrome ones.

Well many large diaphragm condenser mics look like that because that's what the footprint of that kind of microphone is! And Shure still faithfully makes the Super 55, your iconic "Elvis mic."

That is not a floppy disk. It's a Save icon.

See the difference?

| <- Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Touché ;)

Agreed. It's no longer a floppy disk. Its meaning in the new context has a life of its own. The fact that the metaphor no longer has any connection with is original context IS the reason why it is now effective! :)

"When things, signs or actions are freed from their respective ideas, concepts, essences, values, points of reference, origins and aims, they embark upon an endless process of self-reproduction. Yet things continue to function long after their ideas have disappeared, and they do so in total indifference to their own content. The paradoxical fact is that they function even better under these circumstances."

Jean Baudrillard from "The Transparency of Evil"


Brilliant explanation of Semiotics :)

>Soon the envelope itself will go away and the next generation will wonder what this rectangle means

Exactly as radley says. The rectangle in my quote here means '[send] email' (whic itself is anachronistic; emessage?).

The difficult part about reading this thread was having to ask, after every point, "well, then what?"

Out computer verbs are based off of (admittedly, maybe outdated) similar verbs. Our electronic work mirrors our physical work solely because of the limitations of our language constructs. I have it on good authority that there is not a single language that has words that that specifically define what we do on a computer that would be better suited and more efficient than a physical-describing counterpart.

So, as mentioned earlier, the floppy metaphor: OK, I get it. But clipboards, bookmarks, Manila folders? How would you describe an object that lets you take information from one place to another in 32px? What physical object are you aware of that allows you to mark your place amidst a vast density of information? Don't even get me started on the folders.

It's coy to label them "old-people icons" -- it's clever, I dig it -- but if tomorrow we were to unveil a new set of nouns and verbs to describe computer objects, the reigning argument would be that they never made sense at all.

And have fun trying to explain to your grandfather/mother/nephew how to uses computer without having any real-world jargon to borrow from.

This discourse goes beyond the anachronistic references indicated by these icons and calls into question our entire system of interface metaphors. At one point in time imagining the information stored on your computer as a system of "files" and "folders" was pivotal in transitioning a society from the physical world to the digital one. Now that the transition is largely complete and many people are coming of age who have never known a world without computers, its time to move beyond anachronistic metaphors. We must discover new means of interaction that take advantage of the unique features of the digital medium.

CS Lewis said that ""All language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical." I can't find the examples he gave, but from your sentence: we must "discover new means of interaction that take advantage..."

"Discover" is made of "dis-cover", meaning "remove the things covering the other thing." The "inter" in "interaction" implies movement between objects in a physical space. To "take advantage" evokes physically grasping something.

Perhaps this is more philosophical than you wanted, but I doubt we'll be leaving behind physical metaphors anytime soon.

I would like to hear an "explain it to me like I'm five" that explained what computer "files" and "folders" are and how they work without using the words or their associated metaphors.

I agree some of the actual system specific icons and metaphors are outdated and junk, but I guess I'm in the camp that thinks these basic metaphors are actually useful in the education of computer interface / mechanisms.

>Now that the transition is largely complete and many people are coming of age who have never known a world without computers, its time to move beyond anachronistic metaphors.

They might have been metaphors once, now they are idioms.

The people who "have never known a world without computers" have also never known a world where there weren't filesystem folders and files.

iOS devices mostly does away with both concepts, and I hear they've sold a few.

What's really interesting is that a lot of these rudiments (save, open, copy, paste, print) simply do not require icons in modern software.

I can't remember the last time I saw a save icon in any of the software I use. Not because saving has gone away, but because it's so fundamental to document-based applications that it doesn't need a dedicated button to call it out, and having one just wastes space. Saving isn't special functionality requiring an icon - you either use File>Save, or Cmd/Ctrl-S, or even just close the document and follow the prompt to save.

Copy, paste, open, these things don't need to take up valuable interface space as if they're some novelty functionality that uses must carefully be introduced to. We don't need a new save icon, because we don't need a save icon at all.

Great thought provoking article.

A general tone of "isn't this interesting" rather than "isn't this stupid", might reduce the negative reactions.

It never occurred to me before that the use of physical objects for software functionality may be transitory. Clearly these icons do work today (and their use is not stupid), but it's probably a matter of time that a new approach may be needed.

Thanks, that is a good point. I was aiming for "isn't this silly" but your point is well taken.

Clearly a thought provoking article none the less.

While I support the point behind this article, some of them are... not on point.

> Want to indicate Settings or Setup to a twenty something? Show them a tool they've never used in their lives.

What have screwdrivers and wrenches been replaced with?

> What have screwdrivers and wrenches been replaced with?

(cynical) A trash can followed by a trip to Wal-Mart.

Who cares? A floppy disk nowadays is the thing that indicates "save", and that's it. You don't have to have seen a floppy disk to know that it's the save icon. If that were the case, company logos would be objects. A swoosh is Nike, and that's that.

Sure, but if you're not old enough to know what a floppy disk is, someone would first have to tell you that the floppy disk was the save icon. I think the op's point is that icons are no longer making the user experience intuitive, they are actually adding another step. Young people have to figure out what they represent first before they use them where the point of an icon is to eliminate that step.

Definitely, but I didn't know what a clipboard was before I started copying and pasting (text on the computer)... You probably learn which button is "Save" when learning what saving actually is, I don't know how intuitive the pictograms for these actions can be.

I found it bizarre (and sad) that the author believes that a screwdriver and wrench are somehow only tools for old people, that 20-somethings would have never wielded one in their life?

iconic -- executed according to a convention or tradition (reference.com)

Isn't the whole idea of updating traditions a little silly. They're traditions. We don't follow them because they make sense. We follow them because the people before us followed them.

100 years from now we'll still need a symbol to conceptualize saving something. The other ones might go away but we'll probably still need to save our work. I expect the floppy to still symbolize this. The users at the time will not understand what a floppy is. But unless there is good reason to upend convention why bother.

Just look at all the linguistic idioms we retain from yesteryear.

I don't have any axe to grind with icons. But tradition is nothing to sneeze at. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Absolutely, icons are... iconic. The whole point is that we know what they mean, not they are a literal representation of the object or concept being designated.

This blog post is fairly useless without proposals that do a better job of communicating these concepts. It almost seems that the author wants to do away with metaphors entirely? If we aren't going to use an address book as an icon for our list of contacts, then what on earth are we going to use??

The contacts icon could resemble a person.

The article began with an introduction to what could have been a really great dialogue. Why do those who didn't experience the inspiration for icons still inherently understand them? Yet it dropped that in favor of the same schtick for each icon.

I think that the point, which the article may miss, is that we don't inherently understand them. We have to be taught to understand them—but we only have to be taught once to use a given set of icons, so it's good to use the same ones other people use, even if they're meaningless.

(I'd draw an analogy to "Why do we inherently understand menu items written in English?" We don't inherently understand them (witness non-English speakers); we just get to draw on our existing familiarity with English to make the understanding easier.)

Yes, I ran out of time. It could have been a great post.

Around halfway through I jotted down a few thoughts. I like and appreciate people thinking about this sort of thing however, so I'm not saying any of this to offend.

> I don't see any reason that we couldn't be storing our files in abstract squares rather than folders in the sky.

...because they're called folders, and we know how to use them? If I said, "Here, have a square," is your first instinct really to think oh! that must be for putting stuff in/on? Sure, you can abstract them to just a symbol but it's unnecessary. It's not like the system cares what you call it or how you choose to display it.

> The world's most advanced phones include an icon that looks like a phone handset that you haven't touched in 20 years, unless you've used a pay phone recently.

I have in fact, but that's not the point. Again, we know the shape. There aren't many things it could be besides a phone. You could show someone a glossy brick I guess, but what good would that do? The best alternative I can think of would be something like a speaker or microphone, but where's the argument that that would actually be better?

> At some time in the past the magnifying glass became the "search everywhere" icon, but for some reason binoculars are for searching within a document.

I'm just now realizing that he must be thinking of a specific piece of software. I gathered he was on Windows, now I see he worked at MS. Is this Office? This one I agree with, but it sounds like a quirky error made by some engineer or perhaps phony UX consultant. Same goes for the clipboard– hell if I know why MS would use that icon for paste, but in no other software that I can think of is that normal.

> Envelopes

Same thing as folders. So our terminology expanded to cover abstract digital entities, but that doesn't make it a hinderance to our intuition. Folders, packages, envelopes... maybe they're too nostalgic for the bold futurist, but generally it's about as practical as you can get.

> Wrenches and Gears Who hasn't used a screwdriver? Or never seen a wrench? Even the people who don't own one probably know what it is. I'm indifferent to the gears/tools thing. It still makes sense, but I'm open to new ideas– preferably a little more clever than a circuitboard.

> Microphones For speech recognition, would an ear be better? I think most people would get the microphone bit simply from watching cartoons, talkshows, album covers etc... but I admit this will likely be more foreign in the future, and is already disconnected from people in developing countries without that much media exposure (although they apparently have an iPhone/Pad/Pod).

> Photography It's kitsch. It still makes sense because the alternative to a square with a border is a square without a border. But for all of us who still use medium/large format cameras from time to time or for work, we can simply pretend. Lenses are a-OK.

> Televisions Actually, for the large number of people who gave up cable for hulu and netflix but still want to catch the news– yes! I do have rabbit ears! Maybe it's a little too retro for most video icons, but again– it till makes sense, it just may be better suited to apps that show live broadcasts.

> Carbon Copies and Blueprints Eh, so the term's (carbon copy) a bit outdated. But then again, when was the last time I "pasted" a document together? Yeah, Drawing I. As for blueprints... it makes sense for XCode right? And CAD. We may not use blueprints so often anymore, but it's less ambiguous than "construction documents," which might as well be "layouts". Which might as well be squares with a shape on them. Etc...

Basically, this would be a far more interesting post if the author would go further into making actual suggestions. Some of it makes sense because it's intuitive, some of it makes sense because we're used to it. If you want to correct the latter, you've got to show something what's better.

Edit: ouch, that's an ugly post. Not sure if I can format it in any way.

Also, I'm looking forward to seeing what people suggest in the discussion here. It's an interesting topic for sure (and I'm sure there will be plenty of people to disagree with me).

And then there is the powerful and ancient weapon - the arrow. When was the last time arrows had heads like this ->? What would we substitute them with in our flow charts and graphs (the nodes/edges kind)? What would we use instead to point people to restrooms? Haskell would be deprived of a major theoretical weapon, not to mention a notational glue of its famous type system (a -> b is the type of a function that takes type a value and yields type b value).

Actually the post points out something interesting - we are in the midst of a transformation from a pictorial communication system to an ideographic language where the connection between symbol and signified becomes arbitrary. Nothing wrong with that "arbitrariness", but the visual language continues to evolve - maybe we'll see a paper clip icon even in "Avengers"-like interfaces for this reason.

(edit: fixed typos)

I think the blog post goes to show that much like words change their meaning over time, icons can also come to represent objects that are much different from their original metaphors. As new generations of people learn to associate concepts with the icons that embody them, the original metaphor loses its importance.

To give an example, the word "microphone" has only been used to represent modern microphones since 1929. The term referred to the mouthpiece for a telephone between 1929 and ~1878, and from ~1878 until 1683, it described ear trumpets.[1]

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&s...

* ...because they're called folders, and we know how to use them?*

Historically they were called directories, which I would love to see a return to from the wrong and infantilizing "folders".

I still call them directories. "Folders" are for toddlers who do not know the tao of unix. So are icons. Real men stare at text all day, eat with their hands and sleep when they're dead. The funny/sad part is that I'm half serious with these statements.

As long as you don't use a sissy language like Pascal I'd say you've earned it.

I use PHP. /cowers in shame

P-H-P... Is that some kind of assembly for the PDP-10? In that case your real-man™ status is safe.

Alright: I generally do call them directories. I grew up in UNIX. But we're talking about icons and UX here. Do you consider the "desktop" to be so infantilizing as well?

1: filesystem > directories > files 2: Desktop > Folders > Documents

They're both models for (basically) the same thing. The technical incorrectness of folder doesn't interfere with usage in real scenarios, unless you expect Average Joe to be structuring data as opposed to, say, collecting media. Granted, if Average Joe had mild OCD and thought of everything he did as indexes and references to some abstract node then directories clearly makes more sense, but that would be a separate system divorced from the desktop abstraction.

Edit: Being young of course none of this is really hammered in by convention– maybe that's why I don't mind the two abstractions coexisting. Even if the terminology originated in a Windows era, it doesn't bother me in the least that Mac (and others) use it as well (for the reasons stated above).

Alright: I generally do call them directories. I grew up in UNIX. But we're talking about icons and UX here. Do you consider the "desktop" to be so infantilizing as well?

Why yes, yes I do. Desktop environments are all attempted answers to the question "why is a computer like a writing desk?" The question is absurd in its own right, but carries additional absurdity baggage such as calling all files "documents". A movie is not a document. A computer program in binary form is not a document.

All of my machines boot into bare-ass window managers -- typically either awesome or WindowMaker. It's simple, cruft-free, and leaves more room for the programs I want to run. Aside from the shell I find an activity-based model for launching programs -- such as found in iOS, Android, OLPC, and even Windows 3.1 for pete's sake -- to be infinitely preferable to the document-centric desktop model, which assumes that the user can't fathom a computer without the machine pretending that it is some older, non-computing, manually-operated piece of office equipment.

Even if the terminology originated in a Windows era -- it didn't. It started with the 1984 Macintosh. Funny that, even Apple is moving toward an activity-based model for iOS.

In that case it seems you've made a great case for why programmers make terrible interfaces and why UX is so important for everyone else. While models can certainly be adapted and evolve (as say iOS vs. a command line), I find it silly to try and put them in the same category. Maybe I'm begging to be flamed, but I don't see it as being much different from arguing over programming paradigms and high vs. low level. Do I really care that if a string is an array of pointers or not while developing a web app? I don't have to "pretend" that the computer knows exactly what I mean when I tell it to puts "hey"– but unless the underlying process has a meaningful effect on the current process, then it's all moot.

The desktop model's heyday may be passing right in front of us, but more likely than not the consequences are going to lead towards even higher level abstractions. For fertility, and for clarity (so that engineers can talk to engineers, and everyone else doesn't get mistaken for a really stupid engineer).

> why is a computer like a writing desk?

Because Poe raved on both?

which I would love to see a return to from the wrong and infantilizing "folders".

Probably too late. I work with nice guys, progammers in their late 20s, mid-30s, who have only ever known those as 'folders'.

By convention at work if it's on a unix-y OS it's a directory, if Windows it's a folder. It's just easier that way.

If you're in your late 20s (and a computer nerd), you probably grew up with DOS: CD, DIR, etc.

Besides, if you're a programmer on Windows, even if you're really young and started with .NET, I'm pretty sure the API and the MSDN docs still consistently use "directory" throughout.

See, eg:


Some of us in our 30's still remember them being called drawers on the Amiga.

I need to remind myself to say "folder" because the kids (8-12) I teach probably won't get it if I say "directory"--and then getting them to grasp the concept of local and remote files (for making websites) ... in the presence of the way-too-useful-not-to-have but again completely different concept of "Dropbox folder" ... :D GREAT FUN!! No, really :)

And yes, the floppy disk. Whenever I want to feel old I ask one of them if they know what that icon is, and whether they ever seen one. Best answer: "Yes ... I think I saw one at my grandmother's house ..."

Then I tell them it would fit barely half an mp3 and tell them how many you'd need for the same storage as this 2GB Micro-SD the size of my fingernail :D I love living in the future!

I tend to use "folder" just because it's known by everyone, whereas "directory" is only going to be known by geeks.

Good distinction. I hear Mac folks uses both, usually depending on where they started.

I use both myself, depending on whether I'm using the mouse or a terminal, i.e. I "open a folder" but "list a directory". I've heard others do the same.

I'm 20. I heard both terms used interchangeably while I was learning how to use computers and I use them interchangeably in the course of discussion now.

Directories in Unix were/are files that just contain pointers to other files. So they are a bit like a directory in a building. However, "folder" is probably an improvement if you think in terms of it _containing_ other things. Folders are still recognizable real things. Ask any hipster. Now let's talk about folders that contain other folders and so on. There is where the physical metaphor gets strained. Still, it's fine and quite contemporary.

> Microphones For speech recognition

Until someone trumps the performance of condensor microphones in the studio, this form will remain a current and accepted form for speech input.

>Same goes for the clipboard– hell if I know why MS would use that icon for paste, but in no other software that I can think of is that normal.

That's easy. When you copy something you place it onto the clipboard, when you past it you are pulling a copy off the clipboard.

The only real issue I have with it is that it's no more about the clipboard than copy– they're both related but neither one is it. I think in this particular example it's not so obvious that anything is coming off the clipboard. I can see it's being taken off, but it's too subtle for a cursory glance especially if I'm not used to it. I suppose I don't really have a problem with the symbol, just the icon in particular.

I could imagine a "thought bubble", as used in cartoons, for the clipboard. Ok you'd have to be careful to distinguish it from a cloud icon (not very hard), but that would perfectly fit the metaphor in my head whenever I copy/paste: to have the computer "keep something in mind", remember something, strictly short-term memory of course.

I remember some instances of paste being an icon of an actual jar of paste.

I'm 32, and I'm not completely sure what an actual jar of paste is. I've certainly never seen one. Logically, I'm presuming it's used as a paper adhesive (like wallpaper paste). I'd use the verb "to glue".

So "copy and paste" or "copy and glue". How does pasting go with copying? I copy something to the clipboard (...whatever) and then copy it from the clipboard to my document. How is that like gluing something? It really makes no sense.

And then I remember cutting. "Cut and paste" makes more sense. You might cut something out of a magazine and glue it onto a collage. Okay.

But the point is that none of this matters. "Paste" is a new word that means to copy something from your "clipboard" to the current location. It's not a metaphor anymore, it's a thing in its own right. A new definition for an old word.

I'm the same age and I remember paste. More commonly we had rubber cement, do you remember that?

Yep. It's a perfectly good word for the repository of copied items.

What's the point in inventing a new term for something, when this one makes sense and is widely understood?

"Carbon copy" is not an outdated term, I use or see other people use one at least weekly: receipts, package delivery, doctors recipe, etc. It might not be actual carbon, though.

It seems to me that what we are doing is creating new ideograms - that their icon nature will soon enough be beside the point, because they will be something closer to letters, like 漢字.

Icons are becoming dead metaphors, which is fine. We pick concrete concepts to represent abstract processes and eventually the concrete concept becomes obsolete. This is exactly what happens with language -- should we stop using the word "deadline" because we've forgotten what it used to mean before it became a metaphor for a due date?

I agree completely. Just because the original uses have stopped being so common doesn't mean the icons are bad now. In language terms, you could compare this to street names - very few people would know why the street they live on is named that way - its just useful that it has a name so people can find it.

Back in my day we didn't care what the icons looked like. I had to use a mouse with hard to move wheel to scroll all the way across a 10 inch screen! And I liked it!

The entire internet was AOL! It took 30 minutes from the time you turned on the computer to the time you loaded your first website. That is when you got all your thinking done!

Oh yeah? I'm so old that my mouse was hairy and used to squeak and vomit when I squeezed it.

There was a discussion on Reddit about this a few days ago: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/t4z2o/the_save_ic...

As pointed out by Mike Kazarnowicz in the comments of Scott's post.

Coincidence or cherry-picking?

Coincidence. We had been tweeting about this a few days ago and many of the ideas were from my followers. Then my coworker Pete showed me his 2008 post on the topic http://10rem.net/blog/2008/11/18/when-will-the-floppy-disk-d... and later after I wrote it, the StackOverflow question http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1019573/save-icon-still-a...

How could you possibly associate an object with an action without first intimately knowing the object's function?

And when did we all get rid of wrenches? I didn't get that memo.

We started using horsepower to describe how much power an engine has and that has nothing to do with horses. And last I heard, many of us are still measuring things in feet.

Conventions hang on for generations because speaking a common language is more important than being up to date.

Well, horsepower has absolutely something to do with horses: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horsepower "Horsepower was originally defined to compare the output of steam engines with the power of draft horses in continuous operation."

Yes, of course. I meant horses have nothing to do with engines. Nobody today is going to compare the power of a car to what they know about horses.

Clipboards are are everywhere: sexy business men and ladies in movies; gym coaches; bitchy stage managers; kids use them in school occasionally, etc.

I thought that the article did a good job of explaining the problem of changes in the world making things change appearance or shape, but not some other causes of icons not making sense.

To me, icons indicating actions (save, print, etc) work well when they depict (wholly or partly) a physical object that is obviously used to enact that action. I assume that this is because our visual cortex is tuned to recognise physical objects that do actions, not visual representations of actions themselves. We see a depiction of a hammer and know that its for driving nails, but its hard to depict driving nails without depicting a hammer. You could presumably do it (i'm not a graphic designer) but you're making people work harder to understand your depiction.

The problem is that sometimes changes in the world result in the recognisable physical object no-longer being recognisable and/or physical.

This can happen we make an action abstract ("save to floppy" becomes "save to cloud storage"), virtualise an action ("pick up phone and talk" becomes "make skype call using laptop"), or merge a once-external object into a multi-function object ("save to floppy" becomes "save to internal disk"). (What others have I missed?)

I don't know what to do about this. You could use a logo or graphical device/convention to indicate actions (e.g. skype logo indicates make a voice call) but you're also increasing the cognitive load on the user of the interface and increasing visual clutter.

Since we are still going with file and folder, why not make the metaphor complete and go with a filing cabinet with an arrow either directed towards or away from an open drawer.

Why do we even have a save icon function anymore anyway? Just to torture people who forgot to save their file? Google Docs doesn't have a save button because it is saving all the time. Why would you not want to save what you are doing? Why is not saving the default? (Alan Cooper made this argument in About Face in 1995.)

Also, if you want to talk about outdated terminology, theres "disk" and "drive". These are being incorrectly applied to flash/solid state storage. They do apply to hard disk drives, and optical media.

> Why would you not want to save what you are doing?

Because the document is public, and you don't want work-in-progress to be shared until it is complete?

Don't publicly share the document until it's finished?

We do the same thing with written language (no one knows or questions where e.g. "pull out all the stops" comes from but it doesn't matter), so why should our visual language be any different?

Actually, I discuss origins of such expressions with my sons quite often, which they find helpful and enlightening. But I had old parents -- my father is one year younger than my ex husband's grandmother and my ex and I graduated high school together -- so I grew up with somewhat more exposure to where things like that come from historically than most people appear to have.

On the other hand, pipe-organs are not outdated, whereas floppy disks are (for most of us).

I think some of those are pushing it quite a bit...

Printed books aren't going anywhere in the foreseeable future (and I'm pretty sure all young people know what they are, even if they're not really into reading); the (Exchange-connected VoIP) phone on my desk at the office still has a handset shaped exactly like the icon; and what kind of magical sci-fi world does the author live in where no mechanical device requires gears any more, or where wrenches aren't necessary for basic home repairs?

In the 1800s, broadcasting meant standing in the field and throwing seeds in every direction.

We've been adapting old idioms to new uses since long before everything turned into a computer.

Nice. Learned something.

My TV has rabbit ears. I can watch NFL games in high definition with them for free.

This. I get a couple dozen channels over the air eight of which I watch from time to time. Still having a hard time recognizing rabbit ear icons though. One pole on mine is broken.

They do make sense, they are and have been the standard for years, and even the new generation understands what they do, in almost every case.

I was fascinated that Google chose the name "Google Drive" for their latest product. Without a hint of false naivety, my initial thought on hearing the name was that it was either:

a) Something to do with journey planning/directions, or b) Some new in-car technology

When I saw it was neither of those, I presumed the cloud storage service had been named in the same way razors are named, i.e. "puts you in the driving seat" sort of thing.

It was only several hours later did it occur to me that, OMG, they mean like a FLOPPY DISK DRIVE? Yikes.

"Drive" is not really a word I've heard used in relation to storage for years. Mainly because we only think about the distinction between disk and drive when the two can be parted, like a floppy disk drive. Put the disk in the drive. Most removable media is USB-based these days, so the term isn't used.

I guess in 1990s-era Windows NT networks you'd be told to save your work to "the M: drive" or such, but yeah, 1990s.

To me it's a moronic product name. "I'll save that to my Google Drive!" Sure thing, you do that Grandpa.

Actually, there were also hard disk drives. The drive was the motor attached to a spindle which would spin the disk whether the disk was floppy or hard. Your point still holds that spinning media are starting to be replaced by solid state devices. I agree that Google made a poor choice with the name. BTW the word drive goes back further than motors. It was and still is the term to cause sheep and draught animals to move where you wanted them to go. Still not great for Google's product.

I too thought about their car technologies, but to me it doesn't mean drive like a floppy disk drive, it means drive as in hard disk drive (HDD).

Google Storage would have been a more descriptive name, but it'll be a while until we get rid of our C: and D: drives.

That's not something limited to computers or technology. Many entities are represented with an icon of the first or first popular iteration of am item. A train has smoke, lights are bulbs, authors use feather pens etc.

One could argue that it's actually faster to parse words than icons sometimes (don't know what traffic sign planners would think about that)

The reason we still use these old icons is because every single icon requires people to think about and learn what it represents. The only icons that don't require the user to think are ones they see all the time. If you've never seen an icon before you can only really guess what it means, the shorter the time it takes to guess, the better the icon is. It's for this reason that I don't like icon-only user interfaces, they require too much thinking and guessing from the user.

Take a look at these ones that show up when you select text in Android ICS: http://asset3.cbsistatic.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2011/10/18/ICS_co...

What on earth do they mean? I've been using ICS since January and I still don't know what they do except for the cut one. Because there's no way for them to show tooltips on hovering the only way to learn is to press it and try and work out what it just did.

Well, the first one has multiple identical squares, so it seems to me intuitive that it means 'copy'. For exclusion (and resemblance to the folder+sheet on, e.g. MS Office) the last one has to be 'paste'.

Oh, I never used ICS, so it's not because I tried them.

This is, essentially, how language itself has always worked. Common sense labels are applied to things, and they make them things their own and outlive the original reference.

A tin (can) is still a tin despite the fact it has nothing to do with the element today, a light bulb has no bulb any more. The floppy=save isn't going anywhere.

I'm not sure that I agree with the "Photography" examples. Even for people who haven't seen actual Polaroid cameras, the icon is clearly some sort of camera. The author finishes his argument with a quote from a recent pop song, which probably means that Polaroid pictures aren't an extremely obscure reference. Also, I bet that Instagram's early adopters know exactly what Polaroid cameras are, and the reference isn't lost on them. I'd also be willing to bet that there's at least some overlap with early adopters and people who are aware of the Impossible Project. Those people would at least make the connection between analog photography and the filters that Instagram provides.

That being said, Polaroid-inspired icons are probably not ideal for every use.

> The author finishes his argument with a quote from a recent pop song

"Hey Ya!" was released in 2003, nine years ago, and the exact same year that Dell finally removed floppy drives from its computers.

Even more bizarre is the road sign for speed cameras - it shows a camera that nobody has seen for a century


Looks like a Mamiya RZ67: http://inyopro.com/images/mamiya_side_view.jpg

Still in production, but only familiar to pros in their late 20s and older...

If they've never watched a period film or TV program ...

Yes that's why I have a papyrus plant as the icon for my word processor

So that's where radio buttons comes from!

And yes my TV has rabbit ears, only they are the wifi antennas on my router :)

I also did not know the origin of the term radio buttons, though I DO recall that our old cars as a kid did have those type of buttons on them.

I looked into replacing the old AM radio in my ancient dodge with a modern one, but eventually decided I simply liked the look & feel of that pushbutton thingie, and anything more modern just looked wrong in that car.

Reminds me of a Bucky Fuller rant about the "incorrect" words we still use every day even though we know more now than when they came into use.

His best example is "world wide", which he put forward should really be "world around" since we all now know that the earth is a globe and not flat.

Wow! This really should be known more widely.

Great premise, no so great execution. Other that the floppy icon, which I do agree with, the others are either not icons (radio buttons are just circles -- radio buttons just happen to be what they're called) or show use items that are still in very common usage.

The clone action in VirtualBox is represented by a sheep (http://twitpic.com/767oui). Took me a while to connect it with Dolly the sheep, but now it's both distinct and funny.

Interesting. I'm 46. I've used reel-to-reel tapes because they were the normal thing to use at the time. But it has never once occurred to me that the voicemail icon represents a reel-to-reel tape.

Now I'm trying to figure out if I'm stupid or not.

That recording tape symbol was also used on VCRs and stereo equipment, so it was already an "old person icon" long before it evolved into the standard phone icon for voicemail.

Icons are visual words, and like words, they have a history (etymology) which is often long forgotten. But even with their history lost, they become familiar as identifiers of a concept, and so we keep them for that reason.

Makes me wonder how old the author is.

Reminds me of an anecdote I read about an elementary school that had a rotary phone for the kids to use well after digital phones were the norm. The kids had to be taught how to use it. One child ultimately concluded it was not too different from a digital phone though it was real slow.

Reminds me of my standard flippant remark to my sons when they were growing up: "When I was a child and had a pet dinosaur and rotary phone." To my young sons, both dinosaurs and rotary phones were "prehistoric" -- I.e. existed before their time. For me, only dinosaurs were actually prehistoric.

I'm 39. The post was written in brief lunchtime fit of get of my lawn. :)

I will be 47 in June ...and I have a condition with a life expectancy in the thirties. In human years, that makes me the equivalent of about an 85 year old. So get off my lawn already, you young whippersnapper!!

(More sinecerely: Thanks for responding.)

Ah yes, rotary phones. What a wonderful modern invention. Saved much time and prevented many errors over having to tap on the handset cradle.

The irony is that there's a concurrent and opposite reaction to the non-traditional new icons used on Github.

The simple reason the save icon still looks like a floppy disk is because everyone expects it to look like that.

I believe this post to be the definitive authority on the subject of dead icons ... ;-)


seriously - there's some good points made here, including:

"The floppy disk icon is an idiom, not a metaphor. It doesn't matter that we're no longer writing files on 1.44MB 3.5" disks. It doesn't matter that many users don't even know what a floppy disk is. What matters is that users associate the icon with saving." -- Patrick McElhaney

That's exactly the way culture gets built, there are always traces left from past generations - not only in icons, more so in the software and technology they assist. These traces, sources forgotten, slowly turn into obscure quotes, then become alive with their own new meaning, and act as channels for the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another.

And a little OT remark about the so called "dead tree format" - it helps hide the fact that e-books might actually be more harmful to the planet than "dead tree" ones (think carbon imprint).

I use an SD card (one way or another) almost daily. It would only take a small amount of reworking to make the "floppy disk" Save icon look like an SD card and still look enough like the original icon to not confuse people. The cloud is cool and all but many devices (even cloud enabled ones) make use of some sort of physical storage. Many devices do not have the capability (or even the need) to get data straight from the cloud (or at least can't if they aren't able to connect to cell/wifi).

> It would only take a small amount of reworking to make the "floppy disk" Save icon look like an SD card and still look enough like the original icon to not confuse people.

What would be the point, though? Surely the floppy disk icon has more meaning now as "save" than as the original metaphor of "save to floppy disk." Besides, SD cards are outdated now - I think the only thing of mine which uses it is my camera, and I never actually remove the card. I would guess that more people would recognize the floppy disk than the sd card.

no point. just offering a suggestion.

I thought Hanselman's tweet made the point far better than the entire article because the article very quickly became quite the stretch trying to find examples: overlooking the fact that many, many people are still using dead-tree calendars, folders, and clipboards. As well as binoculars and magnifying glasses.

The really interesting point - that there are more and more icons that truly are becoming "icons" in a more metaphorical sense of the word - was already made quite poignantly by the tweet.

This article would have been interesting if included actual suggestions for replacement icons.

Being anachronistic isn't inherently a flaw. However, if our attachment to anachronism is preventing us from using more intuitive icons, then our bias toward anachronism is something we should examine critically.

So, the real question is: are there more intuitive visual representations available for common computer actions? What does an e-mail address book look like?

Icons don’t have to make sense if people can learn them. I think people are being way to hung up on things being too skeuomorphic.

Remember that A didn’t start as an A, it started as a sign for ox. That’s right, our writing system had skeuomorphic origins.

Someone growing up today might not know what a handset it, but I’m pretty sure they recognize the handset icon. This is true for a lot of stuff in our culture (think of non-textual road signs).

It's not just icons. Phrases are the same.

I'll bet many people here have never heard a broken record, but still have heard the phrase "sounds like a broken record."

I think the phrase "broken record" is used more when referring to someone repeating themselves over and over again.

What do they call it if it is a sportsperson repeatedly regaling stories of their "fastest of all time athletic performance".

He missed the point of the Instagram logo. The whole purpose of Instagram is to make retro-styled photos, so a retro camera icon makes total sense.

wow, I never knew that "radio button" meant that - I sort of imagined that they were checkboxes that had walkie talkies with eachother?

One which is not on here, and is my favorite, is the icon to start a PowerPoint presentation: portable projector screen. Sure, they still exist, but most people these days have never had to actually carry and/or set one up. Well, maybe I take that back... If you are using PowerPoint, perhaps you are old enough to remember using one... :-)

Google is a good example of what happens when you modernize icons - no one knows what the hell is going on.

The old icons are fine.

It doesn't matter what the icons look like as long as they are different enough from each other to be recognizable.

Someone who hasn't used a computer before isn't going to know that a floppy disk icon means save, even if they have seen a one before and know what it is used for. For all they know it's means open a file.

I always wondered what was wrong with English. You know, using 'print' instead of a 'what-does-that-box-of-kleenex-mean' icon?

And for non-English speakers, is it really harder to learn what 'print' means than consulting a cheat sheet for what the icons mean?

Are you saying you don't recognize a printer when you see it?

Printers come in all sorts of shapes, and I've seen quite a few different printer icons. The first one I saw looked like a box of kleenex, and did so to several of my coworkers at the time.

For most of the gui programs I use, I have to hover the mouse over the icon till the tooltip comes up so I know what it does.

Oh man, not another one of these "durr, icons are based on technologies that don't apply anymore!" articles. Tell you what, you invent "better" more "modern" icons that everyone can recognize and then maybe I'll be willing to read your blogarrhea.

Why do I have to still log-in to Facebook? Why can't I run Windows games on my iPad? Why can't I just talk to my computer like Star Trek?

Programmers know why, but users don't. Same goes for icons: designers know what they're doing & why...

The question is why Facebook forces you to use an E-mail address as a user ID. Now THAT's amateur hour.

You can log in with your URL.

Assuming you've defined one, and a URL is not an appropriate user ID either.

They don't.

Hm, yeah, check their page:


Munch munch! It's fun to play stupid, right?

You can use your vanity username that appears in the url of your profile page. You can also use your phone number.

Actually, my TV has rabbit ears again -- only they're for DVB-T now.

This gave me something to think about.

When icons fail to be understood, they can fail hard. I spent a lot of time frustrated with the new gmail design until I changed the icons to text.

The floppy disk icon has always frustrated me. Though I still haven't seen a great replacement. Would love to see this list with more thoughtful options to use instead.

It's because "saving" is an activity that exists only to appease computer architecture choices. It's not a natural thing to do at all.

A more humanistic approach would be to save versioned history of everything you do and then "save" by marking points in time as versions you would like to share with other people or systems.

There was a discussion on stackoverflow that talks about it http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1019573/save-icon-still-a...

the floppy disk icon for saving is a bit of an anachronism, but so is saving. there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of value in re-imagining the icon for an action that is mostly unnecessary in modern apps.

Why would a perfectly suitable icon ever be replaced?

When something else becomes iconic that replaces it.

Conversely, how about redesigning them for something older...

I love how there's a spool of camera film in the photo for the "voice mail" icon. Sounds like someone's too young for those flat cameras!

That would be to illustrate the phrase "but it always looks like a container of 110 Film.".

Ah, I missed that, thanks.

Not to mention that the icon is for the reels in a cassette, not a reel-to-reel tape.


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