Is this the perfect save icon?

Jamie Heuze
Jamie Heuze
Head of Product 2 Feb 20166 minutes read

The hunt for the perfect save icon

Last week at Etch, my friend and colleague Matt Jackson asked me a simple question:

This is something that has come up time and time again, so naturally we started to do some digging around to find a better solution.

According to a survey taken in 2013: 1,000 children, from kindergarten through to 5th graders, were questioned about iconography. Among the findings was an interesting tidbit: Only 14 percent of the kids knew what the save icon represented.

That’s a concerning statistic. The whole idea of a user interface is to create a connection between human and machine where both can understand the input and output of information, so we should always be striving for icons that convey meaning to our users.

We’re now approaching an era in which the predominant user base interacting with this are young teens. Users with little or no experience in ever using a floppy disk. With that in mind can we honestly say that we as designers are communicating this in the best way possible?

In fact, the more I think about it, I would be surprised if any millennial knew a lot about hard disks. Even the concept of reading/writing data to a physical object is probably alien to them.

So how do we fix this?

The definition of icon design is: 
The process of designing a graphic symbol that represents some real, fantasy or abstract motive, entity or action. In the context of software applications, an icon often represents a program, a function, data or a collection of data on a computer system.

Let’s look at that in more detail: 
Designing a graphic symbol that represents something real.

A symbol is a visual representation of an idea or concept. They take inspiration from actions like sounds, gestures, feelings and words.

That’s all fine, I’m down with that, but it’s the next part of this sentence that starts to introduce the problem. Something real. It’s the easy thing to do, it’s the literal symbol of the object that’s right in front of you.

But what happens over time is these objects evolve and change into something completely different. The literal object for a telephone no longer consists of a rotary dial, microphone and an ear trumpet! I mean take a look at a few of these classic icons. Ask yourself whether you think they are still relevant to someone today?

Dealing with icon evolution


The other part of our definition for icon design mentions the idea of fantasy. Abstract motive, entity or action. This really excites me, but it’s ridiculously hard to do. Hence why a lot of the time we take the easy option and just make it literal.

I love the idea of designing iconography based on the emotional effect and the reactive nature of a human interacting with something. Here are a few examples that we put together based on symbolising an action rather then an object.

They’re far from perfect but it was definitely a good exercise in opening our imagination and getting creative. Our aim was to produce something timeless and effective. Or should I say, iconic.

One truly great example of this is the work from the Google design team.

It’s amazing how they bring life and meaning to the same 4 little dots, each time symbolising an action we can instantly identify with.

Ok cool, but where’s the new damn save icon!?

well, about that…

You see the thing is you probably don’t even need one. The times they are a changing and like I mentioned before, who’s still reading and writing data from a physical object these days?

It’s all in the cloud baby. Yes, I know the that the cloud is made up of huge data centres somewhere but manually saving is just something we don’t need to clutter our lives with anymore.

Today when I’m working all I want to know is; do I have an internet connection and am I syncing my data successfully? Big green tick yes, awesome! I know I have access to that work from any device, anywhere in the world and at any time.

As always with these types of questions we love to rope in our in house design psychologist Paul Davies to impart his ever wonderful wisdom. His solution, albeit simple, is an effective one indeed. So if you really do need to “save” something:

I started writing this thinking that the floppy disk was terrible as an icon and to be honest I’m now feeling like my reaction was a little brash.

I wanna look back at that survey for a second: 
Only 14 percent of the kids knew what the save icon represented

Fourteen percent? Really? Interesting, now I read this as 100 percent knew this was a save icon but only 14 percent understood the history behind the symbol. So does this icon enable the user and machine to interact together? I would say it does.

Let’s look at it like this, how many of you knew that the USB symbol was based on Neptune’s Trident, the mighty Dreizack, or that the bluetooth symbol is a combination of the two runes that represent the initials of Harald Blåtand? Harald happened to be such a connoisseur of blueberries it was believed he always had one blue tooth. Maybe some of you did. But those of you who didn’t, probably haven’t struggled to connect your latest smart phone to your car radio or plug in your USB device.

The key thing is, if you really need an icon just make sure that it is simple, identifiable and consistent.

It’s unclear what the future will hold for the floppy disk icon. Maybe there is an argument that you don’t really need to know that it’s a floppy disk at all? You just need to know that pressing this weird boxy symbol means to manually save something. For the new generation with no experience of using a floppy disk, this symbol might as well be some weird abstraction, a fantasy object anyway.

And maybe that’s OK, maybe that makes it the perfect icon already.