Archaic Iconography

In many com­put­er appli­ca­tions1, you’ll find a tool­bar which con­tains a save tool & icon. Almost with­out fail, that icon is of a flop­py disk (most close­ly resem­bling a blue 3 1/2″ flop­py). But why not a com­put­er hard dri­ve (though those often end up look­ing like sar­dine tins in small icons) or a reel-to-reel tape? It is inter­est­ing that we sort of all agreed on one slice out of our tech­no­log­i­cal his­to­ry to agree upon as the stan­dard for sav­ing data. Of course, the irony of using this for to exe­cute a save com­mand is that very few com­put­ers today have a flop­py dri­ve at all and using these as a pri­ma­ry method of sav­ing pre­dates even the 3 1/2″ flop­py itself.

I’ve often won­dered if I’ll have to show my kids a old flop­py disk to explain the his­to­ry of the icon. That is, assum­ing I can even find one around here. When I did my Spring clean­ing last year, I had to bor­row a USB flop­py dri­ve from my father-in-law since I did­n’t have a com­put­er handy to even read those disks. Regard­less, I believe the icon itself will be large­ly abstract to them; though I don’t doubt they’ll learn to rec­og­nize what func­tion it rep­re­sents imme­di­ate­ly. They will become sym­bols more than direct rep­re­sen­ta­tions, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself2

Sim­i­lar­ly, you might find a old phone hand­set rep­re­sent­ing calls or phone func­tions and a snail-mail enve­lope for cre­at­ing or check­ing e‑mail. These, too, are out­dat­ed (or near­ly, in the case of the enve­lope) tools to rep­re­sent their dig­i­tal replace­ments.

But then, what icon bet­ter rep­re­sents sav­ing data? Or mak­ing phone calls? Or send­ing mail?

  1. This is most­ly a Win­dows and Lin­ux GUI con­ven­tion. You’ll occa­sion­al­ly find it in Mac appli­ca­tions, though most­ly in those writ­ten by Microsoft. This is because in most Mac appli­ca­tions, the file-lev­el com­mands are only found on the menu bar and not in a win­dow tool­bar. A lot of web appli­ca­tions use a sim­i­lar icon, as well. []
  2. Pret­ty much all let­ters, num­bers, and oth­er sym­bols all had more con­crete mean­ing at one time. Take, for exam­ple, the octothor­pe/pound/hash/crosshatch/number sym­bol (#). Accord­ing to The Ele­ments of Typo­graph­ic Style, this was once used in car­tog­ra­phy to rep­re­sent a vil­lage. That is, it was a sym­bol for a town square sur­round­ed by eight fields. The fact that we have so many dif­fer­ent names for this sym­bol is indica­tive of its many mod­ern uses and that we have all but for­got­ten its orig­i­nal, more lit­er­al mean­ing. []