Symbolic Meanings or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Save Icon

There is a debate among UI and icon designers that has been raging for decades. The question is simple: Do we need a new ‘save’ icon? For those who think we do, there is a second question: What do we replace it with? The answer isn’t as simple as some people think.

save
Save designed by Cris Dobbins from The Noun Project

The main argument for proponents of designing a new ‘save’ icon is simply that the current one is outdated. It’s based on a technology old enough that some readers may not know what is depicted in the image above. Floppy discs, they say, had their time as the predominant storage medium but have since been antiquated to obsolescence. And with more focus being put on modernism and good design every day, it’s not surprising that there would be many who are opposed to having such a relic as one of the most commonly used symbols in computing.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the origins of the icon no longer matter. Like many symbols before it, the icon has left its origins behind and become an abstract-yet-recognizable glyph that can be learned and used without historical context. Those who argue for keeping the symbol as-is might compare changing it to be as damaging to our culture as changing a letter in the alphabet, especially given the increasingly technology-dependent nature of our culture. Could we learn to live with a new symbol? Surely, they argue, just as well as we could eventually overcome the changing of a letter, But why bother? Would it be worth it to try and change such a universally-recognized symbol simply because we think it looks too old?

Say we were to decide that the ol’ floppy disc has just got to go. Now we are faced with a new problem. How do you create a symbol to represent the abstract nature of saving a file while still keeping it modern and relevant? Surely we want to stay away from more storage unit icons – after all, antiquated technology is what we are trying to avoid, here! So we need to come up with a less tangible way to convey the action of saving. Great, an abstract icon to represent an abstract idea. That’s dangerous territory we are straying into, but with a team of committed designers anything is possible, right? Before we even begin attempting to update the symbol we need to update our definition of the word ‘save.’ When the icon was first created it was a simple concept. Saving meant storing your files in a semi-permanent location on a storage disc, such as the floppy disc pictured. But what about now? Think about the last time you saved a document to your computer. Now, think about the last time you saved a photo to the cloud. To save something no longer means you can hold the storage medium in your hand. It simply means you are preserving that version of your file for future use. So when we design our icon we need to think about preservation and how to convey that concept to users.

cloud
Cloud Upload designed by Adam Whitcroft from The Noun Project

The original floppy disc icon was chosen because it featured something familiar to the inexperienced computer users of that era. They may not have known how their computer worked but they knew that a floppy disc stored files. And so it was easy for them to relate the idea of storing files with a picture of the storage medium they used. Unfortunately, our storage mediums are becoming less tangible. It’s not hard to imagine that soon a majority of our computers will forgo local storage for network-based cloud storage. In the past 3 months over 20 million tablets were sold worldwide. That’s 20 million computers designed with cloud storage in mind. But how do we represent “The Cloud”? Sure, the ‘cloud with an arrow’ icon seems like a good fit but then we need to address the computers that still do use local storage. Surely an icon commonly associated with uploading files via internet isn’t appropriate for an action that could occur completely offline.

Check Box designed by Rémy Médard from The Noun Project
Check Box designed by Rémy Médard from The Noun Project

Maybe we need to think less about the action and more about what the action represents? If we are thinking about the idea of ‘saving’ as ‘preserving’ something then perhaps we could consider imagery that relates to the idea of preservation. A check mark is becoming more and more commonly used to represent something as ‘saved.’ Maybe we could incorporate that into our design? Unfortunately, that would present an issue of user experience. The check icon is used to represent ‘saved’ because we attribute it to things that have been completed. If ‘save my file’ was on your to-do list (I hope you don’t need a to-do list to remember to save!) then you would only check it off once you completed that action. So having a check mark icon be present on the screen before  the action of saving was completed might confuse some users into thinking their files are already saved. And encouraging users to save less often is a terrible thing.

One of my favorite ideas for a possible new ‘save’ icon is based on the idea of storage. Save doesn’t have to mean “putting my files here” it just needs to mean “putting my files somewhere.” With that in mind we can further simplify the idea to “putting something somewhere.” Now we don’t need to worry about the storage format or the file type which should allow our icon to withstand the test of time a bit better.

When I started writing this article I wasn’t planning on doing anything more than simply talking about the matter. But I decided, what the heck, I’d give designing a new ‘save’ icon a shot. Here’s what I came up with:

save_simple

The idea was to represent a bit of data being stored in a seemingly secure location. I used simple geometric forms to represent a sphere being stored inside a cube. Cubes have long been representative of digital storage but are, by their nature, timeless. By keeping the icon to the extremes of minimalism it can be scaled easily and, very importantly in my opinion, it leaves the door open for designers to style it to fit their design needs more easily. A more complicated, literal version could also be used:

save

There is, actually, an ongoing effort to redesign the save icon as part of a larger iconography project called Iconic. The designers behind the project have a fantastic discussion on Branch called “Redesigning the Save Symbol. Let’s Do This.” The discussion is now closed however I highly suggest reading it through – there are a lot of very interesting points made about icon design and user experience.

I also urge everyone to try and come up with their own version of the ‘save’ icon. Send them to me and I’ll put them up for everyone to see and take inspiration from.

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Symbolic Meanings or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Save Icon

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