Scott Hanselman

The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other old people Icons that don't make sense anymore

May 10, 2012 Comment on this post [145] Posted in Musings
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What happens when all the things we based our icons on don't exist anymore? Do they just become, ahem, iconic glyphs whose origins are shrouded in mystery?

Floppy Disk - Save

Save? Save where? You know, down there. Adding the Arrow to the 3.5" floppy makes me smile. Is it pointing to under my desk? What's a floppy? Why not a USB key? Maybe a cloud icon? That will be easy since there is only One Cloud Icon in the world.

Floppy Disks of Various Sizes, 3.5  disksave

Radio Buttons - Mutually Exclusive Choices

Why are they called Radio Buttons? Because my car radio used to have buttons where only one could be pressed at any time.  I miss my 8-track.

AM Radio from Gina Hogan Edwards' Blog  The Shutdown Windows Dialog


Seriously, short of a doctor's office or the DMV when are we coming in contact with clipboards? And why is the clipboard the icon for Paste? Why not Copy? Or "fill out form?

The Paste Icon with a Clipboard


We used to use smaller flat dead trees to keep our place in between the dead trees we would read from so that we didn't lose our page. No, books didn't "keep our place when we turned them off."

A bookmark in a book

Address Books and Calendars

We would write down all our addresses and phone numbers in a dead tree and carry it around with us. Sometimes we'd manage our calendar that way also. Everything was bound together with metal spiral loops. Let me check my Filofax.

An address book with a spiral binderA calendar with a spiral binder


I assume that the Voicemail icon is supposed to be evocative of reel to reel tapes but it always look like a container of 110 Film. I suspect my voicemail is no longer stored on spooled magnetic tape. No, you've never seen either of these before, young person. #getoffmylawn

iPhone Voicemail IconReel to Reel Tape110 Camera Film

Manila Folder

I suppose the kids use Pee Chees still these days? I use folders because I use the 43 Folders organizational system but I don't see any reason that we couldn't be storing our files in abstract squares rather than folders in the sky.

Manilla Folders in the CloudsManila Folders are where you put thingsManila Folders


Handset Phone Icon

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. (What's that?)


iPhone Phone IconAnd old phone handset plugged into an old cell phone


Magnifying Glass and Binoculars

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. This makes no sense as magnifying glasses are for searching things that are near and binoculars imply breadth of search and distance. These two commands should have had their icons reversed!

The Find icon from Word

A magnifiying glass  A black and white icon of binoculars


Soon the envelope itself will go away and the next generation will wonder what this rectangle means and what it has to do with email. We'll still put other arrows and icons on top of these icons to mean reply, forward, delete, and other things. "Daddy, what's a 'stamp'?"


Envelope Various Envelopes with arrows superimposed on them

Wrenches and Gears - Setup/Settings

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

iPhone Settings is a set of gearsScrewdriver and Wrench crossed


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

Old timey microphone

The Siri icon is an old time radio microphone


No one under 30 has seen a Polaroid in years but we keep using them for icons. Instagram sold for $1B with an icon whose subtlety was lost on its target audience. "Shake it like a Polaroid picture."


Instagram IconStack of Polaroids


Does your TV have "rabbit ears?"

A bunch of TVs with CRTs and

Carbon Copies and Blueprints

I'll "cc" you on that email. Last time I made a carbon copy I was using a mimeograph to do it.

Carbon CopyBlueprints and Carbon Copies


What other icons do we use while the original inspiration fades into obscurity?

Note: If one of these icons is yours let me know and I'll link to your site. I found all these and haven't been able to attribute all of them.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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May 10, 2012 1:54
..or road signs that still depict a steam train: pic
May 10, 2012 1:57
If someone has not seen wrenches and gears, it's not a sign of the times, it's a sign of paternal failure.
May 10, 2012 1:58
yet again thank you for making me feel old, again.
May 10, 2012 1:59
More than I could find this morning when I found your tweet (but I'm glad I'm not the only one with the "gears" theme). Quite a fun post this one, btw ;)


PS: So much trouble using my blogger account for openID... I wonder if the custom domain redirect breaks it or what.
May 10, 2012 1:59
Scissors for cut: since that's the tool I used last time I wanted to clip something out of the newspaper to show my friends ;)
May 10, 2012 2:03
There are then also the icons that aren't recognizable because they are culture specific.

Euroda and other mail apps use the rounded-tin-on-a-stick icon. The rest of the world was probably wondering what that was as I've only ever seen it in North America...

May 10, 2012 2:06
As the world becomes more virtual, it is going to become increasingly difficult to find physical analogs on which to base new icons.

As for an icon that is fading, I'd say the CD icon used for most music actions is getting dated.

The icon that confuses me the most is the "Ease of Access Center" in Windows. I've never figured out what the blue circle is supposed to represent.
May 10, 2012 2:06
How about the film icon? 99+% of people have never used or handled perforated film stock. Like this from Windows 7...
May 10, 2012 2:07
"in and out trays" - how long ago did they exist?
May 10, 2012 2:10
As long as we're making icons with objects that nobody uses anymore, why can't we use silly putty and a newspaper for 'copy'?
May 10, 2012 2:14
Signal Flags for 'flagging' an item is an interesting one too.
May 10, 2012 2:15
And give it a couple years, someone will eventually ask about the mail icon. :-P
May 10, 2012 2:25
Yes, my TV has rabbit ears. I don't think they are outdated at all. Work great for picking up free digital TV.
But the floppy disk - spot on!/jflanagan/status/185543623226568705
May 10, 2012 2:25
Also, the hourglass icon/pointer. It may not be the default for "busy"/"working in background" with Aero but it's still there in every other pointer scheme that ships with Windows.
May 10, 2012 2:25
@Stuart Thompson:

The white circle, together with the positioning of the arrows, mimicks a wheelchair. A classic accessibility symbol in blue and white.
May 10, 2012 2:26
While these are certainly humorous observations, I'm interested to know with what you would replace them.
May 10, 2012 2:28
Does your TV have "rabbit ears?"

Yes, it does, actually :)
May 10, 2012 2:31
I think the fancy name for these is skeumorphs.
May 10, 2012 2:50
Brilliant! :)

So what do we replace these with? Will every icon moving forward be an iPhone looking rectangle?

Or maybe everything will simply be binary icons:


May 10, 2012 2:52
Someone has way too much time on their hands :). But it is a fun post.
May 10, 2012 2:52
You don't make a carbon copy with a mimeograph. That's for making a classroom's worth of copies. You need carbon paper to make exactly one faint blue copy.
May 10, 2012 2:53
Analogies and metaphors extend to language in tech also.

Everybody is talking about 'shipping' their products these days .. Github's mantra: "Ship it bitches!"

Comes from days-of-yore industrial revolution times where loading your product onto ships to export to customers meant done, dusted, out the door.
May 10, 2012 2:59
"looks like a phone handset that you haven't touched in 20 years"

I used my rotary phone just yesterday, thank you very much. I used it to make a phone call with Google Voice.
May 10, 2012 3:01
So there was this thread on Reddit a couple days ago:

I guess it's a coincidence, because otherwise it would mean this is built upon the collective work of Reddit without proper credit.
May 10, 2012 3:01
Darn. The link should of course be
May 10, 2012 3:16
Love this post Scott. As a designer its something I think about a lot. Would be cool to have a design jam to update these icons. I guess it can also be argued that it doesn't matter as much because a lot of iconography is learned behavior and not as instinctual as we might think. I participated in Code for America's Iconathon where we were charged to create icons for new and often very abstract concepts. It was quite challenging because there was nothing physical to map it to in many cases. For example, how do you visualize "graduation requirements". It reminded me that much of our iconography is really based on social contracts and we all have to eventually learn the meanings no matter what it is before a symbol becomes common place.
May 10, 2012 3:21
Safari uses a compass! When was the last time you saw a compass.
May 10, 2012 3:25
Well, until they zap us into Tron screwdrivers, wrenches and gears are still relevant. A twenty-something can't right a "light cycle" to work or a "recognizer" to the grocery store. Heck, even my six-year-old owns his own tools.

A good choice for "setup"? Perhaps not, but certainly still relevant.

Other than that it's going to be interesting to see what iconography looks like in another twenty years if it even exists in its current form. I'm having a hard time imagining replacements to many of the rapidly degrading metaphors.
May 10, 2012 3:31
@Mike Kazarnowicz - that's a reach. this concept has always been talked about. So I guess Reddit didn't give credit to the collective work of StackOverflow
May 10, 2012 3:35
But what icons would you use instead?
Would be nice to see your thoughts
May 10, 2012 3:37
Good points all around... I bet if you changed them, though, people would be more confused. I can't even think of "modern" equivalents. I think a lot of the reason is due to how different the icons look; grayscale, monochrome, whatever, they are pretty unique. If you didn't have a TV with rabbit ears, what would a flat screen equivalent represent? A tablet? A TV? A monitor? It's pretty interesting to think about.
May 10, 2012 3:43
You know what this post make me think of? Etymologie. The origin of words. Most words we use today come from ancient terminology that have since long evolved from their original meaning. For example : democracy, from the greek demos (people) and kratos(rule, power). The greek of Athens used those two word to describe what their city used, and it morphed into a new word to describe that very specific form of governement. Today we still use use the word democracy, but except for a few scholar, no one really associate it with demos and kratos. We associate it with a governement where a bunch of elected official go sit in a big room to vote laws.

Those icons formed a "visual language" that is used to communicate with the user. I dont think there is a need to replace them, because unlike when they were introduced we don't need the metaphor anymore. Why? Because that metaphor was used to match a command with a task that was familiar to the user before. But in 2012, the familarity is with other software that use those icon. Now, young user associate directly those shape with some functionnality of the software, not with the original object. They have become symbol of their own right, like democracy became a word and kratos and demos were forgotten.

In a few decade, history teachers will display to young student some of those old physical artefact to show them the object of the ancient time that inspired the symbol in their software. Just like when my history teacher told us the origin of the word democracy when we talked about the ancient greek.

So, in my opinion at least, those icons still make sense Scott. I am myself 23 and only touch a floppy when I was under 7. But in my mind, their is a direct mapping between its shape and "save my work". It would really confuse me if some software used something else.
May 10, 2012 3:47
Because my car radio used to have buttons where only one could be pressed at any time.</quote>

So your car's current radio lets you push more than one button at a time? What happens when you do? Do you get to listen to multiple stations at once?
May 10, 2012 3:54
I'm pretty sure the solid state hard drive inside my macbook air looks nothing like the clunky IDE hard drive icon depicted in the finder
May 10, 2012 3:58
...not an icon example, but how long has it been since we dialed a phone? I think it's great that we keep these old references. They are easy to identify by their uniqueness, and their modern equivalents are more like concepts. Most of the stuff we work on doesn't have a physical representation which makes finding an icon pretty difficult.
May 10, 2012 4:10
Does your TV have "rabbit ears?"
Or knobs!
May 10, 2012 4:17
Now the hard part. What alternatives are suggested.

In the computer world they might all look the same!

I say we've become used to these. They're part of the culture irrespective.
May 10, 2012 4:26
How about use of the term "icon". I mean, unless you're an Orthodox Christian, Byzantine Catholic or art historian, do you really know what an icon really is?
May 10, 2012 4:50
I believe you're making the voicemail icon a little older than it really is - to me it has always resembled a cassette tape, which makes sense, since it harkens back to archaic answering machines =)
May 10, 2012 4:51
I want to point out that your carbon copy icon is from Carbon Copy Cloner ( Not because I own the rights to it but because it's a great utility and deserves all the credit it can get.

Plus, until I read this I never got the carbon copy part of the icon, so thanks.
May 10, 2012 4:56
Some metaphors are stronger than others: a shield is a thing of a distant past for most of us, yet I don't think it would be a good idea to replace that ubiquitous icon with a modern counterpart... try to imagine a bulletproof vest icon overlay.
May 10, 2012 5:04
So, I started to agree at the top, but, as you worked your way down I agreed less. Lots of people use wrenches on their fixies and screwdrivers to install computer parts...

Also, You added that people under 30 haven't seen these 'in years.' I think you mean one or the other but not really both. Also, I think it's worth noting that, in most cases, the prime case (the first one) of something (e.g. steam train) is often the most iconic.

To be honest, I think this is a list of things you hope are obsolete. I'm for that. Lets do that together, ok?
May 10, 2012 5:22
Why do you have to make your site unzoomable on the iPad? Damn kids with perfect eyesight...
May 10, 2012 5:43
1. A mimeograph and carbon copy are completely different beasts.

2. "Show them a tool they've never used in their lives" - only if you have pampered apartment-raised kids.

3. Yes, my TV has "ears", it's how I receive HDTV signals.

4. Those microphones and cameras aren't out of style - you can find many similar looking ones for sale right now.
May 10, 2012 5:50
I think you are stretching a bit to make your point. The only icon that is truly obscure is the save icon.
May 10, 2012 6:31
I get the joke, but you are not correct about a number of them.

Books are not obsolete. Maybe to you dont read them anymore and instead read your fancy ipad. :)

Calendars. yes i have an exchange calendar at work. I have a personal google calendar as well. But i still have a family calendar on the wall. Our kids also have their own magnet calendars they update each month. Schools also send monthly calendars home with events. Spiral bound is still a popular form to hold the pages together.

Manilla folders. people and companies still file legal documents in guess what else but a manilla folder.

Mail.... most people still receive mail... even personal stuff... not just junk mail. Party invitations, thank you notes, birthday cards, etc... my kids love to receive birthday cards, and they dont care at all about email. His classmates seem to be the same in that regard. I am sure that will change as they grow, but they do know about mail.

Settings.. 'show them a tool they've never used'. Seriously. You show a screwdriver and wrench. Those are like the first universal tools everyone uses. You cant do everything with a computer! A screwdriver and wrench are the first tools anyone should own.

Microphones. If you watch any radio show through a window as a tourist or if you watch any of them that are on TV you'll still see that kind of microphone. People recognize that as being a high quality microphone.

Tv. They still sell televisions with rabbit ears. It is just that many people pay for satellite or cable and dont use them. And if you are on a budget or just have less time for tv, youll realize there are plenty of stations in HD over the air. You need to extend your antenae to receive the channels clearly.

Carbon copies. My bank still offers carbon copy checkbooks. If you still have a checkbook youll find they are quite helpful. Also when you get a blood test at quest diagnostics they still use carbon copies. There are other examples as well. Most people dont use them daily, but they recognize what they are.

Blueprints still are blue. I went to school for architecture. Blue prints are the retro cool way to present some drawings. When i did an addition on my home the drawings were made with autocad, and the copies for everyone were made with a blueprint machine.

Iconograhy does not need symbols to look like real things anyway. All they need is to be consistent with the past. Ever see the davinci code? Every symbol has a history, and most people dont know why the symbols look as they do. But there is typically a history and reason why each symbol looks as it does. If you change a symbol thing long and hard about what the symbol should be. And most importantly conduct usability studies on the new symbols.
May 10, 2012 6:32
subtlety, not subtly - they are different words.

My favorite is the phone. A friend of mine has a 3 year old who recently got a toy phone. The child can actively use an ipad or smartphone, but didn't know what to do with the telephone toy, not even how to hold the receiver. Amazing!
May 10, 2012 7:50
I'm another luddite with rabbit ears on my TV.
May 10, 2012 8:02
blah blah MORON
May 10, 2012 8:04
Oh but they do make sense in that their purpose is so that people associate icons with a particular action in the software - it really doesn't matter that the original meaning of the icon graphic itself may have been forgotton.
May 10, 2012 8:20
Are these examples of what some might call "not digitally authentic" ?
May 10, 2012 9:01
@tim @Mike Kazarnowicz

So there! I even beat that SO post. :)

Oh and, "blah blah MORON." Yes. Definitely going to start using that in email, or maybe in conference calls. It's witty. It's succinct. Perfect.
May 10, 2012 9:13
More and more of our tangible world is being absorbed into the convergence of all things digital. One device fits all is taking away recognisable physical objects - but then, we cant just have a picture of a computer on every button, can we?
May 10, 2012 9:30
If you are really interested in icon design history, theory and practice, you can't go past this book.
May 10, 2012 9:49
That Voicemail icon is a tape recorder, silly.
May 10, 2012 10:41
We're awash in weird conventions from years past. Language is full of them: for example, "cupboard?" May I put plates on my cup board? I think the icon means more as its contemporary role than it meant to older audiences.
I'm not surprised that icons hang onto the conventions from 10 years ago.
May 10, 2012 11:12
I'm glad that Scott did not come to conclusions from that but only listed outdated technologies. Because, you know the capital letter A was a head of an Ox once. Then Greeks turned it upside down etc, but when you create a visual language distinct enough you don't need an accurate underlying symbolism but only a critical mass of cultural prevalence.
May 10, 2012 11:30
The only one that I think could possibly be replaced is the save icon. OSX Lion, and possibly Windows, is going away from saving a document as a user action to something that happens automatically in the background, and with versioning.

I've saved many butts in college by knowing how to find the Word Document in the Temp folder after a power cut or crash.
May 10, 2012 11:33
Of course symbols become disconnected from their original meaning. Who cares? We know what they mean. And new users? They learn. Just like they learn to speak and understand words that look or sound nothing like the thing they are describing. You've been talking to the VS 11 (or Win8) team too much. Yeah, let's change all the icons everybody recognizes at a glance through years of use and training and just for the heck of it try to make them cool and modern and metro! Maybe we could change the shape and color of a stop sign too? Why a red octagon? What's the sense in that? Make it (and all other signs) black and grey. And square! At least it's already ALL CAPS - you wouldn't have to "fix" that part.

Sorry, I guess I shouldn't have come to your blog right after getting mad at the Visual Studio blog.
May 10, 2012 11:41
We'll find relevance in Jean Baudrillard's "Transparency of Evil".

Are you condemning the use of metaphors (icons) because they are no longer visible to modern society? If so, that's EXACTLY why they are relevant. :)

The metaphors are effective *only* because they represent images of a world that was conquered by revolution.

Why else would you see a capitalist yuppie wearing a Che t-shirt???


May 10, 2012 12:16
I made a carbon copy just a few hours ago when I signed my credit card receipt at a restaurant.

The rules of soccer, easily the most popular sport on the planet, put signal flags in the hands of the two assistant referees, who use them actively during the game, as well as at the four corners of the pitch.

Don't get ahead of yourself. The world at large isn't as digitized yet as you (and the signal flag respondent) seem to think it is. Alternatively, sarcasm and hyperbole both lose their impact without a more sensible context against which they contrast (You're saying that most twenty-somethings have never used a screwdriver or a wrench and don't know what gears do? You can't possibly be that stupid.)
May 10, 2012 12:31
I think Laurent is spot on with his comment about etymology. The words that we use often have archaic roots that don’t make sense anymore but they do the job. The floppy disk save icon is similarly outdated but can and should live on because it does the job (even if the concept of manual saving might become outdated in many applications). Most of the other icons are less outdated as people often use the direct physical analog but they should continue to be used if they work.

Icons don’t need to make sense. They need to be iconic.

Their meanings should also be discoverable. I expect a tooltip to appear very quickly with a word or phrase describing the action. This is a problem on touch screen devices where this isn’t possible. I’m often confused about what a button does when an app developer doesn’t use one of the universally recognised icons for a perhaps uncommon action. I have to press the button and perform the action just to learn what it does. In this case they might as well have just used text. Even if you’re displaying English to non-English speakers, it’s no worse than an undecipherable icon.
May 10, 2012 12:44
I'm under 20, and I've seen all of these in my lifetime... and not only seen, used some of them. Regularly.
May 10, 2012 13:19
I was going to reply with something witty, but someone has replaced my input mechanism with some sort of outdated typewrite setup, at least that what it looks like.

You get the idea. Humans change slowly, and as technology moves faster and faster UI will be more about keeping humans in their comfort zone, for enjoyment and profit. Keyboard layout is a good example. Historically the qwerty set is only there to prevent jams, there are proven faster sets, such as dvorak, but qwerty has benefited from the network effect, and so will stay with us, as it maximizes enjoyment and profit.

It wouldn't really have made any difference if the first UI designers had used small animal icons to represent actions, that would have stuck with us. Imagine, click on the skunk to save, the otter to open...
May 10, 2012 13:27
hey Microsoft only just changed from the wavy flag to a window frame for Windows. Only took them an eon.
May 10, 2012 14:07
I have used a polaroid camera, I am 18. I've seen/used all of the things listed here, including carbon copying and 110 film. admittedly I didn't know CC meant carbon copy until I Googled it.

The Pages Icon shows a fountain pen and ink pot. Who uses a proper compass these days. I would say clapperboard but that is still used.
May 10, 2012 14:08
@geoff skeuOmorph
May 10, 2012 14:09
It's not just icons. Our world also has electronically generated sounds for which we no longer have a current reference. Cameras play you a digital representation of an old-fashioned mechanical shutter. Car indicators emit a noise reminiscent of electro-mechanical relays opening and closing. I'd love to hear of other examples. Anyone got any?
May 10, 2012 14:59
Bookmarks and calendars are still used. You may not use them, but a lot of people do, including my children.

Folders are still used as well. Again, by children, to carry back and forth their homework.

I liked your comments with the rest of the icons. The floppy disk is the biggest culprit. However, we don't have any short hand for saving to a hard drive or to the cloud. A cloud icon may lead to people think that they are about to connect to the cloud.

May 10, 2012 15:24
Visual metaphors and verbal metaphors in software products have been interesting to me for a while.A favourite of mine is Apple's Pages using an icon of a bottle of correcting fluid (!) to indicate "Auto-Correction". Also, ask yourself what 'album' means in software like iTunes. I did an Ignite talk on 'album' as a metaphor in product design that explores that question a little.
May 10, 2012 15:39
I'm doing the same at with "save", "copy" and "paste". They look so familiar that I don't think about their true meaning anymore.
May 10, 2012 15:55
I agree with Laurent 100%.
May 10, 2012 16:10
Couldn't help but notice a lot of comments by temporally enhanced people on here go something like:

"That's not old, I just used my radio/compass/phone set/monocle/CDs/VHS the other day!

May 10, 2012 16:19
And here one thinks that "Walk Like an Egyptian" should be outdated soon.
May 10, 2012 16:35
Nice examples (mostly).
- Bookmarks? Sorry, but we aren't there yet. I know you love your Kindle, but a lot of people still read novels and use bookmarks. We still a few good years for this one.
- Definitely agree with the magnifying glass and binoculars
- A bit condescending :( on the wrenches and gears. Have you seen how many folks have an interest in car racing or even robotics (ex. Lego mindstorm)
- Microphones? Have you seen the Yeti? I don't know, with all the podcasts and articles on podcasting.
- I do have to admit that at times I struggle to remember what the second C is for in CC and BCC; and I'm old enough have made carbon copies on a type writer.

I don't think icons need to be something we've seen before, it's just something our minds can associate with an action or destination. The problem would be if an app or site is constantly changing what an icon does.
May 10, 2012 16:36
Outlook's full of them. What about the paperclip for Attachments? When's the last time you saw one of them in the wild?
May 10, 2012 17:56
I'm not surprised the save icon came at the top of the list.

Earlier today I looked at two proposed alternatives to the floppy disk, including LibreOffice's replacement of it with a green arrow pointing at a grey rectangle. Needless to say it isn't being well received by users.

I don't know if we will ever get rid of the floppy disk.
May 10, 2012 18:00
I really hope we aren't at a point where young adults don't know about gears and wrenches!? Your car still has them aplenty. Even the hipsters still use at least one on their fixies!
May 10, 2012 18:01
I'm under 30 and I've even made photo using Polaroid (and no - I'm not hipster/vintage ;) ).
May 10, 2012 18:08
BTW, I'd never heard the term "Pee Chee". I do recall seeing them, but I guess I was never close enough to read the name.
May 10, 2012 18:11
This made me laugh. However, my 20 year old daughter knows what all of these things are and loves things like polaroids, vinyl records, and cassette tapes. We call them hipsters like it's a nasty term, but the kids love the stuff we grew up with because it had character and texture and shape.

If you tried to update those icons to something that really relates to kids today, you'd only have one icon. An icon of a laptop.
May 10, 2012 18:41
That microphone isn't "old style," it's just what condenser mics look like.

You can buy brand new mics that look just like it right now.
May 10, 2012 19:40
The radio button example doesn't quite fit in with the other ones (since the author takes issue with the name as opposed to the icon). In any case, "mutually-exclusive buttons" or "XOR buttons" doesn't quite have the ring of "radio buttons".

May 10, 2012 19:48
I propose we replace all of those icons with a picture of an iPhone since it has replaced all of those individual products. Someone please think of the children.
May 10, 2012 19:51
yeah, that instagram icon is a rip off of the instax camera (that TONS of under 30s use) :)

polaroid is still kicking :)
May 10, 2012 20:13
Why should discarding the past be considered desirable? Computers are the best devices ever invented for remembering things. Replace "words" with "icons" in Emerson's quote:

"The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolizes the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin."
May 10, 2012 20:34
The symbols that shop-keepers used until quite recently (and in some instances, still use) such as the "Cigar Store Indian", the barber's pole, the pharmacy show globe and the pawnshop's three gold balls symbol are all examples of how symbols are divorced from their origins over time. I doubt many people would have known the origin of those symbols whilst they were in use, and today would have to look on Wikipedia to find out (I know I did).

The transport controls in audio apps are another software example. The buttons for play, record, stop, fast-forward etc. nearly always adopt the original symbols and organisation from tape machines and video recorders (green triangle for play, red circle for record etc.). These not only mimic the transport controls from an old tape machine but in some cases even copy the required interactions to start recording. You have to first press the record button to "arm" a track for recording and then the play button to actually initiate recording, in just the same way as you would on a multi-track tape machine and I'm guessing hardly anyone outside the pro-audio world has ever used one of those before.
May 10, 2012 22:01
I am 22. I know what all of these dated things are. In 22 years, through popular culture and good old fashioned googling, so too will my kids when I am 44. #pejorative
May 10, 2012 22:15
Even back when floppy discs were the most common type of removable storage, you weren't necessarily saving to one when you clicked that button. Maybe you're saving to the local hard drive, or a network share.

I suppose the more modern equivalent would be a USB stick, but switching to that would be misguided as cloud storage and pervasive internet connections become more and more the norm.

The disc as a metaphor for "save to disc" still works fairly well, as no matter where you're saving to, the file will almost certainly end up on some matter of magnetic disc, and the shape of a floppy disc is much more iconic and quickly recognizable (especially at small sizes) than an actual magnetic disc, which would just look like a circle.
May 10, 2012 22:38
Just look up why train tracks are the width they are. Then you know that history does repeat itself.
May 10, 2012 23:10
psh! your blog won't even allow me to sign in with FB! and yet you provide this cynical critique that questions outdated icons?!

some of what s bineg pointed out has actually become an issue of lexicon rather then icon, take bookmark for instance, the icon is perfect and always will be, it's the word that does not match in my opinion. And if the word does match then so does the icon which harkens back. How in the world does a star represent bookmark? And what 20 yr old has never use a screw driver, what world does this author live in that machines and gears don't still operate the things around us, even the inner works of a computer still uses fans and tiny gears? Being a person who is confronted by this conundrum on an almost daily basis, I think the article lost what could have been a great goal, to re-imagine the semiotics, rather then offer a cynical critique with no insight. I beg the author to find a better icon for phone that captures a screen without numbers that can do so much more then a phone and is a moving target at the very least.
May 10, 2012 23:14
Icons have become a visual language. As long as software uses them consistently they remain relevant even if the source of the icon becomes more and more distant.

From what I understand (and I'm no language expert) the modern Chinese characters originally were representational and evolved into the modern abstractions. Perhaps the representations will do the same: the save icon may evolve from a disk to just a rectangle with an arrow or some other simplification. As long as the share meaning is there, there is nothing "strong" with this. (And switching to a USB key would be worse, because I doubt they will be anything but a blip in storage before being replaced by another form factor).
May 10, 2012 23:48
It's quite a while that I have stopped using the Floppy icon as Save and Folder with arrow as Open and using something similar to the followings:
. ↑
└ ┘ as Open
. ↓
└ ┘ as Save
May 11, 2012 0:23

Maybe this video can help to use it correct ;-)

Medieval Help Desk

May 11, 2012 2:18
Interesting that you mention the clipboard as a symbol for the "Paste" command, but no one seems to have issues with the word "Paste" itself. When was the last time the average person broke out a bottle of paste?

And what does paste have to do with anything? You're not gluing content down, you're inserting it somewhere.
May 11, 2012 2:34
May 11, 2012 3:31
How bout the ampersand? Probably one of the oldest glyphs belonging to an all but dead language. Any time someone says the floppy should be replaced I ask when was the last time they spoke Latin. Language is learned and developed, you can't just up and change it because the original context is lost. Otherwise we'd be updating the save button every 5 years and would break usability. How many people even know what the ampersand's roots are anyway?
May 11, 2012 8:44
Browsers still use arrows for "forward" and "back." When's the last time you saw anyone shoot an arrow?
May 11, 2012 11:28
Nice, Jimmy.
It was a little funny as I started to read, but then I realized that if you want to follow that line of reasoning - "updating" icons for concepts like telephones, microphones, folders, etc. which represent the essence of the technology - when they broke onto the scene and had their day in the form captured in these icons, then where do you go from there? Is there something more "telephone"-like than a telephone? What are the folders, really? A bunch of microcircuitry that no one would be able to tell apart from the mess of microcircuitry that performs the task of moving one line of text from one place to another in a document? I mean really, it's all virtual, right? If the goal is to have an easily recognizable icon which has a clear meaning, mission accomplished. The more computerized everything gets, the less truly recognizable the parts that comprise our reality are going to become. Microcircuits are boring to look at, so despite the fundamental role they play in so many aspects of our lives, we're going to have to admit that visually at least, they'll never outdo the "obsolete" technologies they are bound to replace.
May 11, 2012 12:24
The cut/copy/paste icons are used in Android 4.0. I have no idea which is copy and which is paste (scissors = cut, I got that one). I have to guess each time. Really should memorise it but - what's the point of an icon if you have to press it to see what it does?
May 11, 2012 13:25
May 11, 2012 13:56
thanks so much for this post, I was sent the link by my girlfriend as she knew I'd love it, as I'm always going on about the outdated legacy icons we use, that have no relevance in today's world. As an UX/UI designer I've run into these issues time and time again over the past 20 years, but when it comes to interacting in the digital / virtual world, we need to have something that we can relate to physically.

As an example, for the no paper iOS app UI, I created over 50 icons, but trying to create icons that users instantly recognised through testing was tricky and often I had to fall back on legacy real world items... plus an added irony that may make you smile, is that there was an option to view by icon, but there isn't a recognised standard icon for icon!

And here's two further examples where there are no standard icons, blogs and websites, sure there are the wordpress circle and W, the blogger icon used for blogs, or the windows explorer icon used for websites, but these are all company trademarks. Due to this I created a blog icon a couple of years ago, so far it's been downloaded over 100,000 times and I see it popping up all over the place. At the end of the year I needed an icon for websites, so I made one for that too, which I've included in the blog icon .zip download, and that's slowly spreading too

let me know what you think
May 11, 2012 17:28
I ran into this during a demo last week. We had a form that had some "select only one" functionality which I rendered as custom css styled check boxes but my view model only permitted one item to be selected at a time.

There was a surprising number of complaints that I had used check boxes instead of radio buttons.

"How will they know they can only select one?"

"Because when you click an item it is the only one selected."

"They need to be radio buttons."


So I made my div have a border radius. Now we have check circles and only one can be selected at a time.
May 11, 2012 17:30
"The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other old people Icons that I don't like anymore"

Fixed it for you.
May 11, 2012 18:58
I've used all of these things, and I'm 23. Quite frankly, I'm annoyed that my computers don't have floppy drives anymore -- I have to get out an old computer and copy Lemmings onto a USB drive to install it.
May 11, 2012 19:29
These icons are not outdated. They were supposed to represent something you'd find in an office. Do you suggest we switch all icons by computers, since all the tasks you'd once do with those icons are done by the computer?
May 11, 2012 19:39
Many of these things are still in use. I agree that a few are not, but most of them are still used in the real world. Most of the points made are invalid though. Sorry! :)
May 11, 2012 19:46
In this post: I hate hipsters, so i think anything a hipster would use is outdated and uncool.
May 11, 2012 22:15
I have read books to both of my children (now 8 and 6) as they've been growing up. Whenever they need a break, they will say "pause the book Dad...".
May 11, 2012 22:44
"Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms."
― Wikipedia:ideogram

This is how Chinese started.
May 12, 2012 4:48
My big flat panel TV is a big black rectangle.
My smartphone is a black rectangle.
My tablet is a black rectangle.
My speakers are black rectangles.
My monitor is a big black rectangle.
My printer is a black and silver rectangle.
My hard drives are big black rectangles.
My laptop is a silver and black rectangle.

All of these things, only 10 years ago (those that existed) would have looked completely different from one another, and consequently their icons at the time would have had their own visual distinction making them easy to tell apart.

You: "Click the speaker icon"
Me: "Which one is that?"
You: "The black rectangle"
Me: "Which one? I see 10 black rectangles"

I'm not convinced that making icons look like their contemporary real-life counter-parts is a good thing. You would have to reinvent them as technology progresses (allows for slimmer and more creative form factors) and that means users would have to re-learn the meaning of the icons constantly.

On top of that, you can't assume just because an icon is an accurate representation of its real life counterpart, that people will necessarily know what that is.

That being said, there are plenty of icons in existence that fail to relay their meaning when taken out of context. The voicemail one you noted is a perfect example - whithout the text below it I also would have thought it was film container.

My rule of thumb is that if the user can not understand the icon sans text to describe it, then the icon has failed.
May 12, 2012 9:01
Gee, thanks for making me feel O-L-D. Were the 80s really that long ago?
May 12, 2012 10:35
Well, we still say we are "dialing" a phone, when they no longer have dials!
May 12, 2012 18:46
...and the Defrag icon is like a tricky LEGO ad in every Windows.
May 12, 2012 19:16
These things aren't hurting anyone so back off.
Besides, Retro can be cool.

A feisty old broad with a 10 year old computer and a 66 year old mind set.
Luddites Unite!
May 13, 2012 8:06
Tools and gears are still very much used and seen by today's kids. Think of Bob The Builder or Handy Manny or any of the other kids shows that have guys with tools. Or all the toys that contain tools and gears.

Steam trains also, those are seen on TV and in movies a lot (Thomas the Tank Engine for one) plus they are more likely to be instantly recognized as a train (rather than some sort of road vehicle)
May 13, 2012 10:44
Hmm, maybe I am old, I'm 26 & I've touched/dealt with all the physical and digital items on this list, yep, even the 8-track player, still have one. Not everyone pays enough attention to their past I guess, I come from a family of inventors & tinkerers, I was playing with vacuum tubes, electricity, motors, engines, & pretty much everything else by four years old, wrote my first published poem at 3 1/2, yes, seriously. Not bad for the offspring of a tobacco farmer & a hosiery mill worker I guess. I even respect the elderly, hold doors for strangers, & can still handle a firearm. See, well rounded young people do still exist, just so you don't lose hope.
May 13, 2012 11:03
In a case of double-reverse-getoffmylawn-irony, you are apparently too old to understand that Instagram icon is capitalizing on the very real nostalgia by hipster twenty-somethings for Polaroid cameras.

This kind of retro-enthusiasm is very selective though. Recently I had a friend chastise another friend on why he would have an interest in vintage computers. Later that day, when visiting said friend's abode, I discovered an Atari 2600 configured with a SynthCart that allowed him to manipulate it as a retro-new-wave electronic instrument.
May 13, 2012 11:05
Oh and BTW... Thanks to Obama's bailout of the auto industry, wrenches and gears are still made use of 'under the hood' in more than a figurative sense... and it's still quite lucrative to do so.
May 13, 2012 11:17
Problem presented, solution, not apparent. This post would be greatly enhanced if the current icon was used, and a new alternative presented.

However, well done in making an issue where there is obviously none.

This is how we innovate (?!)

May 13, 2012 11:24
Retarded article. First of all, all these things with the exception of floppy disk and tape (mayble blueprints too) are still widely used today, and I am sure everyone have seen them, no matter how young.
Second of all — so what do you suggest we change those "old" icons to? I could not find at least ONE suggestion...
Third of all — WHY should we change them, what is wrong with young people having a clue about the past?
May 13, 2012 11:55
Well, my school still make copies using a mimeograph, due to lack of funds
May 13, 2012 12:23
This has something to do with the "skeuomorph" principle.

Let me know what you think.

Greets @pimeijer
May 13, 2012 13:08
The author of this article doesn't seem to understand the concept of "symbol". What does a hook-shaped line with a dot at the end have to do with a rising vocal inflection or with inquisitiveness? What does a diagonal cross have to do with multiplying numbers? What does a thicker diagonal cross have to do with toxicity? What do two stacked circles have to do with the integer amount between seven and nine?

What makes a good symbol is its unambiguity and ease of recognition, not how well it mimics some physical object, or how often people see or use that object.

And seriously, who in the industrialized world has never seen a studio microphone or a wrench...?
May 13, 2012 14:58
Ich heard an interesting talk about icon design at a conference a couple of years ago. The floppy disc example was one that the speaker also used, saying that this is pretty much outdated.

However, I remember him pointing out one important aspect: It's almost impossible to create an icon that clearly explains what's behind it. You will always have some ambiguity. What you should focus on is creating icons that are easy to remember and clearly distinguishable.
May 13, 2012 15:21
I wonder what should be the icon for e-mail and computer settings without referencing the medium it replaces? What shape or colors represent the concept of e-mail or that type of communication?

It's a classic problem of language mixing the device with the content. E-books should be called e-stories, the book is the physical thing which in our mind becomes synonymous to the message it conveys.
May 13, 2012 17:20
He who forget the past has no future
May 13, 2012 17:37
Its an image - it doesn't matter if it depicts something that may not be around anymore, people know what the image represents in modern computer terms. Don't stir up trouble.
May 13, 2012 17:57
Iconography is an enduring expression of cultural heritage, whether found in Monopoly game pieces, UI icons, or Classical statuary. Do not decry your connection to the past; celebrate it!
May 13, 2012 19:00
On Gnome 3, the save icon by default actually is a green arrow pointing down towards a hard drive. I guess they foresaw this coming.
May 13, 2012 21:11
Interesting read, although not very accurate, IMHO.

I'm 27, and of the all tech referenced in the article, I think the 8-track is the only one I didn't get to see or use.

I have definitely used 110 film (for my tiny spy camera), polaroid cameras (heck, I still have one), and I just bought a floppy disk drive and disks last week to load some Server 2003 RAID drivers.

Although the icons used today aren't very "with the times," I don't think updating the icons to more recent images will help.

I think the problem is app designers have defaulted to using ONLY icons, and no text on buttons. This does not work, as inevitably, some apps will use different icons and will start to cause confusion. Likewise, some apps don't allow you to unselect an action, so pushing the wrong button can be app-fatal.

We want text!
May 13, 2012 22:49
It's not just visual images: I was watching something with my daughter and the guy on the TV said "Don't touch that dial!" My daughter asked me what dial he was talking about.
May 13, 2012 22:51
The guy who wrote this used a little levity to give normal people a good laugh. How can any vitriol be breaking out over this?

I don't see anywhere that Hanselman ranted that we were all morons for using this imagery... just wondering about the world out loud. If your blood is boiling over that.... wow... you must be impossible to work with or talk to.
May 13, 2012 23:06
Hi, I'm the guy who put that blue arrow on that floppy disk, back in 2007. It's a "download" icon. Here's the first place it got uploaded. I didn't make the floppy disk or the arrow itself (those are available through the same site) -- just stuck the two together.

I'll readily admit it's not the best download icon ever. But it made sense in the context it was originally designed for.

As for the point of the article: Meanings and symbols get detached from one another and rearranged all the time. Precious few people realize that the ampersand character ("&") was originally an abbreviated form of the Latin word "et" meaning "and". Yet that doesn't stop them from using it just fine. So what does it matter if nobody gets that "radio buttons" mimic an obsolete physical device for tuning a car radio? That lack of knowledge won't make the radio buttons less usable.

Besides, changing the standard iconic vocabulary would be hard. Swapping in a cloud icon for a floppy disk would require re-educating all the users who know from long experience that you save your stuff by clicking the floppy disk. That's not impossible; but why bother?

Conventions do need to be broken sometimes, but only when you have a really good reason -- like introducing entirely new functionality, or when an existing convention has stopped working entirely. Worrying that new generations won't understand the original metaphors behind an icon doesn't strike me as a good reason.
May 13, 2012 23:10
This is also partly a failure of the educational system to equip the young'uns with some knowledge of history.

The street sign for a school in the UK when I was a kid was a blazing old-style torch (conical thing with flames on top). This was blindingly obvious to the classically-educated civil servants who started street signs in the 1920s, as it was the Lamp of Learning :-)
May 13, 2012 23:24
So what if we don't use floppys anymore? What matters is what the icon itself transmits to the users. Some people may not know what's a floppy but they sure know it means "save" when they see it. So why not keep it that way?

Should we change it to a cloud or a USB drive? So 5 years from now we change it again to whatever-storage-device we're using that time?
In 20 years we'd have a whole mess of different icons for the same stuff, much harder to figure out than having a single one (even if it represents an outdated object).

And obviously this goes to the other icons, not just the 'Save' one, lol.
May 14, 2012 0:06
"Signal Flags for 'flagging' an item is an interesting one too."

I come from a Portuguese-speaking country, where a flag is just an object, not a verb. You can't "flag" something.

So, the flag never made much sense.

A "pin" is a better metaphor, IMO.
May 14, 2012 0:08
"So what if we don't use floppys anymore? What matters is what the icon itself transmits to the users. Some people may not know what's a floppy but they sure know it means "save" when they see it. So why not keep it that way?"

That's a really good point!

I see some people trying to replace the floppy with clouds, or things like that... well, that makes even less sense.
May 14, 2012 0:10
"On Gnome 3, the save icon by default actually is a green arrow pointing down towards a hard drive. I guess they foresaw this coming."

Except that 99% of users haven't ever seen a hard drive.

I, for one, prefer the floppy -- it may be outdated, but at least it has a well known meaning.
May 14, 2012 1:48
The fact that a lot of the 'visual language' we use is based on obsolete technology is interesting, but hardly a reason to change it. Our spoken and written language is stuffed with references to obsolete technology, with no ill effects.

You still 'hang up' a telephone, but have you ever used the type of telephone with a 'switchhook' on which you would literally hang the handset to end the call?

You still 'dial' a telephone number, but when (if ever) did you last use a telephone with a dial?

If you're American, you put things in the 'trunk' of your car, but have you ever driven one of the cars where the rear storage space is a steamer trunk?

Your car probably does have a dashboard, but is it still there to prevent mud from your horse's hooves being dashed against you?

I fully expect most of these 'obsolete' icons to remain, as fossilized technology preserved in conventions of visual language, as these examples have been fossilized in spoken and written language.
May 14, 2012 5:04
Isn't it more interesting, for example, to show a picture of a classic, old car than a boring new one? And I for one think a classic steam locomotive is a lot more interesting than a modern diesel one. So I prefer the "old fashioned" icons. They provide roots to our heritage.
May 14, 2012 6:03
As time will go by, many of these icons will have their own meaning, the same way hieroglyphics from ancient cultures. There are still enough of a generation overlap to relate to its physical origin. However, as time goes by those will be lost, for sure.

Regarding to mimeograph and carbon copy. The last one I created a carbon copied letter, was the last time I touched a typewriter. As already mentioned, it was done through carbon transfer from one sheet of paper to another.

It is like the signature markings used in business letters that have been carried forward into email parlance.


Fcc (file carbon copy, or take a the copy generated from carbon transfer, put it in a manila folder and store it in a cabinet).

Cc (Carbon Copy, distribute copies to those in the list, which meant to be informed about, and not to act on the letter).

Enc. (in other words attachments).

It is not only graphical representations that have been carried over since old times, these commands or instructions also originate from older technology that may not make sense in the digital age.

Back to mimeographs, considering the cost of laser toners and their replacements, mimeographs beats hands down later printers in terms of printed pages per cost. Too bad that it stinks when it's printing.

On Save - I rather have a cabinet with an arrow for save rather than a cloud. Saving on a cloud makes no more sense than thinking that it means dancing for rain.

May 14, 2012 6:58
Actually the "Oldest writing system in the world" came about in pretty much the same fashion. Logograms make sense when you need to document thoughts into a single complex character. Considering hanzi/kanji has been around for what is it some 10k years I'm sure computer icons will stick with us for quite a while (until we eventually reduce them in the same fashion as the chinese characters have been reduced over millennia)
May 14, 2012 7:39
Congratulations, you have just discovered how language works.
May 14, 2012 9:20
While I by and large agree with the observations, I must take a contrarian stance regarding the magnifying glass and binoculars icons. Binoculars may be useful for seeing items at great distance, but they do not imply a breadth of search; indeed, the more powerful the binoculars, the smaller the field of view. Using a magnifying glass—limited magnification, but wide field of view—to represent a global search and the binoculars—greater magnification, but limited field—to represent a search within a document may seem counterintuitive but it does, in fact, make sense.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.