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Earlier this month, an NPR segment entitled “When A Floppy Disk Icon No Longer Signals ‘Save’” examined a specific graphic interface design tactic most prominently employed by Apple called skeuomorphism, in which “an object retains the look of something old, like the floppy disk.” Which made some of us wonder: Do certain icons, due to their ubiquity, transcend whether anyone remembers the original element or not?
Most kids will never use an hourglass. Yet everyone knows that an hourglass means something slow is happening. Even if you can't relate back to the original item, you have your own associations built with the virtual icon and it now means something in of itself. Doom and gloom keeps being forecast about the post office. Most kids hardly ever send a letter in an envelope anymore. Yet an envelope icon is there every time they send an email and they know it means email, even if they've no notion of what a physical letter ever was.
I'd argue that it doesn't matter that hardly anyone under 20 has ever used a floppy disk. If they've grown up seeing the icon and the icon has always meant save to them, the icon means save. It doesn't matter if they discover there was once a physical object that happened to look like it and they shrug it off with an, "Oh, cool." If every designer had used a black wax cylinder to signify storage and every time we'd ever saved anything on a computer, we'd seen that icon, we'd associate black wax cylinders as meaning save even if none of us had any idea of what an actual wax cylinder was.
In logo design, great logos are instantly recognizable upside down, flipped, from a distance, scaled up or down, color or monochrome. 3.5" floppy disks are amazing for that. You can convey a disk in 8x8 pixels. Flip it, scale it up, lose the traditional blue background vs metal slider vs white label and it's still obviously the same thing in monochrome. Even if they don't exist anymore, it's a great icon constantly used and therefore associated regardless of the original item existing.
Speaking of icons: I always liked the notion, in the novel Microserfs (if you haven't read Douglas Coupland, get on with it, we'll wait), that a department at Microsoft reversed the idea of "What icon sums up [this concept]" and instead looked at everyday objects and said, "What should an icon of [this] do?"
Today's episode is brought to you by Skeuomorphism.