April 5, 2011

Idea: A New ‘Save’ Icon

I’m not the first person to suggest replacing the prevalent 3.5” floppy disk save icon. A quick Google search comes up with several discussions on the topic including a lengthy reddit thread with more than 700 comments.

3.5” floppy disks have been out of use for so many years that I wonder if younger computer users even know what that icon is supposed to be. Here is how it appears in the current version of Microsoft Word for OSX:

Not only don’t people use floppy disks anymore, but the options for saving are even more varied now than simple disk format. You might save to your own computer, or a drive on a server somewhere off in the cloud. You might even be using a program that autosaves in certain intervals without you needing to think about it. Even with a program like that, it would still be nice to know how long its been since the last save.

So then the question is, What do we use instead?

Here’s what I propose: instead of thinking of a file as being saved, think of your file as being in one of two states: it’s in danger, or it’s safe. And I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe than home plate:

Maybe it’s because baseball season just started, but I think this is a good idea. Let’s think about how home plate could be used:

The “safe” icon is pointy on one end like an arrow. This can be used to indicate where your file is saved. If the latest version of your file is saved locally, it points down. If the latest version of your file is saved on a server somewhere, it points up.

Home plate on a baseball field gets progressively dirtier as the game goes on. When it’s too dirty to easily see, the umpire brushes it off. Similarly, the “safe” icon can get progressively dirtier the longer you go between pressing it. At a glance, you can tell if your file is safe or in danger. And if you go too long without pressing it to clean it off, a little animated sweeping brush appears to get your attention. Even if you’re using a program that auto-saves, the dirt metaphor can still tell you at a glance roughly how long its been since the last save.

For bonus fun, every time you press it you can pretend you’re an umpire and shout, “Safe!” That’s way more fun than pressing a floppy disk.

If this catches on, then no longer will people ask if the file is “saved”, and no longer will anyone have to wonder what that little icon is supposed to be. We can just look at the home plate icon and ask, Is it safe?

Update: Well, it didn’t take very long for people to point out the big flaw with this idea: much of the world doesn’t have baseball and has no idea what home plate is. Woops. But I still like some of the basic premises here. It’s a simple icon that tells you at a glance whether your file is saved locally or remotely, and whether your current revisions have been saved. And it still lets you push the button to update the saved file. So it’s not perfect, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Sorry about the oversight, rest-of-the-world.

Update 2: Now that both John and Marco have weighed in, I guess I should acknowledge that I understand they’re both right. I’m not so backwards as to think we’ll be manually saving things for much longer, and sure, the best solution to the floppy disk icon issue might just be to wait it out until it’s obsolete. But I still like my idea and urge it to be adopted by anyone writing software for Americans who are baseball fans without internet access or a modern operating system.


I totally agree that the floppy disk icon is hugely out of date, but baseball is really only popular in the United States, while computers are… well… everywhere.

If you want a replacement save icon, it’d need to be something much more universal.

Look like it could work. I wouldn’t have know about the baseball reference as I don’t live in the states. Thinking about dropping the floppy icon is in any case a good thing.

I don’t think that icon really works. But I like the idea of safe or in danger. More thinking around this area might get some results. What just came to my mind is how a file is “in sync” or “out of sync” with the file system. Seems like some more universal graphics might be able to be build around that.

I’m an icon designer and while I appreciate the thought you put into this you forgot that not every computer user is American. I’m Italian and baseball is not something I’m familiar with therefore your home base icon is totally cryptic for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
Graphic metaphors should be universal.

Maybe a little Jesus icon? One could also use Holy Mary for a new (virgin) document, Moses for old versions… hm, I see a certain potential here. Makes me think of this famous Umberto Eco essay.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Yeah, there’s a lot of people who aren’t American and have no idea what a home plate is (like me, when i saw the pictures, i didn’t understand how some kind of white arrow is supposed to represent “save”). So if you want to replace floppy disk icon because some people might not know what it is, using these icons kind of defeats the purpose.

Outside the US nobody gets the “home plate” icon, I don’t even know what a “home plate” is.

I think, the floppy disk icon should be replaced by no icon at all. I think we shouldn’t have to save files manually, it’s the computers job to make sure everything is save all the time. So the only icon we would need would be some kind of Version Management / Time Machine / History.

Jumping on this whole, “What’s that white triangle thing?”, bandwagon.

The obvious solution that everyone ignores is that rather than change the save icon, we should revert to using 3.5” floppy disks on a regular basis.

A little late for April Fools, David :)

I never understood the *need* for a save icon; it is so much easier just to type Ctrl/Cmd+S.

A better idea would be simply an exclamation point in a circle, or yellow danger triangle, which would show *only* if the file hadn’t been saved in a while. If the file is saved, the “!” would still be there, but grayed out (ghosted). Heck, legacy word processors have for aeons used simply an asterisk in the status bar to indicate a “modified” file, and this is going back to 9-track-tape and punched-card times.

I can’t resist pointing to this article on Cracked.com which discusses the ‘save’ icon and other icons as well. It’s a great read.

iOS and Mac OS X Lion do away with the Save function altogether by making it automatic. Now that’s progress.

Ever see the way Mac OS X has done it for years? Check out the red close icon on each window - compare one with unsaved work to one with saved work. Of course they’ll get rid of that.

OS X already implements a “file is dirty” type of indicator (and probably other platforms do too).

In OS X’s case the window-close button will be filled with a black dot while there are unsaved changes. Presumably it’s put here so that you’d see it if you tried to close the document.

Personally I think the “save” concept should be eliminated entirely; the user shouldn’t have to think about whether their work is safe or not, it should always be safe.

I’m an American but I don’t follow or think about baseball in the slightest. That icon doesn’t mean a thing to me either.

I actually use the floppy disk in my company’s logo :)

I agree with Mike - the concept of “save” is being outmodded. The iPhone/iPad for example does not institute any kind of save icon at all, except to “save as” and create a copy. The further we can get from thinking of these devices as “computers” the better off we’ll be.

Hundreds of millions of people use computers who don’t have the slightest idea about baseball and the home plate - including myself.
Notwithstanding that, the floppy icon is utterly anachronistic. So the challenge is still there…

To be fair, everyone who says baseball is only popular in the U.S. is forgetting that baseball is also quite popular in Japan, the Carribean, and parts of South America. But, they’re correct in pointing out that the vast majority of global users would be unfamiliar with the concept of home plate.

I’m going to side with Gruber and say that the iOS method of “auto-saved until you delete it” as being the future of saving. If that’s the case, when starting a document, you decide where it gets auto-saved to: cloud, disk, external drive, etc. Sure, you could still give people access to an option to move a document’s auto save location and to export, but that could all be handled by the curved arrow that iOS uses in such instances. Why this hasn’t been default behavior at the OS level for years is a mystery to me.

I’m personally excited to see this taking shape in Lion.

I was with you right up until, “I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe than home plate”.

Outside of the US, a home plate mean represents very little.

How about this—

Files save their progress automatically. You shouldn’t have to EVER save a file. Storage is cheap enough that all you should be doing is NAMING your file. You should be able to retrieve any work you were doing whether you remembered to press a “save” button or not.

It’s not the icon that’s outdated. It’s the entire concept of having to “save”.

The icon theme in a vanilla Ubuntu install uses an arrow pointing to a hard disk. I happen to like it - but I know what a hard disk looks like.

Another attempt to come up with an icon that makes sense. I don’t think there are any good ones.

Not to pile on but…
“And I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe than home plate”

That’s the crux of the problem right there. If you want to replace the floppy disk icon and can’t think of anything other than a sports analogy for a game most of the world doesn’t play, it kind of tells us why the icon is still what it is.

If ‘save’ is going to become an abstract shape, why not something that is really abstract and not tied to anything? Makes as much sense as making it a ‘home plate’.

Surely the answer is obvious? Remove the save icon, remove the distinct save action. Add an option (for pro-users) to the file menu to create an explicit “snap-shot” in time.

Save as something we should ask users to make an explicit decision about at any point is what is out of date, the icon should just be reminding us of that.

I haven’t clicked an icon to save anything in ages. Command-S or Command-Shift-S. Its almost universal, even on windows, with Ctrl of course.

Don’t quit your day job, unless it’s interface design. In which case, quit immediately before you get fired.

I think the “file is dirty” concept is something that’s completely abstract for most users - it’s only something we bit-twiddlers are aware of. So a literal “dirty” icon probably doesn’t communicate what we need to; what we need to communicate is “needs to be saved” vs. “everything is OK.”

BTW, you want anachronistic? On an iPad (and in Lion now, apparently), Apple is using a leather-bound paper calendar and paper contact list metaphor for the calendar and address book. Who uses those? Who (who is a current computer user) has *ever* used them?

I’m in my 40s, and I had a paper address book once in my 20s. I have never used a paper calendar. Ever.

Safe and Danger could be covered by traffic lights - green and red (or yellow). More universally recognized than baseball.

Cricket stumps? More universal than baseball…

How about a sheet of paper that gets more and more crumpled as it gets “older”…

Apple has already fixed this by replacing the entire Save command with Autosave+Versions in Mac OS Lion. Autosave Saves your document automatically every 2 seconds, and Versions enables you to go back in time through the document’s history at any time and prefer any single version.

So the Save icon has been replaced by an actual visual representation of the Saves: a Time Machine -like interface of multiple document versions getting smaller as they get older, and a time slider: 5 minutes ago, 1 hour ago, etc. The focus has also shifted from Computer Science and storage hardware to the creative process and document production.

That home plate looks suspiciously like an open envelope. I like the idea of indicating how long it has been since the last save, though.

What about a tick? simple and to the point?

Similarly the rotary phone (even if just the handset) style “call” or “dial” icon. I’m sure there’re kids who’s never seen a phone in that shape, and a smaller set that’s never seen a phone with a cord.

How about developers stop creating all those ridiculous icon bars and ribbons and put the Save option up in the File menu where it’s out of the way until you need it? No icon required.

as some who are quicker on the draw than i, “saving” is an obsolete concept. it’s the 21st century fer crying out loud.

shouldn’t have to even think about it.

i think this way because i work with flash on a mac.

nuff said.

I don’t get the hate for the save icon. Most icons have the same problem, and we do just fine. How many people has physically cut and pasted text with actual scissors and glue? Does this mean we must get rid of the cut and paste icons too? What about folders, who from the new generations has actually used physical folders? I guess less people than those who have used a floppy. Shouldn’t we replace the folder icons in finder too? What about the old phone like the one used in iphone home screen?

Icons are good if people recognizes what they are, not if they remind of a physical object. Most people know that the funny square means save even if they have never seen a floppy, and that’s what matters.

Apple users don’t have this problem. We just use our Keyboard command-S or mouse a save from the File Menu. Seems like the best way. I don’t lie autosaves for the simple fact that, as a graphic designer, I might have an existing design I’m working on from a previous save… just playing and experimenting. If there is suddenly a power failure and autosaves been used all the playing would be saved on top of the real work. I suppose the answer would to work on a copy of the saved design when “playing”.

Since you’re considering a solution, I’m guessing you could a Red Stop sign with an S in the middle of the octogon (prompting to Save) or a round Green Go sign with a G in the middle of the green circle, signifying Good. Or it could just be the Red S octogon that greys out when the file is saved. If this S icon was place close the close window button, then it would be very-catching.

Horn tooting here with my post about this very same topic. Essentially, I think there’s a great opportunity to do some key UI and UX work by getting rid of save altogether. But a baseball metaphor is pretty darned clever.

I agree that the disk icon should go and although you clearly put a lot of thought into it, the baseball reference isn’t ideal either.

I never thought I’d say this given their dreadful UI designs but I think Google has found a great solution in Google Docs. There is a save button but you don’t have to use it. You can save manually if you want but it’s also done automatically and it shows you when the document was saved the last time. They obviously needed a solution like this because of the cloud based nature of Docs but it’s quite a nice solution.

John Gruber wrote about the future being iOS style saving and I think he’s right. I do think however that on a PC, people expect and want a save button because they’re used to it, whether they actually need one or not. That’s why I believe Google’s solution is for now the best compromise.

I’d really like to see a dentist’s drill icon instead of the homeplate. If we’re going to be so obscure as to use a homeplate, surely we could consider an obscure ‘Marathon Man’ reference, right?

Only an ape would pick something from commercialized sports. Way to admit your ethnocentrism to the world.

How about a picture of Jesus, He saves.

Cute idea, but another big problem with it is simply the shape. It looks either like a down arrow or perhaps some sort of a bookmark — until you turn it upside down, when it looks like an under-defined envelope.

I love the idea of changing the save icon. The baseball analogy may be limited to regional aspects to some but your concept is great.

What about something like an “S” with arrows on each end? is that taken already? the arrows could appear when you have not saved. or simply it’s filled when saved and is a stroke when not? color change could play into it. or a dollar sign! lol. s’kidding.

Sports metaphors? Here in Canada, we’d be fine with a Hockey Goal for the ‘save’ icon. Or maybe it could be a Curling target?

It continually amazes and saddens me to see the level of ignorance from the US (and I used to live there, too) when it comes to the cultures of the rest of the world.

A Metaphor, according to the Apple User Interface Guidelines, should br familiar and available. how about an arrow pointing to a simplified box (or a filing cabinet, if you must use a manufactured object). A good example is Google’s icon in the iOs email app when one has an IMAP account (and hence, no deleting from the phone ) - it stands for archive, which just as well might be save.

David’s original post misunderstands what saving means. Saving means committing information to a physical medium. Saving means writing it down.

Compare what people did before computers to nowadays. We used to write and revise drafts on paper, and now our computers write those drafts magnetically to a hard disk. People used to save permanent records by carving them in stone (long, long, long ago), and now we write our records to optical disks or make a paper hard copy. Modern computers hide most of the details of how they “save” things, but saving always means making a physical representation. Even if it’s just a few microscopic, invisible, magnetic specks on a hard drive, we save information by writing it down physically.

So, how do we represent “writing” in a timeless, general, cosmopolitan way? I propose a chisel carving a message into stone. It captures some aspect of the concept of “saving a document”. The metaphor will make sense without much explanation to everyone who knows any world history. It’s visually simple and iconic. Also, it’s a little colorful and funny: “Are you SURE you want to save your changes? Are you sure you want to CARVE THEM INTO STONE?”

And finally, I hate baseball.

I have to agree that the symbol you’ve chosen is not universal. But I love the idea of using some symbol to denote the age of the document since the last save/safe and to indicate if the document is saved locally, in the cloud, or even, perhaps, being shared with another user.

I saw a shirt pocket, as I’m not a fan of baseball, despite being American.

Apple’s adopted some of this in their “dot inside the red close widget,” but I often meet folks who never have noticed this. Not to mention the apps I run that sometimes do not follow this convention.

Thanks for sharing your idea and getting us to think.

C’mon @Steve (April 5, 2011 1:52 PM)! You might “have never used a paper calendar. Ever.”, but paper calendars are still widely used. I don’t think you can compare to Floppy Disks .

At first glance.. sadly I have NO IDEA what that silly arrow thing is! What is it supposed to be. Hence it fails first off. May work in some places, but this has to be universal. A ‘home plate’ is not.. what is a home plate anyway?

Maybe an icon of a goalkeeper in a soccer/football match would be more universally recognised.

Or in these financially-challenged times, how about a piggy bank icon?

There was a paper in SIGGRAPH many years ago (probably some time in the 80s) which critiqued user interface iconography. I wish I could remember which issue it was, because it’s still extremely relevant today, as this post proves.

I do remember one example from the paper: One program used a rabbit to denote the “copy” operation. They pointed out in the paper that rabbits mean different things in different cultures. In some cultures, they denote food. In others, fertility. In Australia, rabbits are vermin.

I agree, the floppy disk icon is dumb these days. It symbolizes nothing to people who never used a floppy disk. You could replace the floppy disk icon with anything and it would be just as meaningful (that is, not meaningful at all). Typical Microsoft on this: you just have to memorize it, there’s no way to figure it out on inspection.

How about no icon at all— just the word “Save”? If the icon has no clear meaning why bother with the icon?

(I could do without having every command represented as a toolbar button anyway. Menus are nice— they drop down when you want them and go away otherwise. Not so with toolbars. Why does so much software assume that the user is too dumb to choose a command from a menu, but not too dumb to figure out which icon means what in a toolbar?)

While we’re at it, the hard drive icon on the Mac desktop is a lousy symbol for everyone except those who have actually seen an internal hard drive. I don’t think Home Plate is the right choice for this use either, but it’s not a lot worse than what we have now.

Is it just me that doesn’t love Autosave? Personaly I prefer to decide when I’ve made changes I’d like to keep.
Hamranhansenhansen said: “replacing the entire Save command with Autosave+Versions in Mac OS Lion. Autosave Saves your document automatically every 2 seconds, and Versions enables you to go back in time through the document’s history at any time”

If I’ve been editing for 1/2 hour I’m not sure I want to have to decide which one of 900 versions I’d like (Disclaimer: I’ve not actually seen any of this in detail so I may well be talking rubbish and looking stupid - not for the first time!)

As tempting as it is to just pile on the “the world is a very big place and some parts of it are different to yours” bus, I’ll simply note that the difficulty illustrated by your “can’t think of any icon better” choice actually being an obscure one in the great world scheme of things shows how difficult it actually is to design and change universal UI concepts, and also goes some way to showing why the floppy disk icon hasn’t been replaced already.

Personally I’m all for iOS style auto-saving. However, there are many occasions where I need to experiment a bit and try going in a certain direction with something, while still knowing that I can safely return to the point before I started experimenting. Therefore I need a “safety net” to jump back to, so I’d propose that the norm should be auto-saving with a manually implemented snapshot feature so you can clearly indicate a point in the editing process *that you explicitly decide upon* to jump back to - you are always only going to get so many undos!

My argument against is this: people would start saying things like “did you safe the document”, since “safe” and “save” are very similar, and I would rage.

I’m not from the US but watch a lot of baseball so please fill me in on how home plate is a symbol for “safe”. You can be safe on any of the three bases as well and since the batting average for 90% of all batters is below 30% and all the shenanigans with passed balls and wild pitches as well as being hit by a pitch and not even thinking about the fact that everybody who gets up to the plate and wears a helmet because you get leather balls with a cork inside thrown at you at a leathal pace - don’t you think that every single seat in the stadium, the dugout, the bullpen, any base and any area in the outfield is safer than home plate?

I’d even say that you more likely associate _scoring_ with home plate than “saving”.

Not to mention that the icon looks like a bookmark for paper books - you know the ones with a foldout tongue at the top that you can stick over the page before so it sticks better and doesn’t fall out.

I’d associate a hardhat more with safety than this icon…

Wow, looks like a few people need to lighten up. I really enjoyed your idea, I think it’s great, and funny. I’ll be hollering “SAFE!” all day. Thanks for brightening my morning! =)

And no, I don’t even watch baseball.

How about worldwide universal SAVE icon that anyone can recognize? A small Superman logo for instance! It even has “S” on it to relate to the Ctrl+S (Cmd+S). Press that Superman icon and save your work!!!

issues, aside from being somewhat america-centric:

1. the icon doesn’t “strike” a chord immediately, that is to say it’s not immediately recognizable as a home plate as opposed to some white 5 sided polygon reminiscent of an arrow or envelope or such. the bevel doesn’t clue enough, too many things have a bevel or some effect thrown on them (thanks pshop). it’s just not a good object at that size.

2. broken metaphor: a home plate gets dirtier with use, not the lack of. further, the working file isn’t taken “out of play” (save and close? not quit cause the game’s not over).

3. “saFFFe” to me doesn’t equate to “saVVVe”, it’s too big of a stretch. feels like an almost-rhyming lyric snuck into a song cause the author felt it was a shame to not use it, or couldn’t resolve it better (“And I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe…”). a “fasten seatbelts” icon in this context would be vague in the same way, and it could be construed to mean “lock” just as home plate could be “score/start”.

i’m for the “unsafe” indicator. system wide on mac (just cocoa or carbon too?) and bbedit’s used a black diamond forever. i’m not for “saveless” working though. a system pref or letter to your mom might be ok autosaved only, completely transparent, but not configs or stuff on a network or things likely to be modified by more than one user (in which case there’s collaborative editing opposite on the spectrum). there still needs to be a distinction between “written to disk” and “working state” for real control. a solution is to save the latter for later and “commit” it implicitly when the document is closed or when you say so.

I’ve long thought that it should be a shoe box or drawer of some kind. That may sound old-fashioned, but it’s not outdated as we still use those things in real life.

I’d like it if we didn’t have to save at all, but I tend to think most people will need a button/icon.

How about a flower that withers away when you don’t water it. That’s gotta be universal, right?

You are a f’cking genius. I am not seeing that enough in the comments. You had me at plate = safe, but then the progressive dust situation put it over the top. It would be the first icon that would actually make you smile as you were working on some stupid doc for 8 hours a day. And even if the plate didn’t fly in the real world it is great food for thought for developers, user experience people who haven’t had a new idea in years.

I did not understand the 5-sided object at all, especially after reading a description of it.

This post has generated many thoughtful, useful comments about the difficulty of creating a successful UI. Whether people have ever used (or even seen) a floppy disk, by now it seems to be so entrenched that it universally connotes saving a file. If the “save” icon is headed for oblivion at some point in the relatively near future, as others foresee, it really isn’t broken and trying to fix it is mis-directed effort, unless one has learned something that can be applied to a useful design revision. For example, redesigned airline boarding passes. Even these are unlikely to be adopted, but they are at least practical exercises for envisioning information.

As for the “paper” metaphor on the iPad and elsewhere, it is a clever and ugly element from HyperCard days.

Appreciate the thought that went into this. But not buying the home plate icon. Too easily confused with a “home” command, for one thing. What about an image of a bank safe, or a piggy bank?

Regarding the coming obsolence of “save” - apparently none of you make much use of “save as” or use the “date modified” dates on files - automatic saving will really screw up the workflow in our office! I guess we’ll need to implement some Time Machine-style continuous backups for the entire office (ugh).

Why even abstract the adjective “safe” when there is a perfectly good and representable noun “safe”? But then people would go around saying stupid things like “Did you safe the file?” “Not yet, it’s still safing. Okay, now it’s been safed”

The save icon is going obsolete I find, with shortcuts and emergency backups who needs a button?