John Gruber Makes a Mistake

Over on DaringFireball, John Gruber points out an annoyance he has with icons used for "Save". Specifically, he doesn't like the idea of using a floppy disk as the icon, and he, rather snarkily, suggests using "S-a-v-e" to mean "Save".

Couple of problems with this. First, the question is about icons, not labels. In the vast majority of cases, the label for a save button at least includes the word "save". There are, however, legitimate cases where you'd want to have an icon as well, so suggesting that developers not use any icons at all isn't really a viable choice.

Second, text in an icon violates one of the cardinal rules of localization. Once you put text in an icon, you then have to have a version of the icon for every language you want to support.

John closes his remarks by saying, "I can’t think of a single floppy-disk-for-save button anywhere in Mac OS X or iPhone OS..." Well, I can think of three: Word, PPT and Excel use a floppy disk as the icon. It's the icon we've been using for "Save" since back when having a floppy disk for that icon actually had meaning.

Now, this does raise a rather interesting question for apps that have been around the block a few times. Do you change an icon which has a rather established meaning for current users when the nature of changes in computing have stripped some of the meaning from that icon? Personally, if we were doing Mac Office for the first time today, I'd much prefer something like Mars Edit's document-into-a-folder icon. But, for an icon that has an established meaning, the "right" answer isn't obvious.

For any app that gets past version 1.0, this general question is a constant issue. We face it so often, that we've expanded user experience (UX) as an engineering discipline within MacBU. We've made it coequal with the development, testing and program management disciplines, and are increasingly incorporating a variety of UX design techniques, not just usability testing, into our development process.

As I find time, I hope to be able to talk a bit more about what this means, but, if you're interested, the Wikipedia entry isn't a bad place to start.

None of this, though, actually highlight's John Gruber's mistake. What was that mistake? Never get snarky in a blog post that includes the phrase, "I can't think of."



Currently playing in iTunes: It's Only A Paper Moon by The Tierney Sutton Band

Comments (31)

  1. jcwelch says:

    The other point on this is that does an icon have to map to a ‘real’ world action at all? If it can, sure, but I can think of a lot of people for whom the "document-into-a-folder icon" would mean "move this file somewhere else".

    Gruber seems to have fallen into the myth that there’s anything inherently intuitive about computers, and there really isn’t. Pretty much everything you do on every platform other than vague wiggles of the mouse and random clicking is learned. So the floppy disk icon may no longer apply, but so what.

    The question to ask is more: "Is that particular icon, when used, used in a consistent manner, so that people can easily associate that icon with the correct action?" In the case of the floppy disk icon, the answer to that would seem to be yes, so it’s a good icon to use.

    Interestingly enough, out of all the applications i use the most, only Entourage and Marsedit even HAVE the option for a Save button for the toolbar. None of the others, including iWork, do.

  2. Joshua Ochs says:

    I find it strange that you describe "Gruber’s mistake" being that Mac OS X and the iPhone don’t use a floppy disk icon for "Save" – and emphasizing "I can’t think of a single floppy-disk-for-save button anywhere in Mac OS X or iPhone OS". Well, he’s right on that.

    Office isn’t anywhere in Mac OS X or iPhone OS, because it’s not part of the OS. For that matter, it’s not part of Windows either, even if it does fund it. Gruber is correct on that, and you’re the one mistaken.

    Now as to the farcical idea that text be included in an icon – THAT is some extremely flawed advice for exactly the reason you mention, and from a basic UX perspective it defeats the purpose of icons in the first place as representations of items and actions. This is a much stronger point, so I’m at a loss as to why you led with the other.

  3. daiyami says:

    He just ridiculed MacOffice 2011 for using the floppy disk icon recently, so I think Gruber would argue MS Office for Mac doesn’t count as "in Mac OS X".

    So (like John Welch) I just checked TextEdit and Pages, and neither has a Save icon at all, so Apple "solved" this in Mac OS X by dodging it, and by forcing everyone to use a database-style "no need to think about saving!" in iPhone OS.

    BUT, if you check the Pages discussion forums, you’ll see LOTS of people who request auto-save and haven’t developed the cmd-S muscle memory (it doesn’t come up, but I bet they haven’t developed the habit of reading the wee black dot in the red button as a trigger to hit Save either, though I know that’s how I work in Pages/Keynote). I don’t recall seeing any requests to have a Save icon to add to the toolbar, though.

    So I’d say his mistake is in saying "somehow we manage just fine." I manage fine, and I’m sure he does too, but that’s not really relevant.

  4. Rick Schaut says:

    Diayami and Joshua,

    Apparently my little joke was more lame than I thought. Yes, there are substantive problems with Gruber’s argument. My last sentence, however, is about style, not substance. On the other hand, the substance of the argument is about style and aesthetics. Hence, the joke.

    My apologies if my sense of humor is a bit too obtuse.

  5. Jo says:

    Don’t you mean not obtuse enough ?

  6. ceolaf says:

    I think that Gruber’s argument — and the statement you quote — were abundantly clear.

    The OS itself and the budled apps/utlities therein do not use floppy disk icons. That’s what he said, and I’m sure that’s what he meant. I don’t understand why he would need to clarify this. If he had meant "Microsoft applications" I am sure he would have said so.

  7. Samuel Ford says:

    First, I’m sympathetic to Gruber’s point of view on this.

    I think the floppy disk is as much a "mistake" as the word "Save" would be.

    Also, when localizing an application, the toolbar icons are as much a part of the localization as the text. Just making it a pictogram isn’t enough.

    Finally, I don’t think Gruber was suggesting using "Save" seriously, but even if he was, the WinPhone7 UI uses text extensively for buttons and other active controls. Take another look.

  8. Jay says:

    "My last sentence, however, is about style, not substance."

    Which would be fine, except that you were being intentionally obtuse as to the meaning of his comment. It’s clear that he was talking about Apple-supplied software. So, it’s not your sense of humor that was obtuse…

  9. Mike says:

    The real question is – why do you need/want a "save" operation at all?

    Back when you were "saving" to floppy disks, we would make "save" a command because the floppy was slow, and the program couldn’t do anything else while it was "saving" your document.

    Modern document editing tools don’t have this restriction.  The current state of the document is just the head of a journal of operations (this is more or less required if you want to implement "undo"), and there’s no reason at all that the document in its storage location can’t be updated asynchronously as it’s edited.

    So it’s not just the floppy icon that’s meaningless, but the entire "save" operation itself.

  10. Marcus says:

    While I generally agree with Gruber on most things Apple, I must disagree with his stance on this issue.  As someone pointed out above, icons are representation of the action.  Take the iPhone; the phone icon is a handset (could even be from a rotary phone), the email is an envelope, contacts is a spiral bound address book, general settings are gears.  All of which are anachronistic but clear in their function.  We are software developers also and the floppy icon is fun to make fun of around the water cooler.  However, no one has come up with a better one.  Better in terms of ease of understanding.  If you have to have text to tell what your icon means, your icon has failed in its purpose.

  11. Adrian says:

    I have to agree the joke is lame, and takes away weight from the main issue.

    If you take the phrase "I can’t think of" literally, then he made no mistake. He can’t think of any app with floppy icon. You can, but that wasn’t the point. No mistake here.

    If you take it for what it is, then it is no mistake either, as he wasn’t speaking of office and you knew it.

    Anyway, in the main point, a floppy disk never had a natural association with "save", not even in times where we used floppies. It didn’t made sense then either. Why does a floppy mean "save" and not "open"? Both will use the disk, one to read from it and one to write to it. And why a folder means "open"?  (and not "save into the folder"). If the guy who created those icons had reverted them, it would have worked the same. Thousands of people today would be pressing floppy to open files and folder to save.

    Actual "meanings" of the icons don’t matter. What really matters is that everybody knows that the little floppy means "save", so if you need an icon for saving in your new app, you better use a floppy.

  12. David W. says:

    I agree with John Gruber on this one.

    I was teaching a seven year old how to use Microsoft Word, and he had no idea what that icon was a picture of and didn’t realize that was a save button. He called it "The square blue thing with the white thing on the top"

    There’s a certain argument to be made on standards. "The square blue thing with the white thing on the top of it" is a standard icon Microsoft uses for saving a document.Therefore, it acquires meaning whenever you’re using a Microsoft program.

    Of course, to anyone under the age of 20, it is a meaningless ancient glyph. It would be like showing the start button on a car with a little buggy whip icon on the top. At one time, it would have made sense, but no longer.

    I have no idea what type of picture would depict saving a document, but maybe its time Microsoft came up with a more updated Save icon.

  13. Tim says:

    "Now, this does raise a rather interesting question for apps that have been around the block a few times."

    I thought Microsoft gave their answer to that question rather definitively in 2007 when they killed the entire Office user interface in favor of the "ribbon".

    I know *programmers* who have worked at Microsoft for years who don’t know how to Save-As in Word 2007.  Countless usability studies have shown it’s easier for complete newbies, but harder for existing users.  The whole thing is designed, for better or worse, to be a clean cut from the old way.

  14. Even though I’ve used computers since the 70s, I was never forced to use Microsoft apps. So the first time I came across that little “Floppy = Save” icon (this was probably in the mid-90s), I had no idea what it meant, and I remember asking someone to decipher them for me. So, to someone “foreign,” a floppy icon is no more intuitive or learnable than the word “Save” (or “Sauvegarder” for that matter). Particularly in this post-floppy era.

    UI designers used to refer to label-free iconic buttons as “mystery meat navigation.” Primarily because it’s often times a consequence of developer laziness, and it puts the burden on the user to figure out what they’re looking at. To this point I’d say that “text labels = localization difficulty!” argument is similarly lazy. Users don’t care how difficult it is for the developer, they want to see and use something that makes sense to them. And a *good* UI designer would never choose an option that makes a developer’s life easier if it sacrifices the user experience.

  15. I have a love / hate relationship with icons. First of all, they need to be extremely telegraphic, and that’s not easy, especially when what they refer to is a highly abstract action. Second, they require a split second of interpretation, which costs users times. ‘

    On the other hand, well-designed icons can become part of a useful vernacular that actually expedites and improves user interactions. Think of a well-designed automotive dashboard: almost no words, all icons. When done right, anyone from any culture can step into the car and decipher how to get cold air, hot air, windshield wipers, headlights, etc.

    As in most things UX-related, there can be no immutable laws, only best practices and context-sensitive design solutions.

  16. Dave says:

    I think Gruber’s correct on this one.  The floppy icon doesn’t map to a physical object for young people, so it’s just a weird pictogram to remember.  I really dislike programs that have lots of unlabeled icons that really on "tool tips" to see what they are.  And it took me forever to think the click on the stylized windows logo in a circle in recent Office versions to find "save as…"

  17. odysseus says:

    "The question to ask is more: "Is that particular icon, when used, used in a consistent manner, so that people can easily associate that icon with the correct action?" In the case of the floppy disk icon, the answer to that would seem to be yes, so it’s a good icon to use."

    First, as others have pointed out, the use of this icon seems to be particular to Office apps, so it’s not widespread or conventional. Second, I’m willing to bet that large numbers of young people under the age of 25 have never used a floppy disk in their lives and would not consistently associate the floppy disk icon with saving a file. So when Rick asks, "Do you change an icon which has a rather established meaning for current users when the nature of changes in computing have stripped some of the meaning from that icon?," I would have to answer "yes!"

  18. Geoff says:

    I’m with all the folks here who have pointed out that Gruber’s original statement was both clear and correct. Your misreading of it is what comes off, to me, as snarky.

  19. David says:

    How about a picture of a whale?

  20. Eric says:

    I agree with Geoff and others. The snark is coming from this website, not Grubers. And just because he may be wrong about using the world "save," I’d have to say that bringing up Microsoft products in response to him shows the critical thinking cap was not on at this end.

  21. sambeau says:

    I believe that the reason it is hard to find an icon for "Save" is that saving is inherently unnatural.

    In the physical world things you have just created do not just disappear. If you want rid of something you have created you have to physically destroy it. I’m sure there are many icons we could all think of for "destroy" (Trash, Delete).

    Since the pervasiveness of Hard Drives there has been no need for "Save" at all: Just "New", "Name","Open" & "Close" and "Delete". And delete could be an OS action only.

  22. The right answer is you should remove the Save command and the floppy goes away with it. You’re tracking changes, right? Why does the user need to Save at all? It’s computer science, not document production.

    Check out how Scrivener does it. The user just writes and Scrivener takes care of the details.

    If you’re going to keep Save, make the icon a monkey to represent millions of users pressing Save a hundred times a day.

  23. sambeau says:

    The Floppy Disk Icon once made perfect sense.

    Computers didn’t have hard drives, just RAM. If you wanted to keep a document you had to insert a floppy disk and save to it. This was true of the original Macs (where Word began).

    There is an argument that this was not the case by the time Word for Windows appeared, but by then everyone was trained to save to floppies,plus in many circumstances computers were being shared amongst multiple workers.

    Only by Windows 95 had the icon start to lose it’s metaphorical sense.

    However: that is clearly 15 years ago. Time to move on.

  24. R. Mansfield says:

    On a tangental note, my work involves regularly taking a Word file and saving it with a different file name. Although I can add the "Save As" command to Word’s toolbar, it’s not an icon. It’s just the words "Save As." This seems to directly contradict the localization issue mentioned in the post.

    And the Office apps are not consistent in this. I can add an icon for Save As to the Excel toolbar, albeit it’s a generic Excel symbol. But that seems preferable over Word’s text button which seems out of place in the middle of all the traditional icons.

    I seem to remember in an older version of Word–can’t remember whether it was on the Mac or in Windows that had a Save As icon represented by a floppy disc with an arrow on it.

    I really don’t mind the floppy disc icon for Save. It’s no big deal. But I’d really like an icon for the Save As function on my toolbar.

  25. keath says:

    Overloaded toolbars are common in Windows and Java programs, but it doesn’t make them a good idea.

    Most modern Mac applications have stripped down the toolbar to just a few major, unique activities for that program.  The really common stuff like opening or saving files is relegated to the menu with its corresponding system-wide keyboard shortcuts.  A picture just wastes space and leads to a bloated interface.

  26. Spiny Norman says:

    I don’t understand. What is a "floppy disk"?

  27. Geoff says:

    Why are they called "floppy disks" anyway. They seem quite stiff to me.

  28. drakeman says:


    Break open the casing for a floppy disk and then you’ll see why they’re called ‘floppy’.

  29. Michael says:

    I was wondering if you’ve written in more detail about this (from your article):

    <i>We face it so often, that we’ve expanded user experience (UX) as an engineering discipline within MacBU. We’ve made it coequal with the development, testing and program management disciplines, and are increasingly incorporating a variety of UX design techniques, not just usability testing, into our development process.</i>

    I would love to hear more.


  30. I have a simple point to make.

    I have young cousins who are using computers these days. They’ve grown up in a computerised world where they’ve never even seen a floppy disc.

    Quite likely that they’d ask if it was some kind flexible CD.

    I refer you to "Spiny Norman" comment a few places above mine.

  31. Charles says:

    As has been mentioned by now, nobody of any consequence uses floppy discs any more.

    The idea that a file would be saved to floppies came about when a computer was running entirely in RAM and you would have to write information to a floppy for it to be kept.

    Obviously to make this icon relevant today, the image should be changed to that of a hard drive. Not that that would clear up the issue at hand, the icon still wouldn’t make sense. Do _what_ with hard drive?

    Ideally we need some kind of "Write to file" icon that people could recognise. Perhaps an arrow pointing into a file or something like that, coupled with an animation of the document being "sucked" into the file as it is written to the device it is put on.

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