Scott Hanselman has a post on “old people icons” that don’t make sense any more. This is one of those posts I’ve always wanted two write but never got to (or have I? … can’t remember).

The most obvious one is of course the floppy disk for “Save” long abandoned by Gnome and replaced with a down arrow (which makes zero sense, but whatever). One I had not thought of is the radio button, which of course matches those old radios with the buttons… The radio button as a convention in a dialog box makes total sense in and of itself. Calling it a radio button is of course atavistic.

He includes clipboards for cut and paste. This is out of place a bit, because a clipboard still makes sense as a thing (we still use them) but they NEVER made sense as “cut and paste.” There were at one time icons used that did sort of make more sense … a paste jar with a brush … anybody remember what products use that?

Scott has many more, go take a look. I especially like some of the absurdities he points out such as “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.”

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    May 14, 2012

    If you look closely, you can still recognize the head of an ox in the letter A (top-down view, nose at the top, horns at the bottom). It’s been at least 2500 years since anyone understood it as token of wealth, but we still use it to represent certain phonemes with no problem.

    I’m kind of charmed by the increasing abstraction of computer iconography.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    May 14, 2012

    Ha! Is it related to alpha?

  3. #3 Doug Alder
    May 14, 2012

    /me stores that bit of interesting trivia away for future use :)

  4. #4 Mikko
    May 14, 2012

    LibreOffice doesn’t have a floppy icon it’s a filing cabinet

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    May 14, 2012

    Abiword has the down arrow with the shredder underneath it. At least I think it is a shredder.

    But of course in Linux this will depend on other configurable things.

  6. #7 Stephan
    May 14, 2012

    Railway crossings are marked with a sign showing a steam engine. In Scottish pubs there are two doors in the back with symbols showing obviously a Scotsman wearing a kilt and a businesswoman wearing a suit. And does anybody remember why a red-and-white pole is the sign for a barber’s shop?

    Perhaps there is more to icons than just photorealism? Look at airport signs: The sign for telephone could be a smartphone instead of an old-style handset and the sign for money exchange could be a credit card instead of coins. Both would then be nondescript rectangular objects and one might assume that they point to a shop that sells chocolate bars.

    Ok, let’s drop the floppy icon and use the modern USB stick instead. I have a USB stick shaped like a mouse (the rodent, not the input device). So I suggest that the next generation “save” button should look like a mouse. That should make it understandable to the kids.

  7. #8 Greg Laden
    May 14, 2012

    Both would then be nondescript rectangular objects and one might assume that they point to a shop that sells chocolate bars.

    Exactly. Everything woudl eventually become a nondescript rectangular object.

  8. #9 Wojtek
    May 14, 2012

    bzwrmglt frmbtwkr coz 3lt bro

    Oh sorry, I forgot that we actually need to use a language to communicate, one with old words. Same goes for icons.

    We should also switch to round TVs and octagonal windows, they are so much trendy.

  9. #10 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 15, 2012

    The camera symbol that is used in traffic signs in Europe is a double-mathom. It comes from a machine that was a popular press camera somewhere else (but never in Europe, because we had Rolleiflexes), and it has been obsolete as a press camera for decades.
    http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Graflex_Speed_Graphic

    And about phones… the next generation will know only touch-sensitive slabs that have no keys. There is no need for them to be rectangular or any other standard shape. Try developing a well-recognized icon for them.

    BTW, the word “icon” is misused. The correct word is “pictograph”. Icons are close-to-realistic paintings.

  10. #11 Amoeba
    May 15, 2012

    ‘[D]oes anybody remember why a red-and-white pole is the sign for a barber’s shop?’

    It’s to do with Barber-surgeons. It’s also related to why in the UK a surgeon bears the title ‘Mister’ instead of ‘Doctor’, even though they are more highly qualified.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barber%27s_pole
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surgeon

  11. #12 Ian Kemmish
    May 16, 2012

    it’s a long, long time since icons of any sort had any intrinsic meaning. Certainly since Salvador Dali (?) created the icons for the various Olympic sports disciplines. Does the “choke” icon on your car’s dashboard look like a choke (or even an electronic engine management unit)?

    Indeed, one of my beefs about WYSIWYG UI’s in the 1980′s was that they all suffered from “International Airport Syndrome” – they are never self-explanatory, and only at best mnemonic. But then, that also means that they never become “old”: if you’re an old codger struggling to use a computer for the first time, then you need the mnemonic function; but if you’ve grown up with them ever since you were old enough to press buttons, then you don’t, they are merely conventional.

  12. #13 tetsuo
    May 16, 2012

    they way these icons evolved seem not to stand with every-day logic, but I’m sure there is SOME logic in that..

  13. #14 MadScientist
    May 16, 2012

    @Wojtec: Apple’s lawyers suggested using triangular displays – because Apple has a patent on the rectangular display on tablet computers.

  14. #15 Greg Laden
    May 16, 2012

    Apple didn’t want to violate its own patent?

  15. #16 Sean
    May 17, 2012

    I’d say the clipboard isn’t the most out of place on the list. Bookmarks aren’t some old anachronism, I use them pretty regularly. Bookshops often give you a free bookmark with their logo on it every time you buy a book.

    Similarly, we still use calendars with little metal spirals, and I use envelopes every day at work. I just received an invoice copied using carbon paper, as most handwritten invoices are.

    And come on, I’n only 28, but I used to have a phone with an old fashioned handset and a polaroid camera. Maybe things are just much more advanced where the author’s from.

  16. #17 Jim Plassard
    May 17, 2012

    Having stopped to think about it, it is amazing the amount of information that is presented to us in pictographs, which may or may not be representative images. The thing that confuses me most when traveling abroad is the pictographs. And btw, barber poles in Korea mean something entirely different from here.

  17. #18 Greg Laden
    May 17, 2012

    Sean, you are totally ruining this meme, stop it!

  18. #19 CherryBombSim
    May 17, 2012

    If you want to reach really, really far back, how about the sundial icon to show time elapsing? (Alternatively, an hourglass.) These are all a kind of modern hieroglyph.

  19. #20 Greg Laden
    May 17, 2012

    Hourglass? Preposterous!

  20. yup re ! Is it related to alpha and omega ?
    :) :) :) :) :)