About Antiquated Metaphors in Icons

Antiquated metaphors in icons can work better than modern, but complicated ones. This can be shown on the example of the 'save' icon.

A lot of the Tango and Oxygen icons that are used in the standard tool bar in LibreOffice Writer are based on the same metaphor. From the icons that differ in metaphor, the icons used for ‘Saving a document’ are especially interesting. This is one result of the large scale icon test of LibreOffice Writer icons (read about the methodology of testing icons).

In our work with different projects we have often been asked why antiquated metaphors are still used in icon design. Examples of these antiquated icons could be the shiny metal container representing a database or the floppy disc for saving data. Younger people might not even have seen either of the originals.

Use a floppy disc to represent ‘save’

As the Oxygen icon used for saving is a floppy disc, while the Tango icon is a filing cabinet with an inwards pointing arrow, we were especially curious for the performance of these two icons. Would younger users prefer the cabinet as they might not know what a floppy disc is?

The results are stunning. There was not the slightest problem with using the floppy disc, while the filing cabinet metaphor more or less failed:



Even when looking at the group of young users the results do not change significantly and the antiquated floppy disc still scores a perfect 10.0. The filing cabinet scores higher with younger than with older users though, but still not reaching acceptable values.

As a conclusion we strongly advise you not to try to find a substitute for the floppy disc to represent the ‘save’ action.

Is a filing cabinet even more antiquated?

Even though the data does not allow us to draw direct conclusion about the rational behind it, we think there might be two major problems with using the filing cabinet metaphor:

  • It is likely that esp. younger people do not know what a filing cabinet actually is. They are not used to storing paper data or do have access to a filing cabinet. So improving the icon to such a metaphor does not make it easier for younger users, but makes it harder for older users.
  • There is too much detail in the cabinet icon in respect to its size. The significant longer time people needed to identify the icon as the right one indicate that they first had to reason about it and disassemble it into its meaningful parts to be able to read it. The floppy disc on the other hand is a clear and simple icon (We will publish a discussion about detail in an icon soon).

We should use the floppy disc icon for future version of the Tango icons in LibreOffice.

You are invited to take a look at the raw results of this study in the LibreOffice project on UserWeave.net and discuss with us in the comments.

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