Don’t Mess with the Standard Icons

By Deane Barker on August 10, 2005

Here’s another little usability rant —

The image here shows the file operations buttons from Zend Studio — a PHP IDE. The button on the left is a folder with a green plus sign, then a folder with an arrow up, and then a folder with an arrow down. These three buttons are for New, Open, and Save, respectively.

First of all, why did they feel the need to define the icons that represent those actions? In about every app on the planet, New is a blank piece of paper, Open is an open folder, and Save is a floppy disk.

This is the first application I’ve seen that has decided that those icons don’t fit anymore (yes, I know floppies are obsolete — it’s doesn’t matter; that icon is ingrained into people’s minds). I had to hunt around for the Save icon. I didn’t see it, so I spent a minute looking through the View menu thinking that I had somehow shut off the standard toolbar. When I didn’t find a missing toolbar, I had to hover my mouse over the buttons to figure out what they did.

Second, why is “Save” a folder with a down arrow? What part of the action “Save” maps to the mental model of bringing something down to the editor? Shouldn’t it be an arrow up — since saving something implies the act of sending the current data out of the editor to somewhere else? I have hit the “Open” button a dozen times now thinking I was saving the file, only to have to close the “Open File…” dialog that pops up.

But fixing that second point is just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Repeat after me, the correct icons are blank sheet of paper, open folder, and floppy disk. Call me unoriginal, but I see no need to deviate from those.

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  1. I agree with your disdain for deviation from a very common standards for icons, but I can see the reasoning behind their choices for the Open and Save icons.

    Open – the up arrow depicts taking something out of a folder Save – the down arrow depicts putting something away or into a folder

  2. You’ve just hit on something that has always bothered me about Windows-based software (and much of the Mac software in recent years that caters to the used-to-run-Windows crowd); there are stinkin’ buttons everywhere, cluttering up the interface and obscuring the actual work you want to see!

    Sure a button is faster & easier to deal with than pulling down a menu, but why not use keyboard commands? Command-S to save, Command-O to open, Command-C to copy, Command-V to paste, Command-P to print… (and there really are Windows equivalents to these commands.) Much, much faster than even buttons, and not all that difficult to learn.

  3. This reminds me of my first C++ editor: Turbo C++. It had the same exact weird icon idea: folder with up arrow for open, folder with down arrow for save. And, as can be imagined, I hit open far too many times when trying to save and vice versa (and if you ask why I didn’t just use the keyboard shortcuts, it’s because they were either weird or non-existant. There was no shortcut for new, the shortcut for save was “Ctrl-K-S” and if you hit Ctrl-S, that was the find utility and you’d have to hit it again before you could save and–well, long story short, the keyboard shortcuts and toolbar icons actually turned out to be less convenient than File >> Save.)

  4. The funny part of all of this to me is that, as fewer computers ship with floppy drives, there will be kids coming up now who equate that floppy icon with ‘Save’, but will have no idea what that icon actually represents.

  5. there are stinkin’ buttons everywhere, cluttering up the interface and obscuring the actual work you want to see!

    I hate Mac menus — pulling that stuff down all the time is irritating as all get out. Give me buttons.

  6. Give me buttons.

    You can have them. Every last flippin one of the ugly, confusing, obfuscating things. I’ll take keyboard commands.

    Adobe is the best when it comes to interface design, including tool & palette windows and keyboard commands; you can have palettes all over your screen, but hit the Tab key and they all disappear so you can use your full screen to see your work. And the beauty of having a single keystroke to change tools is beyond description. Most of the commands are consistent from one application to another. Microsoft could learn a few things about interface design from the Adobe guys.

  7. Dave, are you kidding? Macs are as Icon heavy as PCs… for starters, what is that gigantic dock at the bottom of OSX filled with? Not text based pulldown menus…

    Deane, I agree, New/Open/Save have become so standard that the most you could possibly do to these is make them look nicer… a folder w/ a down arrow would suggest download, which I suppose would be similar to save, but not from a non-internet application point of view… and an arrow upwards out of a folder would seem to mean Upload. Where as the Document with a Plus sign I would have guessed to mean Copy. A close icon would be up there with Icons that pretty much can’t change anymore, did you see an icon that was a document with a minus sign?

  8. Dave, I prefer hotkeys too, but not offering buttons in the default UI would be terrible for non-experts. Plus, I know plenty of people who are well-acquainted with some software they use every day, and they know its features inside out, but they’ve just come to prefer buttons for whatever human reasons. Third, sometimes the button is just more convenient (e.g. Ctrl+I for Favorites in IE isn’t very convenient if your right hand is on the mouse, and that big fat button is really easy to hit).

    Deane, I wonder what the world would be like if we banned arrows and lightning bolts from all icons. There would be a few icons that would suffer (e.g. Back/Forward buttons in your browser), but all in all, the world would probably be a better place.

  9. You know, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

    My dear, the DOWN arrow is not bringing anything down to the workspace. It’s putting something IN the folder.


    It’s amazing what a different perspective has.

  10. This reminds me of a couple of versions ago when firefox had a similar icon in the background of the downloads window. Lots of people though that the folder was flipping them the bird.

  11. While I do agree with the story, I feel that in this case the order is more important. New, Open, Save. They got that right so I immediately knew which button did what. Clever, right?

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