Disclaimer: I did not research advertising for this blog post for two reasons
- I am anti-consumerist and I have no “products” that I wished to analyze. If I had, I would likely have come away with an underwhelming analysis and response to the question.
- I already had a concept in mind that I felt best articulated my argument
The power of an icon or an iconic image is best viewed as a reaction to, not an action for, its presence in society. Legendary artists like Fairey, Rockwell, da Vinci, and Magritte (among others) are typically well known for their master-class works that have been regarded as pivotal for the movements in which they found their success.
But I believe that an iconic image has its strengths in its staying power, rather than its immediacy. In my opinion, the strongest pieces of artwork are not often the most well known. Everyone has seen Michelangelo’s “David” but fewer have seen Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”, fewer still have read a story by Japanese author Edogawa Rampo, and ever fewer after that will recognize art by Rashmajian.
No, icons are powerful for different reasons. The reason why, out of those four, most people are more likely to identify Michelangelo’s “David” is because its form and image has been regaled since the moment it was unveiled. Even if you don’t know Michelangelo or his “David”, there is still a good chance that you recognize the image.
Nowhere is this point better proven than in the field of modern computation and user interfaces.
If you are old enough, tech-savvy enough, or have studied computer technology enough, this icon represents a totally different concept to you as compared to the people who are not old enough, tech-savvy enough, so on and so forth.
In plain terms, this is an icon of a “floppy disk”, an archaic form of data storage, used in the early ages of personal computer development. Modern computers lack floppy disk drives, they haven’t been used for a very long time. In the scope of modern computing, floppy disks are about as relevant as VHS tapes, outdated, outmoded, and outperformed by CDs and DVDs respectively.
So why, in Microsoft Word and other modern software interfaces, is the “save” icon depicted as a floppy disk?
At the time of writing, It’s 2016, for nearly the past two decades, floppy disks have seen a marked dropoff in usage. Still, at the top left hand corner in many word processors and spreadsheet managers, we have an icon of a floppy disk that serves as our “save” function.
It’s genius actually how this image icon is so powerful that even children, born well after floppy disks were effectively wiped out of the visual lexicon of society, can still sort of understand what it means. The reason why the icon is so powerful is because, until it was outmoded, it was one of the only ways to save data to a portable disk. The association was strong because the image reflected the actual anatomy of a portable disk.
When the floppy disk began its decline, the image stayed the same because enough people recognized it to be a “save” icon. The concept of “saving data” was a unique enough concept that it warranted its own icon and its own indication of data-saving capability. There may be other reasons why this icon never phased out along with its visual “namesake.”
According to Roland Barthes, this image follows the three fundamental guidelines that all “signs” fall under. It has a signifier, it represents its literal, physical form. What is signified is its ability to save (though this is not as apparent if you are unfamiliar with the object itself.) As its own iconic sign, it has a connotative meaning that we ascribe to it. Those who understand it recognize it as a sign that is synonymous with the concept of “saving” or “storing.”
So, historically, this icon represents an obsolete appliance. If you are not involved with computer culture, this icon will likely mean nothing to you. But those who do have familiarity (not necessarily a complete knowledge) of the concepts behind this icon identify it right away. As an iconic image, it exhibits the same relatability as well-respected fine art or a striking photograph.
Content wise, all three of those ideas may not even be the least bit related. But the “floppy disk” icon is a perfect example of something that doesn’t need to be remarkable, or even extant in our modern world, to have an iconic meaning.