Roni Levit.
Roni Levit. Photo by Ilya Melnikov
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Try to think of the last time you used a diskette or a rotary telephone − that clunky thing with the receiver and the curled-up cord. When was the last time you took a compact disc − you know, one of those flat round things − and popped it into a stereo to listen to your favorite band?

Although the answers to these questions will vary depending on your age, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s been quite a while since you did these things. And yet, if you take a moment to consider some of the most common daily actions of the digital age, you might be surprised to realize that we are still constantly making use of visual representations of these obsolete objects. For example, in many operating systems, an image of a diskette still appears as the “save” icon. To open a picture or folder on a computer, you click on an icon in the form of a cardboard file folder. And to dial your touch-tone phone or answer a call, you have to touch a phone-receiver symbol. Also, many music programs still use a CD icon, and email is represented by symbols like a stamp or an envelope.

Again, ask yourself when was the last time you actually wrote a letter on paper, sealed it in an envelope, stuck a stamp on it and slipped it into a real, three-dimensional Israel Post mailbox on the street, rather than send your missive via the computer or telephone.

It’s not hard to understand why all these symbols from the “old” world are still with us. Elements from the concrete, tangible world have come into use in our new digital world because the former existed long before the latter. The lexicon of the digital world originated in the physical world: The work table became the desktop, the trash can even found its place on the computer screen, and Web browsers have names like Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox.

The 21st century poses many challenges to the digital world and developers of a host of operating systems. One of the most difficult and important is to formulate a new visual language that needn’t rely any longer on images from the “old” physical world.

However, while such images may be out of date, it’s obvious why they are still used: The images are so familiar and so closely identified with the activities they represent that we would probably need a very good reason to change them. Moreover, even if we were to replace them with new, more relevant images, what will happen a few years down the road when these new symbols are no longer relevant? Not an unlikely scenario considering the speed at which things change, new applications arise, and the dizzying pace at which social networks come and go.

We challenged several designers to envision a new system of images and icons to symbolize some basic actions that we do on a daily basis: opening a file or folder, saving a file, sending email, playing music files and answering the phone. Their suggestions range from minimalist icons that employ nothing but letters, to icons inspired by the screens of smartphones and tablets, which have generated a new language of touch.

Roni Levit

Roni Levit, 33, is a graduate of the visual communication department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem; an independent studio owner; an expert in info-graphics and visual representation of data and information; and a lecturer in the visual communication departments at Bezalel, Shenkar and the Minshar School of Art, Tel Aviv. www.ronilevit.com

“When I looked at the existing icons it wasn’t hard to see the archaic constellation of images and how highly specific it is − because it was all inspired by the worlds of offices and bureaucracy. It’s a world whose images are familiar to us and one that very many people have in common, and so it’s easy for us to relate to.
“Once I understood that, I thought about what would happen if the constellation of images hadn’t developed around office bureaucracy but around other types of professions. What would happen if we take the same principles from which these icons drew inspiration and give each profession its own imagery, so that each person could choose his own images according to his or her field of endeavor? Maybe if whoever decided upon the existing icons hadn’t come from the office world, he wouldn’t have developed those particular images. There’s something a bit arbitrary about it.

“So, for example, for an acrobat or circus director, sending email won’t be represented by an envelope but instead by a cannon firing the acrobat into the air. Saving files will be represented by a tiger inside a cage, and opening a new file by pulling a rabbit out of a hat ‏(or a sleeve‏).

In the same way, the imagery that is important to a devout Christian could influence the icons of the operating system he uses. In this case, the ‘save’ action would be represented by an image of Jesus; sending email would be represented by an image of prayer − an allusion to something much more ancient than a letter − and opening a file would be represented by an image of enlightenment, of the discovery of something new.”