Iconoclasts 2: Four Israeli Design Studios Embark on a Mission to Redesign Our Daily Routines

Four design studios were given a mission: to create a new set of icons to represent some basic actions that we do every day – opening a computer file or folder, sending an email, playing music files and answering the phone.

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However, while such images may be out of date, it’s obvious why they are still used: The images are so familiar and so closely identified with the activities they represent that we would probably need a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.

Ben Benhorin

Ben Benhorin, 34, is a designer with an independent studio; a graduate of Bezalel’s visual communication department; and the head of the interactive program in Shenkar’s visual communication department. www.wuwa.org
“When I began thinking about a new design for icons that represent daily actions like saving files or sending email, my first inclination was to design something more playful and colorful, but then I started thinking about the essence of the actions and not necessarily their visual side.

“It’s true that most of the icons on the list, which represent email, the telephone and music, are not up to date, but the basic actions they symbolize are defined by universal icons: They no longer qualify as metaphors, but are concepts unto themselves, even if their origin is no longer familiar. Even the diskette, which kids today are not necessarily familiar with as a tangible object, is still familiar to them in connection with the ‘save’ action, so that the origin is no longer relevant.

“But the icons that represent music and email are very far away from the symbols used initially − such as musical notes instead of a CD to denote music, for instance, or the @ sign for email rather than an envelope. I have to say, though, that the action that really interests me is saving, and the essence of what that means is changing in significant ways these days. With the expansion of memory capacity in computerized systems and the full assimilation of applications on the Internet, in the present as well as in the future, there won’t be any need to save, but just to copy, to recover or to transfer.

“Every action is automatically recorded in the cloud, and we just navigate between different versions, and between ‘undo’ and ‘redo.’ This new world needs icons of a different kind. To this end, I propose a black box that represents a more abstract container. One may fill the container with files − an action that parallels the local saving action, or cataloging. And the symbols on the container spell out ‘save’ in binary language, for nostalgia’s sake. Finally, there is the action of transferring to and from the cloud, where everything happens.”