5

The question Save icon, is the floppy disk icon dead? made me think about another icon.

Mail icon

As the number of mailed letters drops from year to year, I wondered if the icon just can't be associated with the letter anymore. Of course this will yet take some time, but just as the floppy disk it will be unknown to the youngster in the (near?) future.

Just as the floppy disk question - does the envelope icon become obsolete someday? Can and should it be replaced with something more modern and if so what?


Everything beneath this line is IMHO.

The floppy disk is a control element like set in stone. It was, is and will be there to save.

The envelope however isn't really mandatory. You can replace it with a paper plane, a pen (for "write mail") or stamp. Fastmail for example although having the envelope in the logo, doesn't use it a single time in their Web UI.

Why should we even care about this? Maybe we can (and therefore should) already switch (like the paper plane?).

  • 6
    I have a feeling the answer is going to be about the same. – DasBeasto Feb 17 '16 at 16:35
  • 2
    I don't think we're at the point where people have never seen an envelope. If kids don't know what an envelope is, they just have to wait until they have their own address. Junk mail will take care of their education. – Kevin Workman Feb 17 '16 at 19:51
  • Tapatalk uses the paper airplane as the "Submit" icon. Makes some sense as the messages you compose in that app aren't "mail" per se. – KeithS Feb 17 '16 at 21:29
10

Don't kill something that is useful

The design purpose of icons is to communicate meaning rather than to portray the subject accurately.

  • The envelope icon has been used so broadly to represent mail that it is close to (or is) a universal icon.
  • If your goal as a UX designer is to communicate the term "mail", then the envelope icon is effective because its so widely use meaning that it's most likely to be understood by users, not because it is the most accurate skeuemorphic representation of mail.

  • Here are some other effective icons which are based on physical objects which have become antiquated over time. Despite the obsolescence of the original object, the icons remain extremely effective for communicative design because they are so widely used, and it'd be a mistake to get rid of these icons: icons

18

It's the same as the floppy disk icon: if there was a natural successor, you would already know what it was. If you don't, it means that no natural successor has emerged. And if one hasn't, frankly, who cares?

  • A lot of answers for a topic no one cares about, eh? – OddDev Feb 19 '16 at 7:43
5

I don't think they're all that similar. The floppy disk HAD successors, and has disappeared. It just happens to be that modern storage methods aren't as easy to represent with an icon.

But the postal service still exists. Some use cases got replaced by email, text messaging, etc, but there will be a need to send things physically for a long time, and some of those things will arrive in envelopes (Passports, driving licences, and bank cards come to mind).

  • 1
    and junk mail :) It will be the last to go – user151019 Feb 17 '16 at 18:29
  • This. The floppy disk "Save" icon is anachronistic because we don't use floppies anymore, and we keep the icon because it is readily identifiable for the action, despite the storage media changing. The envelope isn't even anachronistic; it's "old-school", sure, but a random computer user of any age will know what a real-world envelope is and what it's used for because it's still an everyday thing for us to receive snail mail. – KeithS Feb 17 '16 at 21:33
4

The "Save" icon will probably never be supplanted, both because the current icon is so utterly ubiquitous, and because of the ever-changing landscape of storage media - the floppy disk was the only media format that most users actually saw with any regularity, over a span of many years. Rewritable CDs/DVDs, ZIP drives, Flash memory cards, USB sticks, external hard drives, and SD cards... none of them hold so strong an association because they achieved widespread use in comparatively short timespans after one another, and also none were really ever the "only" one in use.*

Therefore, none of them is likely to have its representation be readily accepted as a universal "Save" icon.

But with mail, there's really only one comparable thing we do that doesn't actually use physical envelopes: email. And there's definitely one image that I think that anyone who's ever used email would recognize, and in fact would probably instantly think of email when they see it, even without a text label saying "Mail":

stylized "at" icon

So I'd say Yes, the old "mail" icon does at least stand a chance of eventually fading into obscurity, simply because there is a suitable alternative.


*I realize that laserdiscs and tapes were both fairly prevalent during much of the floppy's reign, but close enough.

  • 1
    I would not expect that button to send an email. I would expect some email related function, but not to send it. – whatsisname Feb 18 '16 at 5:46
  • Good point. I removed the only occurrence of the word "send" from my answer, since the question isn't framed around the act of sending, specifically. – Dan Henderson Feb 18 '16 at 15:27
  • I just wrote a long answer and realized that my point was more or less the same as yours: There are competing alternatives to the envelope icon. To the floppy icon there is (mostly) not :) – funkylaundry Feb 18 '16 at 16:48
  • The floppy disk icon is not ubiquitous. I have never used the floppy disk icon because it is Microsoft-specific and I have never used Microsoft software. I know about the icon from UI/UX discussions like these. Further, Saving is on its way out. Macs — which were the first to have the kind of floppy disk that is on the icon we are talking about — now auto-save documents every 2 seconds, same as iOS devices have for the last 9 years, and most Web apps have no concept of Saving at all. And your “@” suggestion not only doesn’t say “letter” — it says “Twitter” to most people today. – Simon White Feb 20 '16 at 12:28
  • @SimonWhite I'm a little confused. You say the floppy disk icon is MS specific, then you turn around and say it originated on Mac. Which is it? – Dan Henderson Feb 20 '16 at 16:37
1

Personal Opinion:

Most major mailing applications today make use of the envelope icon in someway today. Users are very accustomed to seeing this symbol and recognizing what its functionality would be. It is probably one of the most effective icons today which does not confuse people with regard to its job. Hence the need to find a new icon for this, definitely does not exist in the immediate future at least. It is always a risk to modify highly accepted icons and get the new ones to be widely accepted, cos the whole point of having an icon is easy recognition !!

0

I feel like it could go either way. On one hand the icon is almost as ubiquitous as the save icon, while on the other hand it was never used as consistently and thus, users mental models of what action it performs may not be quite as accurate.

We all agree that it does "something that has to do with messages", but there is some ambiguity as to what exactly it does. Some common examples:

  • Does it create a new draft message?
  • Does it send the message?
  • Does it refresh your inbox? (see Apple mail)
  • Is it simply a symbol allowing you to navigate to your inbox?

On the other hand, I cannot find any common examples of ambiguous use of the save icon. It could have meant "browse files" or "open". I've occasionally seen examples where there was an arrow pointing towards a floppy for saving and away from the floppy for opening, but I've always felt that this was very bad practice and you had to rely on labels or tooltips to clearly distinguish which was which. If the icon is only a picture of a floppy disk it always means save. That seems very well established.

I see an emerging problem with the floppy disk icon: We have a multitude of options for sending messages and while the end result is the same, the means may not be. How do we distinguish between sending a text message (paid service), sending an email, sending a Facebook message or sending a message through any other means of IM? How about broadcast like chat applications like Slack or IRC?

Right now the solution seems to be to memorize the respective icons of each provider and thus, the providers try hard to differentiate their logos, while all attempting to hook into the same two idioms - either the envelope (which is generally more formal monologue and (e)mail like) and the speech bubble (which is associated with chatting and dialogue). I think this battle over logos may disrupt the idiom of the envelope eventually - and maybe the speech bubble as well. They might converge, maybe one wins over the other, maybe something completely new takes over (like the paper plane which is also commonly used for "send" - i.e. android).

Given the above arguments, I don't feel like the envelope icon is as strong as the floppy disk, as it has some reasonably good and commonly used and understood alternatives, while the floppy disk does not. But it is certainly stronger than a lot of other UI idioms, so I'm quite sure we have not seen the last of it yet.

I don't see the argument that the envelope is a deprecated technology, thus it should be updated, hold true. Once an icon has established itself as an idiom, knowing about the origin of the actual icon becomes irrelevant - just like the case of the floppy disk proves.

0

Save (floppy disk) and Mail (envelope) icon are really not all that similar in what they do. Save icon implies action and Mail icon means 'something to do with email'. So I think the question itself, whether Mail icon will be obsolete one day, is relatively insignificant compare to the debates around the save icon.

The Save icon is almost universal to all applications and it's an essential action a user must take to save whatever work she was doing (unless auto-saving is available). Like many others already said, it's a ubiquitous icon and therefore it makes it easy for users to recognize and understand what clicking the icon would do. Anything other than the floppy disk should have a label - "save".

On the other hand, the (function of) Mail icon is not universally understood and it's not all clear what it would do when you click on it. So I think designers have more freedom to experiment with the icon as long as they can clearly communicate to users, "hey, this icon means email".

Anyway - back to trying to answer your question:

Snail mails are still ubiquitous (and it probably will be for the foreseeable future) so it's safe to assume that users will clearly understand what the icon means for a long long time.

  • A Save icon is not at all almost universal to all applications. It doesn’t exist at all in most Web apps, all iOS apps, and all Mac apps. The icon comes from Microsoft computing heritage. And if a Web app does have a concept of Save, it should be using a cloud icon today. – Simon White Feb 20 '16 at 12:32
0

As the number of [postal] mailed letters drops from year to year, I wondered if the icon just can't be associated with the letter anymore.

The paper envelope says “letter” not “postal mail” or “mailed letter.” Letters (and envelopes) existed before postal mail existed and will exist after postal mail stops if it ever stops. Letters can be written on paper and hand-delivered or written with a computer and sent via the Internet with no paper involved. They are still letters.

Similarly, essays can be written with a pencil and paper, or typewritten onto paper, or written with a computer and published on the Internet. They are still essays.

Short stories, novels, legal briefs, etc. — none are dependent on paper. Just like letters.

Movies didn’t stop being movies as they moved from videocassette to optical disc to cloud storage. The system that grabs a filmstrip by its sprockets and moves it across a light bulb has been replaced with a digital system that does exactly the same thing. There is even a light bulb.

So the key aspect of email that the envelope icon is describing is that you are sending letters. Not 140 character SMS messages or tweets. Not koans. Not novels. Not interactive chat.

The icon is working perfectly. Email is broken. But that is another story.

floppy disk

Not at all the same.

Letters are conceptual and timeless and universal. The floppy disk is mechanical and short-lived and obsolete for many years. The concept of “Saving” is also short-lived. Most computing systems today just auto-save every 2 seconds.

The floppy disk is a control element like set in stone. It was, is and will be there to save.

That is not at all true. The floppy disk Save icon is Microsoft-specific. It was not even universal to tech whereas letters are universal to the human race. I have personally never used the floppy disk icon, and only seen it in UI/UX articles.

The envelope however isn't really mandatory. You can replace it with a paper plane

How many letters have you sent by writing on paper and then folding the paper into a plane and throwing it? Letters in envelopes is inconceivably more popular.

a pen (for "write mail")

Pens are not just used for letters. And in a digital context, they are almost exclusively used for drawing and painting, not writing text, because the typewriter keyboard is much faster for text.

So I think the answer to your question is that the letter/envelope icon and the Save/floppy icon are not the same and the letter/envelope icon is going to be around for the foreseeable future.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.