Design & UX
By Tara Hornor

10 Outdated Symbols to Exclude From Your Designs

By Tara Hornor

Times are changing…fast. So fast, in fact, that often web and graphic designers forget that certain symbols or icons that they place in designs may no longer be recognizable nor relevant. Symbols that one generation recognize immediately may be completely unknown to younger users.

Like me, you may remember a time when everyone had a home telephone, used 1.44 MB disks for data storage, and played audio cassette tapes in your car. However, these, like so many other icons that designers mistakenly use, should be long gone.

Especially in web design and software programs, using the right icons is of utmost importance. Icons are often used in mobile or web design as navigation buttons to add appeal, or used as buttons for tools in software programs. But, if the symbols used are no longer valid or meaningful, then they will make your design look old fashioned. Even worse, irrelevant symbols could create usability problems for users that don’t understand the symbolic representation.


So, take a look at the following list of ten outdated icons that you should probably exclude from your designs. Make sure that none of these — except in very specific situations — show up in your designs, and you will be much more likely to maintain your reputation as a modern, forward-thinking designer.

1.) 3.5 Inch/ 1.44 MB Floppy

Many of you that are at the very beginning of the Millenial generation and in generations before may have used a 3.5 inch floppy disk to transfer and store your files in school or work. So, you probably know that an icon of a 1.44 MB floppy is used to symbolize a “save” function. Most younger users will have no idea what this icon is, though, so use an icon of a USB stick instead.

2.) Clipboards

Remember the days when people used clipboards for taking notes and carrying around information? Today — unless you’re a football coach — we just use our phones or tablets. The temptation may be great to use a clipboard icon for cut/paste, but you would be better off to use an icon of scissors and glue.

3.) Paint Palettes

Many software programs still use paint palette icons to indicate some kind of color function. However, today’s younger generation probably does not relate to paint on a palette, simply because graphic designers do their painting on the computer or their touchscreen tablet, which you certainly do not want to get paint on. Use a color wheel instead.

4.) File Cabinets

Yes, some offices do still use file cabinets; small businesses loath to make the switch to digital filing. The fact remains, however, that no one will view your design as contemporary if you include a filing cabinet for an icon. File folders can also look outdated, but they’re still used in abundance. Avoid the file cabinet image for sure, and use a more updated file folder look.

5.) Road Signs

There may still be instances in which road signs are effective. But the argument against using such icons for buttons in design is that many interface users are too young to drive, so they will be unable to recognize specific road sign icons or glean connotations from the imagery. Exceptions to this are common, ubiquitous road signs such as “STOP.” But again, there are many more creative, more effective options than just lazily throwing up a common stop sign.

6.) Telephones

More and more, many households are exchanging landlines for mobile phones. In fact, many young users may not even know what an old-fashioned home phone looks like. There are so many excellent mobile phone icons out there, so why wouldn’t you replace telephone icons with these?

7.) Audio Cassette Tapes/ CDs

Every now and then I come across someone who uses CDs to listen to music; even less often I may see someone use an audio cassette tape. Most interface users download songs from iTunes or similar digital marketplaces to play music on their smartphones or iPods. So, use a more modern icon instead. It would be maddening to keep up with the evolution of Apple gadgets, but jumping 20 years forward to any basic iPod is a vast improvement.

8.) Tape Recorder/ Recording Machines

Again, very rarely does anyone still use a tape recorder or recording machines for recording audio notes or phone calls. Phone companies route missed calls through their own recording stations. And, people use their smartphones or digital recording devices that they can plug into their laptops or iPods. You may simply want to use a microphone icon or a red recording button icon instead.

9.) Headphones

It is rare to see anyone walking down the street wearing full studio head phones these days. Most headphones come with a set of earbuds for listening on the go. If you need an icon to symbolize music or another related action, then use an earbud icon or simply an rightward-facing arrow.

10.) Outdated Machines

So many machines that were in popular use even just five or ten years ago are now taking up large amounts of space in landfills. One old-fashioned machine icon that should never be used is a large, box-like CRT computer monitor. Many users have switched to laptops or flat screen monitors and will see a bulky, antiquated computer monitor as a joke. Other outdated machine symbols to avoid are fax machines, old cash registers, typewriters, “boomboxes,” and record players.

As quickly as technology evolves, you probably will want to review your use of certain icons every few years. When new technology emerges, it is only a matter of time before the old version is no longer in use. Can you think of anymore icons/symbols that designers should avoid today?

  • I have seen this “save icon redesign” going around a lot lately. The theory – as stated in this article – is that the younger generation has no idea what a floppy disc is.

    While this may be true, my theory is that it does not matter. That icon does not represent a floppy disc to them, it represents “save.” The icon has transcended its literal meaning to be representative of the action.

    I would love to see some sort of factual data that says that this is really an issue. I have asked my 18 year old sister-in-law, and she told me that it means save. Ditto with some of my early-20s employees.

    Do they know what the icon actually is? Probably not, but it turns out it is irrelevant.

  • Interestingly, big headphones (#9) are making a come back. So the little ear buds may end up being the icon you need to ditch. :O)

    • Agreed about the headphones. I have two sets that are on my monitor right now. Each are used based on the work I’m doing. If they are there my co-workers know I’m gone. I have earbuds, but they are rarely used. If they are out of date, then someone should tell the Hard Rock Cafe. I just bought a bling headphone necklace. That thing is BIG!

  • emcomments

    Your replacement icons for the phone icons includes an iPhone icon which itself includes one of the very icon you are suggesting we don’t use. But what does Apple know about design, iconography and user interfaces?

    It’s all very well keeping up with “the boyz in the ‘hood” but there comes a point where following what is current means they are just “symbols” not “icons”.

  • Useful and generally valid post, however there are some things I would disagree with:

    2) Scissors and Glue? Clipboards are definitely out of date but I have been using computers since 1980 and never really experienced using scissors and glue, cut and paste was to me and outdated concept even when I first saw it in early versions of word.

    6) the green handset symbol you show as being outdated is used on many mobile phones (including touch screen / smart phones) so I think that is perfectly usable.

    7) yes a basic ipod is better than a cd or cassette, but many people won’t even have experienced that now, and their concepts will be much more around ipod touch, iphone and ipad which of course don’t make very helpful distinguishable icons.

    9) Have you not walked down many city streets lately – proper headphones are very much in fashion again, admittedly earbuds are more common but headphones are far from uncommon.

  • George Wiman

    I work on a university campus and have some observations:
    Headphones: full headphones are back in style, in very ostentatious designs. Our campus tech store can hardly keep them in stock. In addition, gamers use headsets, as do people using Skype and Google Hangout. So a headset might be a good icon.
    One of your “phones” is an iPod ensconced in a strange-looking box that corresponds to no device I have seen.
    For that matter, using specific brands as icons, such as your Apple file folder, is a problem.
    I have never met anyone who does not instantly recognize the paint palate.
    For an excellent discussion of iconic vs literal, see Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”

  • Many of these suggestions are born out of a disturbing lack of cultural literacy in society. Example: I never used a candlestick phone but I know what one looks like. Although such a phone might be considered an outdated machine, at some point certain outdated machines (like candlestick phones) become retro and interesting. Certainly context within the design makes a difference as to whether using old/outdated symbols makes sense. Showing a cassette is pretty likely to say “out-of-date/out-of-touch.” But if you used a horse and buggy as a symbol for “Need transportation?” I think it works, again, depending on the context.

  • May I suggest an addition ?

    The arobase (@ sign – I’m suddenly not sure you call it arobase in english).

  • Mike

    For various reasons, I find this list irrelevant and not terribly useful.

    Apple’s use of the phone icon has been mentioned, as has the renewed popularity of massive headphones. (You can get a P. Diddy-branded one, I believe, if you’re a fool with too much money.)

    People still paint with actual paint, believe it or not. Professionally. Not all art is digital.

    As long as graphics software (anything by Adobe, at least) still refers to it as the “clipboard,” then the clipboard icon works quite well as a stand-in for cut/paste.

    And just generally speaking, icons become icons because they are able to stand the test of time, despite changing aesthetic. Burglars or spies don’t wear broad brimmed hats with their trenchcoat collars turned up any more (maybe they never did), but if I drew that as an icon, everyone would know exactly what I meant.

    If (younger) people can’t recognize an established image for what it is unless the real-world object is literally, physically sitting in front of them, then perhaps they need to expand the horizons of their visual vocabulary.

  • NJP

    Point 6 suggests icons to use as replacements for traditional telephone handsets, but the second one is in fact the icon for a media player. You managed to prove why some of these modern icons are far more ambiguous than their traditional counterparts.

  • Diane

    Unless your site is vintage or retro than you can definitely use these. Also people do still use DVD’s and who can tell the difference between a DVD and CD icon?

  • I still use big headphones…

  • shadetreecomputer

    Nicely written, but I’m not sure that I am in agreement.

    I know that they are not Apple, but MS is hardly in the dark ages. I believe that they still use the floppy icon for save, the clipboard for paste, etc. I don’t know what I would think if I saw an icon for a usb drive or glue.

    Granted, Office is not a mobile app, but..

    File cabinets are and have been so prevalent in offices, small and large that I can’t think that anyone views them as particularly confusing. I would agree that a folder is probably a better icon, but I am not sure that I would recognize the example as such. That is not what a file folder looks like.

    I like fresh new designs as much as the next person. I don’t think it is necessary to toss out well known, recognizable, even ubiquitous visual cues / icons just for the sake of being trendy or fashionable.

  • Lis

    Hmm… I was with you until you started listing icons that shouldn’t be used and the reasons why.

    Maybe kids don’t have experience saving to floppy disks but they do recognize the icon because it has been a part of the computer interface they have used. I would also be afraid of excluding or confusing older users that may not know what a flash drive is.

    I don’t think I would recommend these changes for everyone across the board. It would seem by your logic here that we would be changing icons every couple of years to keep up with technology.

    The very name, icon, means it should be represented by something that’s more definitive than the latest gadget, yes?

  • Dan

    When using your Android smartphone to make a call, how does the icon look like?

    When in a foreign city, what’s the symbol used for an emergency phone booth?

    The symbol is instantly recognizable and will be for years to come, even when most people won’t be able to say where the symbol originated from. It definitely won’t be replaced with a symbol of a brick with a touch scren.

    When going into such detail you’re actually in risk of an iPhone customer not recognizing your icon because you’ve used an Android. Or vice versa.

    The article started on a good idea but is a bit silly. Should we also stop using envelope symbol for e-mail and magnifying glass for search?

  • Your points are well taken: thank you! I don’t know whether limits on this post’s length precluded mentioning skeuomorphism, another design philosophy. A good discussion of plusses and minuses associated with it is Sacha Greif’s

  • steve

    Where to begin??

    1. The floppy disk. Yes, they have been obsolete for a long time. And long before that people were really saving to a hard-drive or other persistent storage but the symbol had long-since taken on the meaning of “save.” Sure it’s nice to get more “modern” but if the world uses one symbol and you use something completely different you force users to expend unnecessary effort. It also uses the USB logo which is trademarked and thus adds the burden of ensuring compliance with intellectual-property rights. Furthermore it is confusing as it implys some sort of USB functionality and USB is used for far more than memory sticks. Perhaps a more minor update is in order – say an outline of an SD card. It is pretty similar in shape – rectangular with a corner cut – but widely used and more modern.

    4. “Some” offices? I have been to many offices recently and exactly none of them had eliminated file cabinets. The proposed alternative is a, what? Apple-brand laptop with some papers jammed inside? Whatever it is, it doesn’t evoke a place where you store and organize documents.

    6. The green phone button says what needs to be said. It is simple, uncluttered and can scale to a small – even favicon – size. As others mentioned, it is also the basic symbol you see on button you find on Apple and Android devices as well as the label on the button of non-smart-phones. The iPhone alternative won’t work well as a small button, is cluttered, is once-again Apple-specific (hey, there’s this thing called Android which runs far more smartphones than Apple) won’t scale to a small-size and doesn’t explain the functionality (is it a music player, game console, email reader, web-browser, note-taker, etc.?). The phone icon tells you exactly what function is offered.

    The other alternative is even more confusing. Is it a silouette of an old iPod viewed on an orange display box or what? It sure doesn’t evoke “place a call.”

    7. What’s with all the Apple stuff? And what are the original and replacement icons supposed to indicate? Eject a CD/tape? Record to one? Play? Copy? Play/record/pause/rewind (there’s another holdover from tape but we still use it) all have well-recognized symbols seen everywhere from tape-decks, VCRs, DVD players, CD players and, yes, even iPods and other digital devices as well as places like YouTube. Seems like a good idea to stick with the standards as you proposed with the red button in #8.

    9. Sigh. More Apple stuff. A far more typical audio symbol, other than the play/pause/etc. discussed above is the loudspeaker. For music you can use notes (though you could argue that this implies you aren’t listening to an audiobook). And again, regardless how an individual listens to music, a set of headphones is nearly universally recognized.

    • julia

      You said it all. Thank you!

    • William

      +1 to this.

      Seriously, half of these things make no sense, and the other half are just odd. The only ones I agree with fully are number 8 (Seriously, who doesn’t recognize basic media shapes like record? Why confuse people with something ambiguous like an actual tape recorder.) and number 5 (It’s rare that applications do this, but I once used an application where the undo button was a U-Turn sign. Confused the frak out of me for a bit).

      I kind of half agree with number 1, though. Floppy disks are kinda old, so it makes a bit of sense. However, the alternative given makes no sense at all. A usb drive? Really? How is that supposed to connotate saving something? I’d recommend the symbol for a hard drive, three stacked cylinders. Everyone should be able to recognize that and associate it with saving data.

  • I don’t agree that icons get outdated as such.
    The current generation grew up learning the pictograms currently used in software, so whether or not they’re still relevant is really besides the point. Historical artifacts like the telephone, clipboard and cassette tape and filing cabinet may no longer be relevant, but they are universally recognized, simply because they’re established.
    You could take any of the updated icons you proposed, and scrap those in the near future using the same line of thinking – for example, coming generations might not recognize the USB stick either, as all of their files may be stored on cloud-services.
    If you deviate from established pictograms, you introduce a learning curve – regardless of whether somebody has an easier time recognizing the object in the pictogram. What you actually recognize, is that it’s relatively the same shape.
    For all intents and purposes, you could use a triangle to mean cut, a square to mean paste, and a circle to mean copy – if you had grown up learning those symbols, you would recognize them just as easily.
    Remember tape recorders? Haha, funny historical artifacts, tape recorders, a barrel of laughs! Remember the little triangles and circles on the buttons that meant play, record, fast forward and pause? Yes you do, because they’re on every software and hardware device ever created since. They don’t resemble anything at all, and they don’t need to – they just need to stay consistent, because that’s how we recognize them.
    Pictograms are more like letters in an alphabet, than they are like language – while language gets updated quite a bit, the letters of various alphabets generally stay the same, because they are universally recognized, not because they resemble the sounds they represent.
    If you had to keep updating pictograms to keep up with physical objects introduced with every new generation, nobody would be able to recognize anything at all.
    One day, when everything is virtual and on-demand, there might not BE any physical objects that resemble any of the activities we perform on computers today. Then what? :-)

    • That’s the point. Great comment.

    • João Gavinho

      Excellent answer!

      Of course she ignores the fact that a symbol or an icon needs a lot of time to evolve before becoming recognizable. In our days, painting for instance, has not yet assumed very well the representation of aeroplanes, or motor cars as well as it has assumed the representation of horses or alike.
      Some of the proposals are really empty of significance like the red circle for recording if seen out of the context of a button to push.
      Significance and its significator are different things, there for, the significator is always a sort of a convention that needs time to evolve…

  • Gary

    Excellent comments by all.

    None of the replacements are improvements for me. And I would not change from something that works unless the new thing is really good.

  • 3.5 inch floppys are still in use. I have 2 floppy drives. They are quite common in manufacturing for transfering programs to older CNC machines. I have no doubt that other industries still use them.

  • While the idea of appealing to a younger demographic with icons seems to be a good idea, the whole purpose of an icon is to convey a meaning universally without anyone having to think about it.

    You have to consider what the regular conventions are before unilaterally throwing everything out just because that technology is no longer around. No one uses a floppy disk, but everyone knows what that symbol means “Save”. That goes double for the traditional phone icon.

    Twitter uses a quill for their “Write a new Tweet” icon. Change for the sake of change is not always a good idea in iconography. Conveying meaning at a glance is the whole art of icon building.

  • I concur with the suggestion that iphone, ipad and ipod would not make very helpful distinguishable icons if you want to convey a music link. To suggest proper music surely a nice reel to reel icon would be preferable as well as suggesting the web designer really did appreciate music. By the same reasoning big headphones would be a must.except maybe for a website aimed at kiddies.

  • Harp!

    I’d say that, as most design starts, it depends on your intended audience or focus group. In my experience with intranet site design, my company has many older workers who would never understand your new icons, while they would understand the file cabinet icon because they are old-timers and used them as well as telephones etc. So, for me, you have to realize the utility of both the old and the new and maybe include both or give the user more a more dynamic choice of what to use for different functions, if the method you’re working in offers that opportunity.

  • Andre Kenji

    Many of these outdated symbols works because they are a convention. Many people never used floppy disks, but they know that is a symbol used to save files.

    A USB symbol does not work because many people can´t readily recognize an USB symbol, that can be confused with any cylindrical object.

  • Sonya

    The article causes one to question the validity of icons used in today’s web. We need to think about why we use such imagery.

    However, I also cannot see the ‘modern’ replacements suggested are suitable to convey the purpose of the icon. The ‘call to action’ needs to be clear with the choice of icon for your target audience.

    Maybe one day in the future, this may change, but I don’t think the time is now.

    Old imagery need not die just because technology has changed… the incandescent light bulb still burns bright! :p

  • I can’t say I agree with number one. It is concise and understandable. Most young people don’t recognize it as a “Floppy” but rather as a “Save” Button. I’m not sure I would look at a USB Flash Drive icon and say “Oh. Now that button must mean save”

    There are people who walk around the street with full studio headphones. Number 9 is an insult to audiophiles but whatever. Sound Quality is an entirely different discussion anyway.

  • I think the only ‘outdated’ things are floppy disk, audio cassette and tape recorders but all of them has the same or similar meaning: ‘save’. The others make still perfect sense for icons.

  • Terry Price

    I agree with most comments that your article is completely flawed. Icons only become iconic once they have seeped in to our subconscious. Young and old have grown up to recognise the established symbols that designers use. Sure we should always modernise them and ensure they look like a suite of icons when used in. group, but to change them wholesale stops them becoming icons. I wonder how long it will be for your suggested alternative to become outmoded.

  • Curtis

    The orange mobile phone icon and the iPod icon are effectively indistinguishable. There’s a good reason for that: the devices are converging. Will we have a single icon for a smart mobile device that can mean any of “make a phone call”, “play music”, “send a text message”, or “look at a map”? The power switch on my monitor is a superimposed 0 and 1, or alternately a circle with a vertical line. 25 years ago it would have been a mystery. But everyone understands it now. The idea that UI icons have to be tied to physical objects is a shackle, no matter how modern those objects are.

  • In the upcoming Ubuntu 13.04 release the folder icon on the dash has been replaced with a file cabinet icon. I agree that it’s outdated. I thought we’re back with 10 years.

  • Mostly bad advice. It means iconic communication that has worked and continues to work is to be replaced with “fresh” symbols that users have to learn. Standards, even if originally drawing on questionable referents, have intrinsic advantages from the standpoint of user experience. Even worse, the proposed practice enshrines fashion, which is fickle, and current technology, which is certain to change soon.

    When it is found out that ear canal erosion is a critical public health problem (just making that up), do we then redesign all our interfaces?

    Some of the proposed substitutions change the meaning. A file cabinet (which holds many folders) is far different in both denotation and connotation from a folder, however pretty it might be with the artfully rendered Apple logo so prominent. Besides, anyone who works in the real world of business and industry–or even just goes to school–is well familiar with file cabinets.

    In short, this is silly, trendy nonsense recast as “shoulds” and “should-nots.” There is far more intelligence and good advice in the skeptical comments.

  • An icon should be simple, scale well and have a universal meaning.

    The floppy is old and outdated, but it has been in use for so long that the floppy icon has gained the universal meaning of ‘save’.

    The same for using a folder icon, phone handset icon.
    As stated above they are even used on our new cutting edge trendy super shiny phones. Change for the sake of change is unnecessary and a poor decision.

    The old saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ really holds up in this case.

    We don’t need to change icons because they don’t fit with the current technology being used. As younger users are trained on the software they will learn the meaning of the icons and most likely not experience some sort of mental break trying to decipher the meaning of the icons. Part of the training they will receive will give them the meaning of the icons and then they will be exposed to the same icons in many different software packages and or web interfaces. These will only further reinforce the meaning that current and seasoned users already have a firm grasp of.

    my .02 cents

  • Peter Hanley

    This is an excellent recapitulation of Scott Hanselman’s “The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other old people Icons that don’t make sense anymore” — good job omitting the dubious advice that twenty-somethings have no idea what a wrench is.

  • I’ve just asked my 15 yo son…

    He recognized every single ‘outdated’ icon. And had a good grasp of what clicking them should do. I am sure my 13 yo would too, but he’s too busy fighting a virtual World War II. :)

    The new ones? Not so much. Now, if you want people to have fun playing a guessing game of what icons do what… go ahead and change them up from the standards that everyone knows. Personally, I want apps to be intuitive, for people of all ages.

    And lets not assume that just because some people are young, they are too stupid to know what a floppy is.

    And one last thing, not everyone worships at the Alter of Apple. Brand logos, or brand product readily recognized as such, should never be used for icons, unless the app is specifically for that brand.

  • Pawel

    I agree with most comments – the author misses the point of having symbols. A heart symbol hardly resembles a real heart, yet it is engrained in the universal subconsious. If we had to change our symbols every few years, what a mess that would be! And let’s not make young people more stupid than they are – they have some awareness of the history of technology, just as I readily recognize a phonograph, though I’ve never seen one in real life.

  • Alan

    Ive always been intrigued by the ‘maintenance’ icon.
    A hammer and a spanner!!!
    I can just imagine calling for a PC repair man and him knocking on the door armed with a hammer and spanner!
    “Right mate, wheres this computer of yours? Ill soon sort the b*****r out”!!

  • RetroEd


    Your article has certainly triggered a few debates and some great feedback all of which I have found very thought provoking – something I hadnt really expected from the subject matter!

    To be honest, the article has made me realise just how complacent I had become about ICONS and their use.

    So thanks for having the ‘balls’ to write the article and hopefully we will see many more articels from you in the future.

  • Replacing everything with indistinguishable rectangles with rounded corners will not solve anything. A key component of icons is the shape. Shapes can be spotted more quickly.

    An image that just landed on my Facebook newsfeed today totally contradicts your claim about the headphones. Take a look:

  • Wow! So many responses! :)

    I’m sad to say that I can’t go through and respond to each, although I did read them all. And I believe everyone has very similar and excellent points to make. For instance, in looking back at the article, I can see how something like a USB stick might not work or be as clear as another icon – but I still think floppy disks should not be used anymore.

    Also, I do agree that headphones are coming back into style. The next day after writing this, I noticed so many headphones for sale at Walmart! But, needless to say, ear buds are still a “hip” piece of technology. So designers may want to consider using them with clients wanting a very modern look and feel.

    I also agree that scissors and glue is not a great replacement for the clipboard. Anyone have any suggestions?

    @Alan – How’d I forget that darn maintenance symbol! Would have been a perfect fit in this article!

    @Retroed – Thanks for the kind words! :)

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