Floppy Disk Design: History of an 80s Icon

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Between the 80s and 90s a floppy disks was the most popular format for memory storage and data exchange. They are icons of 80s and 90s nostalgic retro aesthetics, much used today in music packaging design.

What is a Floppy Disk exactly?

Originally called a diskette, a floppy disk is the external memory storage device mostly used during the 80s and 90s. Floppy Disks came in many different colours, had a customisable label and were the perfectly rad object easily exchanged among friends.

For twenty years people stored and swapped software and games using a floppy, everyone had a small pile of colourful plastic squares next to their computer. Since 2011 floppy disks are out of production and have completely disappeared from daily use. Those who remember them just think of floppies as obsolete, and those who are born after 1990 probably never even saw one in action. And we have the feeling these are exactly the reasons why floppy disks are loved so much by designers, artists and musicians, who can’t resist their retro appeal. 

ibm floppy disk history
The story of the floppy begins in the early 70s when there was the urgent need of a new device that would store updates and software for mainframe computers. At the time, tech people were using paper punched cards to load data on machines as big as a room. Yoshiro Nakamatsu, aka Dr.NakaMats, is the brain behind the invention of the floppy disk. According to the records, he invented floppy disk technology during his student years at the University of Tokyo. Over the 70s he then followed up his first invention with several more patents, each related to floppy disk technology. Funnily enough, the new storage technology was refused by major Japanese corporations, leading the scientist to grant the sale licence to IBM. The first 8 inches floppy was then produced in the US in 1973, held 80 kilobytes of data, and was called Minnow.
floppy disk design diskette

Getting Smaller: the 3.5 inches Floppy

IBM introduced the new device as “Diskette”, with the idea of connecting the new memory disk with the music cassette. But that did not work, and the terms Floppy and Floppy Disk stuck with the public and soon the new memory storage started to be marketed just like that. At the beginning of the 70s, the diameter of the disk in a floppy was 8 inches, and the case would be slightly bigger than 20 cm. 80 kilobytes might sound trivial right now, but keep in mind it was replacing those punched cards.

Later in 1986 IBM introduced to the market the smaller floppy disk size, which was the 5¼-inch version. And not long after it got even smaller.

Introduced by Sony in 1981, the 3.5 inches floppy disk is the real deal. This is the 80s iconic object we love. At the top of its game, a Floppy Disk could store 1.44 Megabytes of data. In retrospect, it’s funny to realize that nobody would need more space back then.

Floppy Disk Design History: DOOM and the others

During the 80s and most of the 90s there was no internet, and this is why floppy disks became so popular, as they allowed data transfer between computers. For twenty years the Floppy Disk was a perfectly ubiquitous object, a symbol of technology and innovation. It was a portable object people used for exchanging programs and games. Nobody was limited to a single computer anymore, revolutionising how everyone worked and enjoyed themselves.

As the story goes, very soon floppy disks became very popular for playing video games. Developers started using floppies as a way of distributing their titles, and some games became mega-successful. 

Indieground's Floppy Disk Design: History of an 80s Icon 1
Indieground's Floppy Disk Design: History of an 80s Icon 3

Among these, DOOM stands out, being one of the most popular games to ever be released on a floppy. Now one of the rarest, collectable items among them all.  Many more titles enjoyed big success, and the floppy has been the first home for many videogames that later evolved into more complex development and bigger memory devices. But this is where it all started, it was easy to exchange games on floppy disks and many titles, from Atari’s Battlezone to 90s classics like Prince of Persia.

The beauty of playing with floppies is that they could be easily exchanged among friends. They could be used on personal computers or on other consoles, like the legendary Amiga, released by Commodore in 1985.

Building the Imaginary: War Games

For those born in a time when floppy disks were still around, there are many mental images and emotions connected to them. The floppy has been the most widespread memory support for so long, it is everywhere in the 80s and 90s pop culture. Combining floppies and films in our heads, War Games is the first title that comes to mind. A young Matthew Broderick plays a computer genius who is accidentally about to start a nuclear war by playing a tricky game with a US National Defence supercomputer.

Well, it’s again one of the main themes of the 80s, a decade that played in cinema and movies with the constant tension of nuclear threats of the Cold War and the idealisation of technology and AI.

Floppies get out of Production

It’s 1998 and Apple introduces the new iMac G3 – the iconic personal computer that could be purchased in 13 different colours. This model of Mac only had a CD ROM and was not equipped with a floppy drive, the first signal that the floppy disk was becoming obsolete technology. Dell, which at the time was the company setting the rules for the tech industry, soon followed. And the story really ends in March 2011, when Sony announced it would stop manufacturing floppy disks, replaced not only by CD ROMs but also by hard drives and USB sticks. 

However, thanks to its major role at the beginning of personal computer diffusion, Floppy Discs became the icon of storage and memory. And this is intended in the most literal way, as they are still around in contemporary operating systems such as Save Icons (read here if you want to know some about the old debate about skeuomorphic design).

Floppy Disk Aesthetics: a new wave in Music and Graphic Design

As we have seen, the floppy disk was a truly ubiquitous object for more than two decades. Its presence started when there was no internet, and floppies became the perfect way of exchanging data and games. Being one of the true rad objects, floppy inspired artwork is still very much around. Its retro taste is very appealing to a lot of artists, especially in the music industry.

Obscure music labels and subgeneres like Vaporwave are using floppy disk design for their artwork. Some others are going as far as creating floppy disk labels, with dozens of titles released on actual floppies. We are enjoying so much the new wave of nostalgic artwork and Floppy Disk Aesthetics. That’s why we gathered some of our favourite artwork from talented artists, here it is. 

Now it's your turn - Your own Floppy Disk Design

If you are interested in creating a floppy disk design, we can help. We have created a Free Floppy Disk Mockup you can play with to see if the good old floppy fits into your own artwork. If you feel there’s potential in designing with floppies, or you are pretty sure your next creation is going to be a floppy thing, then we highly recommend you check out our Floppy Disk Mockups pack, where you can find 8 rad label templates, but also plastic envelopes and ripped paper effects.

You just have to build on it by adding your own artwork, no need to think of the basics. Get creative and have fun! 

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Indieground

Indieground

We are a team of designers, developers & photographers from Italy and we love to create striking graphic resources! Visit our website to discover more about what we do and the services we offer!
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