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A Closer Look At Apple’s Icons

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itunes_icons_blockAs a follow-up to my article on the hidden gems of Apple’s design, and inspired by the comments that you, the readers, left, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the icons of OS X. In a follow-up article I will check out some of the hidden messages and “easter eggs” that Apple (s aapl) has hidden in its icons, but first, I felt it was important to revisit the history of some of these icons that we see on a daily basis.

Icon Garden

Any discussion of Apple’s icon design should begin with a discussion of some of Apple’s most infamous 8-bit icons from its original GUI. Apple used to feature large versions of these in its icon garden at 1 Infinite Loop, however at some point around 1998, Apple removed the icons. Featured amongst the garden were classic icons, such as the eraser, hand, stopwatch, and even Clarus the Dogcow. (Moof!)

Check out how the paint bucket is "filling" the grass with green and the paint brush and pencil have just finished "creating" the flowers.
Check out how the paint bucket is "filling" the grass with green and the paint brush and pencil have just finished "creating" the flowers.
Whoa! The eraser is erasing the flowers!
Whoa! The eraser is erasing the flowers!

Similar Colors

Depending on how cluttered your Dock is, you may or may not have noticed that the most prominent colors chosen by Apple for its icons is from the blue family. This trend was originally favored in Apple’s hardware (the original Bondi blue iMac, for instance). Associated with the sky or the ocean (a la OS X’s original UI codename Aqua), the blue also evokes a sense of stability, trust and calmness. (It really does make the infamous Blue Screen of Death a lot less harsh than if it were red.) It wasn’t until the release of Leopard that Apple shipped with a default desktop background that wasn’t blue.

The Dock with Blue Icons

Evolution of Icons

Some icons in OS X have evolved over time. Occasionally there may be some rhyme and reason to changing icons, such as the inclusion of the video camera for when iChat AV was originally launched, or the major redesign of iMovie between iMovie HD and iMovie ’08.

The Evolution of iChat and iMovie

Other times, icons are seemingly changed sporadically, like the evolution of the iTunes icons. Originally every new version came with a new icon, but even that trend has wavered.

The Evolution of iTunes

Other applications have also seen different icons with new versions, such as Backup, iDVD, iPhoto and Keynote. Though the Keynote icon has not seen a drastic change since Keynote ’08, the version that ships with iWork ’09 updates the date of the fourth-quarter report on the icon to Q4 2009.

The Evolution of Keynote & Backup

Alternative Uses

Some icons depict their contents, such as the icon for a photo or a typeface. Other icons present users with dynamically updating information, such as the iCal icon which changes to reflect the current date. Other icons “change” by badges that indicate various information (unread emails, download speeds, etc.).

Another example are icons for exported vCards. If you have set them up in Address Book, they will export with their photo in the icon.

vCard Icons

With the introduction of Snow Leopard this fall, users will once again begin to find new uses for icons, as the operating system allows users to preview media directly on the icon itself.

Bonus iPhone Icon

If you haven’t had a chance yet to take your iPhone or iPod touch into Starbucks, when you do, you’ll notice a new icon in your iTunes Store app. Specifically the Starbucks icon, and it is the only navbar icon on the device that exists in full color and not the usual masked blue color as typically seen.

Starbucks On iPhone

Have you noticed any other unique or interesting icon changes or features?

18 Responses to “A Closer Look At Apple’s Icons”

  1. Kris Hunt

    > Haven’t yet been able to decipher Keynote’s 2008 icon, but there clearly is some text.

    I checked it out. It is the lyrics to “The Bitch of Living” by John Gallagher, Jr. & Boys. Never heard of it/them. I wonder if Steve knows.

  2. I find it somewhat ironic that the main feature of the iTunes icon is a CD – A format which apple + itunes itself has a large hand in making obsolete.

    • I’m from the future and I’m going to congratulate you on figuring this one out a year before anyone else! You never would have guessed that they’d take out the CD from it a year after you made this comment, did you?

  3. I have discovered quite a few hidden easter eggs and simply small neat details in Apple’s icons. Here are the current ones (all Leopard):

    * This isn’t exactly Apple’s, but the icon of Bean (word processor) has a nice description of the app written on the page seen on the icon.
    * One of my faves is CSS Edit’s icon. There’s lots of funny random junk written on the red card, but under the card, on the paper, you can see a piece of Internet Explorer’s icon, followed by an arrow and the text “ie sucks”.
    * Some code and text on Dashcode icon. (Not to be confused with the Dashcode document icon.)
    * The Dictionary app has “Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet Etiam” (dummy text) written on it.
    * The Document icon with a document inside an envelope features a longer Lorem Ipsum text.
    * Same as the Clipping Text icon.
    * Java JAR Launcher’s icon has some code written on the serviette.
    * Keynote’s 2005 icon has a Lorem Ipsum writing on it.
    * Haven’t yet been able to decipher Keynote’s 2008 icon, but there clearly is some text.
    * MacHeist icon has some addresses written on the envelope.
    * Mail’s icon has “Helllo from Cupertino, CA” written on it.
    * Another great one is the Public Generic PC icon, which shows a 90’s style PC monitor… with a BSOD on it!
    * Quartz Composer’s icon has some techy writings on the blueprint.
    * Yet another great one is Text Edit, which has a “Think Different”-themed letter on the icon. Here is it:

    Dear Kate,

    Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.
    The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square
    holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re
    not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the
    status quo. You can praise them, glorify or vilify them.
    About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
    Because they change things.

    Take Care,
    John Appleseed

    Isn’t that just awesome what Apple puts in their icons? I’m sure there is more. iWeb, for example, has a full web page on the icon, and Xserve has small Apple logos on its icon. Every icon is highly detailed.

  4. Daniel Folsom

    I noticed the blue thing – and how bad an icon looked if it wasn’t blue – when I got Smultron. I love the program, but the whole “strawberry from overhead” thing for an icon just looks terrible.

  5. Apple has screwed around with the default icons for Aliases. For a long time, they were great: little 4k (one block) pointers. Then they burgeoned to 512k, often bigger than the original file. They’ve since redesigned that to 60k and (I just checked) seem to be down to some more reasonable size.

    Still, if I have time, I Copy one of the 4k alias icons and reassign the original. Apple took one of its most useful features and made it part of Design Bloat.

  6. Howie Isaacks

    I’m always impressed by Apple’s icons. NeXTStep, and OpenStep also had really great icons. I suspect that was one reason why the icons in Mac OS X are so great. The SDKs from Apple include a nice app called Icon Composer. I’ve made several icons with it using 512 x 512 PNG files created in Photoshop. When I can’t find one online that fits with my needs, I just make one :)