The story behind iOS 7's icon design

Written on July 28, 2015

iOS 7 design went through multiple revisions, used to be way less polarizing. And we know these thanks to Apple and third party’s intentional and unintentional leaks.

It went through multiple revisions

Mark Gurman from 9to5mac once said that iOS 7’s design language went through multiple revisions, where the WWDC version was at least the third milestone.

Let’s find out if it’s true.

It used to be (way) less polarizing

Previous revisions are closer to iOS 6 and less polarizing than the final one, but Apple executives did not seem satisfied with them, so designers kept tweaking it.

No screenshot or public-facing proof of these exist. Eye-witness is not plausable since all iPhones running iOS 7 internal builds come with polarizers. However, poking around public iOS 7.x’s SpringBoard.app reveals an icon asset for an internal panel for setting up folder behaviors. (p.s: That panal can be evoked through clicking the “volume up” button in internal builds or a plugin in jailbroken public builds called “InternalSettings.)

Since the public should not be able to access that anyway, Apple couldn’t be bothered to update or remove this icon and shipped this file to the public. Apparently, Apple apparently forgot users can extract iOS’s filesystem.

The icon illustrates one of the early iOS 7 icon design aesthetic. Everything is slightly more colorful, but contain less texture. Here’s that icon:

Although blurry and pixelated, notice the lack of glossiness, the usage of (dark-to-light) gradients (in Store, Voice Memo, Messages and Stocks), as well as all icons are borderless (a.k.a: edge to edge, such as Settings app).

Compared to iOS 6, heavy textures are also toned down, as seen from the Calculator, and especially Notes app icon (which consists of faint red lines above a simple yellow rounded rectangle).

Lilen texture on folders is also stripped away, very much like what we have today. It is probably safe to asume they are also gone in Notification Center and Multitasking tray. Rounded corner masks still have that hump when arc touches straight lines.

This looks a bit like Scott’s works, mixed within some of Ive’s seamless, edge-to-edge philosophies.

Photo of a photo

But if you are willing to look at unofficial sources, you will find another supposedly genuine early iOS 7 screenshot. The screenshot below (or photo of a photo of the screenshot) was posted before iOS 7’s unveil, so nobody could have deduced it from the above, Apple-seeded icon.

Taken from an iPhone 4/4s rather than iPhone 5, it may (or may not?) be taken before September 2012.

After cross-comparing that screenshot with the above folder illustration, it can be seen that they share the same design guidelines and styles. The pseudo 3D dock is reduced to a simple shadow overlay on the home screen wallpaper(instead of nothing or blurs). The Spotlight page is still there.

Icons that exist in both of these shots are identical, such as Notes (same yellow rectangle, although overexposed due to poor quality of photo), Messages (same dark green to light blue-green gradient), Settings (same edge-to-edge design), App Store (same lack of texture).

All other icons are more-or-less along the lines of reducing texture and glossiness in addition to making them edge-to-edge.

Especially notable (and weirdly-balanced): Camera, Newsstand and Safari. Looks like things can fall off.

Cloud overlay also seemed to be over-used? It makes sense for Weather app, and somewhat okay for Mail app. But what is a video player doing in the clouds? iTunes in the Cloud?

Also: Game Center icon is formed with 3 bubbles in this build(dark pink, orange, light red) instead of 4 in final build(light blue, yellow, dark pink and light red). This seems to be the only icon that is mostly preserved till final.

Quickly taken down

Then it supposedly went through a few more revisions, departing further and further from their iOS 6 counterparts and more polarizing, finally coming close to what we are familiar with now.

After iOS 7’s unveil at WWDC, Apple posted an incorrect group of iOS 7 app icon screenshot on its website, with the weather app showing actual weather in digits and Passbook app having a different color scheme.

It was quickly taken down and replaced, but it once again shows that even in late development stage (where things has been passed to marketing department), iconographies are still changing. Dare I guess, this version was the latest days, not even weeks, before the public unveil.

Screenshot from Apple’s official site before web team realized the mistake and replaced icons with updated ones:

Notice slightly less saturated colors in Passbook icon, different lighting and numbering on Weather icon, Game Center icon with slightly brighter lighting, and Newsstand icon with darker background.

After that, it’s what we saw at WWDC 2013.

Then? Gigantic swooshes of 3rd party app followed Apple’s new design guidelines. They produced more unified icons, but they are far less characteristic or shiny.