The Colorful History of the Modern Icon

The history of modern icon design dates back to the early 1970s with the introduction of the first Graphical User Interface (GUI), the Xerox Alto. Since then, the icon has evolved into a critical part of the modern computer Operating System (OS). Here is a brief history of the modern desktop computer icon and some thoughts on the future of icon design

The Desktop Icon Evolution

Xerox’s Alto (released in 1973) wasn’t just important for being the first GUI, but it also established a collection of visual metaphors that are still used today. The Alto was designed for office use, so the icons were all office related objects. Icons of folders, documents, printers, and business images, all existed within this GUI. Sadly, Xerox was slow to realize the potential of their new technology breakthrough and abandoned the Alto for a more traditional approach.

In 1984, Apple released the Lisa, a GUI operating system heavily influenced by the advancements of the Alto a decade before. The combination of the very graphic-intensive processors and icon based GUI, popularized the Apple brand and introduced a large audience to this type of computing.

Amiga, Commodore, Atari, Windows, and others would emulate the visual language metaphors of the Apple OS, vaulting icons from aesthetic elements to fundamental user behavior tools.

Throughout the 90s, major computer companies took the design of their desktops icons very seriously, using icons within their operating systems as a way of distinguishing themselves from their competitors. Icons such as the Recycle Bin (Windows) and the Trash Can (Apple) became more than just functional elements, they were branding elements.

In 2001, Apple drastically changed their operating system look and feel with the launch of Mac OS X. Icons were designed to be larger (up to 256 pixels), and could utilize the better resolution and processing power of the Mac.

Not wanting be outdone, Windows also revamped their operating system and released Windows XP the same year. The isometric view of the XP icons was a contrast to Apple’s straight on view for their Mac OS X icons.

As processors, applications, and monitors became able to handle larger amounts of colors, icon design became more recognizable to the general public. Reviews of the latest operating systems were now including sections on the quality of the folder icons or complaining about a beloved icon from a previous version that had been updated. Message boards were filled with complaints and cheers when Apple redesigned the iTunes icon several years ago.

The modern desktop icon is now highly designed, uses lighting, depth, and perspective in a way none of its predecessors could have done.

Bigger is Better

High definition (or Retina) displays are now becoming commonplace and icons will once again have to evolve to meet these new needs. The newest documentation from Apple on its Mac OS X 10.8 (or Mountain Lion) suggests a maximum size of 1024 pixels for desktop icons and hi-res versions of smaller sizes. This is a far cry from the 16 pixels in black & grey of the Apple Lisa (64x larger).

This is very good news for Icon Designers and Brand Marketers. Larger sizes allow for greater levels of detail, and greater opportunities for the artwork to be understood clearly by the consumer, yielding a stronger consumer experience and reinforcing the brand messaging.

It’s All About Communication

The future of icons is not limited to desktops and mobile devices. Icons show up in all sorts of places. ATMs, TVs/connected devices, video game systems, kiosks, etc. all use icons extensively to communicate with consumers. It’s a safe bet that if you need to communicate an idea in a quick and relevant manner, the icon is the right tool for the job.