The Colorful History of the Modern Icon – Part 2

The 20 year history of mobile icon design is relatively young in comparison to desktop icon design. In this brief time, mobile icons have evolved from visual representations of common tasks to critical interface and branding elements. Here is a  brief history of the mobile smartphone icon and some thoughts on how understanding its history can give us insights into the future of operating systems and interfaces.

Beyond Desktops

Similar to the story of the desktop icon, the mobile icon also has a colorful and varied past. For the first several years (pre-Smartphone Era), mobile icons had two things in common across all phones; they were extremely small (lacking much detail) and they could only use a limited range of colors. It wasn’t until cameras were placed into phones that a wide range of colors was needed. This expansion of the operating system showed itself instantly in the quality of the icon design.

Several phone manufacturers took advantage of this new environment and introduced animated icons. These animations were sometimes vital to explaining a complex task on a screen that might not have the room for a long text explanation. One of the earlier Nokia flip phones used an envelope flying into a mailbox to indicate new messages, while still keeping the small screen relatively clutter free.


Research in Motion’s BlackBerry devices advanced the visual language of mobile icons even further by expanding the functions of the device to include email and Web browsing along with other attributes to their phones. These complex tasks within the phone required detailed icons to explain their function. For several years, BlackBerry devices were the center of mobile operating system Graphical User Interface (GUI) advancement.

But nothing lasts forever in the digital world and Apple shifted the design of icons in a new direction with the introduction of the iOS platform, introduced on the touchscreen iPhone. The rounded box containers (sometimes called “chiclets”) of iOS icons immediately distinguished the phone from its competitors.

Beyond aesthetics, the new shape functionally met a unique need of the device – it had to be touch-friendly. The shape of the rounded box was intelligently designed at a slightly larger than minimum touch size of an index finger. The space around each icon was set wider to give adequate room and avoid missed taps in a small area.

As an added benefit, these iOS icons also solved a long time problem within mobile operating system icon sets, lack of uniformity. With Apple, all icons within the operating system would have the same basic shape and be distinguished by the contents within this shape. The mobile design and development community quickly adopted this new visual language, called iOS Mobile Design.

As more mobile competitors adopted the larger screen sizes and non-tactile keyboards, those operating systems also evolved their icons in a similar fashion. Like the desktop icons before, competitors created shapes that matched their brand and device experience. This diversity is now evident across the mobile smartphone landscape. Android icons are visually unique from BlackBerry icons, which are different than Windows icons.

Past Is Prelude

So what does studying the history of desktop icons and now mobile icons teach us about where the modern operating system might be heading? If you compare the latest releases of Windows and Apple desktop operating systems with those same company’s mobile operating systems, an interesting trend emerges.

With Windows, they are very forthright on their attempts to merge both operating systems into a single platform. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s latest attempt at making a single operating system that meets the needs of a wide range of devices (desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones).

Apple has been less vocal in their plans, but that doesn’t mean that it is not being worked on at the Apple campus. Comparing the latest release of iOS (version 6 to be launched summer of 2012) and the latest desktop release, OSX Mountain Lion (due to be released summer 2012), similar applications and icons can be found in both environments. Whether Apple is planning to merge these two operating systems, like Microsoft, is unclear. But if they were planning this, creating a unified icon language and shared applications would be high up on the list of things to do.

Other mobile brands, like Google (Android) and Research in Motion (BlackBerry) have also made visual moves to expand what their mobile operating systems are capable of. The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet shed the visual language of the BlackBerry operating system and is creating a language unique to the device. Google, conversely, expanded the Android visual language to suit a wider range of devices, while still maintaining the visual consistency of the original smartphone operating system.

As new technologies emerge and consumer behaviors evolve, mobile, tablet and desktop operating systems must also evolve. At the forefront of this evolution is the icon. Once, just a visual metaphor for a simple task, now a critical interface tool and brand identifier.