Opinion: Is iOS’s Home screen heading towards text-free 3D icons?

Is Apple considering another round of major changes to iOS’s Home screen? If watchOS and tvOS are any indication, the answer could be “yes.” Earlier this year, Apple launched the Apple Watch with a purely text-free Home screen, requiring users to identify 20-some initial apps (and manually-added third-party apps) by icon designs alone. This month, it will release the fourth-generation Apple TV with a refreshed UI, again almost entirely eliminating below-app text in favor of redesigned icons with 3D depth.

While it would be easy to write off Apple’s changes to text labels as one-off decisions for “really small screen” and “really big screen” devices, they collectively raise an interesting question: if developers properly redesigned their iOS icons, would text labels — a staple of graphical user interfaces for decades — really be necessary any more? I’ll take a look at some of the pros and cons below…

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Apple’s shift away from labelled icons for the Apple Watch appeared to be a fluke. The wearable’s tiny displays have so little room for text that its omission was excusable, though not ideal: there isn’t much space to really differentiate 80-pixel circular icons from each other. Apps with well-known glyphs — Nike’s swoosh or the Starbucks mermaid — were easy to figure out, and it’s possible to squeeze tiny text into the shapes. But the Watch’s five separate, pre-installed clock icons hinted at the challenges third-party developers would have in designing distinctive icons to identify themselves on the Watch.

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Last month’s debut of tvOS suggested that Apple’s decision to remove text labels might actually be a trend. Removing text from the much larger-screened Apple TV’s UI seemed comparatively unnecessary at first, but starts to make sense given some of the icon changes Apple introduced. Everyone knows Apple’s Photos, App Store, Music, and Videos icons by now. Yet Apple went out of its way to discard the video clapboard in favor of a text identifier, and did the same with TV shows. The text icons initially looked really out of place (and obviously could be subject to change).

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When you notice that only the currently selected app has (comparatively tiny, less legible) text underneath, you can see what Apple’s doing: it’s trying to teach developers to design app icons using glyphs wherever possible and text solely if necessary, rather than relying on a separate line of text below the icon as an identifier. As the graphic above illustrates, early Apple TV third-party partners already got the memo. Other developers still have some work to do.

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It’s probably not a coincidence that the change is being introduced alongside a decidedly 3D addition to the Apple TV UI: parallax icons. All tvOS app developers are required to create icons with 2-5 layers of parallax so they will look different when tilted left, right, up, or down. You can see above how the parallax effect lets text appear within an icon without becoming the dominant element in the graphic. Compare how large and stylized the “New Girl” text is within the icon and below it — if everyone follows Apple’s guidelines, is there really any point to the text below the icon at all?

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Would parallax icons make sense on iOS? The effect might be less obvious on a small screen, but sure. Apple could be testing them on tvOS where they’re highly visible, before introducing them alongside a complementary feature — “perspective zoom” — which was added in iOS 7. If all of iOS’s icons received tvOS-style parallax effects, they could tilt in 3D depending on the way you’re holding your iPhone, iPad, or iPod, just like backgrounds currently shift in iOS. (Amazon tried something similar with its ill-fated Fire Phone.) It’s possible that shifting icons atop a shifting background could make the UI too busy visually. But who knows?

The key benefit of removing text labels entirely from the iOS UI would be to streamline the interface and make space — possibly for more icons, possibly for more white/black space, possibly for something like an on-screen Home button, or possibly for a smaller screen with just as much functionality as a larger one. On the other hand, the key consequence would be reducing instant identification of apps without redesigned icons, something Apple could work around with (temporary) translucent text overlays atop icons that hadn’t been updated.

What do you think Apple should do with iOS icons? Leave them alone? Update them like tvOS’s? Or something different? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

More From This Author

Check out more of my editorials, How-To guides, and reviews for 9to5Mac here! I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users. I’ve recently discussed how to safely prepare and wipe your iPhone for resale or trade-in, and how to get the best iPhone trade-in price to help buy an iPhone 6s, amongst many other topics.

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