An iTunes App Icon Retrospective

Apple’s designers have been very busy of late. I know that there are usually significant changes in every new OS X release, but Maverick’s leap forward in Yosemite will be the largest one for Mac’s visual design that we have seen in the last ten years.

Nowhere is this dramatic change seen better in Yosemite than in the app icons. Forget everything you knew about them, because each of them is receiving a new face.

The iTunes icon is something to behold. Do you remember when it looked like this? The green musical note and music CD is circa 2000, when iTunes got its start. Because icons were designed for a much lower pixel resolution then, this large version isn’t an original. What you’re viewing is a redesign of the original, as to help you appreciate its detail. The lighting on the musical notes have been altered as well. Below is Apple’s original iTunes icon in its actual design and pixel dimensions.

The original iTunes app icon circa 2000

It is a little disappointing to me now. It belongs to a different time: when our interaction with music was mainly through CDs, yet we kept the cassettes around as backups. The whole of this iTunes icon is skeuomorphic, which isn’t inherently a flaw, but its plastic-feel is less compelling in 2014. Culturally speaking, other materials seem more substantive.

And why the green? I think a whole book could be written about green. Some say it represents growth, the environment, and nature at large. Others think it reminds them of repulsive things, like toxic waste, mold, and anything sickly. Can the green musical notes remind you of the Joker’s green hair?

Who knows why a designer changed the color, but I can imagine why. Green means unusual things to some people in spite of the many positive associations. Blue on the other hand…

This cool, calming, glowing, metallic music button is the icon at present for OS X Mavericks. It represents iTunes for the last who-knows-how-many-years in our memory. It’s the high point of iTunes icon design that depicts something colorful and tangible. The CD was a tangible, so this icon looks like something else that came to represent our music: the play button. This did for us what the discs used to do. It suggests we still experience our music with touchable objects. You want to click this blue icon, like it were a press of a button on the stereo you used to play.

And that’s what the Yosemite icon moves away from. In spirit, iTunes’ late 2014 edition will be abstract: driven by your relationship with music itself and your soul-driven experience with sound.

In stark opposition to the green and blue of the past, we have pink and orange. Seems hot, excited, powerful… Maybe it reminds you of the essence of beauty, like a bright and colorful flower… 

For me, it intimates the music is cranked up to the maximum volume. Can you feel the bass vibrating? Something about it suggests rhythmic pulsing. It’s not something familiar to your fingertips—like a digital disc—because its not skeuomorphic enough. Contrarily, you understand its intent like you would a sign rather than an gadget. It doesn’t say, “Touch me. Press me.” It suggests, ”Listen, and sooth your soul.”

What about the white shapes? There are two that act like four: the outer edge of iTunes’ circle and the two musical notes joined together along the bar. These very simple shapes quickly suggest that iTunes is now easier than ever to enjoy. If you fear some complexity, you won’t find it here. iTunes has nothing to hide. The light and bright represent the opposite of shadows. Your music space is brought to light.

Am I saying that Yosemite’s icon is better? Nothing is perfect, but this icon is moving in the right direction. Our culture wants an icon like that of the new iTunes (version 12). It suits our sensibilities; the goals we share for music experiences.

It will be something else in five years that we can’t anticipate in 2014. Maybe the music notes will be out of style. The bright red and orange gradient will come to remind us of a bad iTunes release in 2017, which Apple won’t want to reinforce. So they’ll change the symbol again. Back to green? Heh, it could happen.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.