iPhone Home screen modders go crazy with iOS 14

By

MS Paint
Wait a second, that doesn't look quite right!
Photo: Thomas Reisenegger

Ever wanted to make your brand-new iPhone look like it’s running Windows 95? That’s the outrageously novel idea that sprang into the mind of Ashley, an 18-year-old from Indiana who wants to work as a graphic designer, after she upgraded to iOS 14 last week.

Taking advantage of iOS 14’s new Home screen widgets feature, and a clunky workaround that employs the built-in Shortcuts app, she gave her iPhone 11 a vintage Microsoft-style makeover that screams retro cool and picked up 4.4 million views and 664,000 likes on TikTok.

“As someone who wasn’t even alive in the ’90s, other operating systems, such as Windows XP, are more nostalgic to me, but I went with Windows 95 because it furthered the contrast between old and new,” Ashley, who did not want her last name revealed, told Cult of Mac.

Just one of many Home screen modders

Ashley’s Windows 95 iPhone reskin is just one of dozens of iPhone customizations popping up online since the iOS 14 launch last Wednesday. The results so far have been quirky, surprising, cool and, in at least one case, extremely lucrative.

The introduction of widgets — which come in various sizes, and thus overthrow the tyranny of iOS’s traditional grid layout — apparently sparked this new fascination with iPhone customization. However, a geeky hack based on the Shortcuts app fueled the fire.

Simply by setting up shortcuts that swap in custom graphics for apps’ stock icons, anyone can make their iPhone’s Home screen look exactly how they want. Now, Twitter and Pinterest are flooded with creative Home screen layouts based on icons either original, borrowed or bought. (Right now, “iOS 14” is trending on Pinterest in the United States. The chart goes almost straight up! Custom iOS Home screens are blowing up on TikTok, too.)

Related:

Retro designs likes Ashley’s prove particularly popular in this exotic new world of customized iOS Home screens. That’s partly because nostalgia rules, and partly because it’s easier to take old images and repurpose them than to design original artwork.

Ashley used Windows 95 images she gathered online to replace the icons for Google, Netflix and other apps. She also added iOS 14’s oversize Clock widget to her Home screen, and whipped up a custom wallpaper that includes a vintage Microsoft Paint palette.

Other modifications

Her nerdy iPhone makeover became a huge hit. Other iPhone modders turned to pop culture for inspiration. Twitter user Jacque Bischoff from Minneapolis, Minnesota, created a theme based on 1990s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. Images of her Batman Home screens quickly racked up nearly 1,000 likes on Twitter.

“I think it’s a great way for people to demonstrate their personalities [and] passions in a visually artistic way,” she told Cult of Mac. “It was pretty fun to decide which Batman villain went with which app. My favorite was Two-Face as FaceTime.”

Others created themes based on the PlayStation 2 memory card screens, Harry Potter and other cultural touchstones.

One of my personal favorites is a theme that re-creates iOS 14 icons as low-fi MS Paint doodles.

“I feel this aesthetic is a timeless classic and very likely the highest achievement in the art and design world in the last 2000 years or so,” creator Thomas Reisenegger, a 31-year-old who runs a London-based PR and marketing agency for indie video games, jokingly told Cult of Mac. “As they say, MS Paint is the new black.”

Besides, he added, “The look is … one of the few styles I can create with my very limited artistic skills.”

A new stance for Apple on customization?

In some ways, there’s something very un-Apple about this trend. Ever since Susan Kare’s pioneering work on the original Mac, icons have been cause for celebration among Apple fans.

However, while it’s long been possible to change icons on the Mac (and on Android phones), Apple never previously let users tweak the iOS interface all that much. The iOS model laid out by Steve Jobs meant that you, the customer, left the design to the professionals.

It was the Henry Ford idea of catering to customer desires: They could drive whatever color Ford they wanted so long as it was black. Initially, Jobs didn’t even want an App Store for third-party software, thinking it would invariably taint the pristine software Apple designed.

Unsurprisingly, users found other ways to show off their personal styles. They used creative wallpapers and blank Home screens, added blank spaces to the app grid and even sorted all their iOS apps by color.

Reisenegger said he’s surprised — but quite appreciative — that Apple gave iPhone owners more customization options with iOS 14’s widgets.

“It also feels very optional,” he said, “so casual users can fully ignore the customization, which is nice.”

Letting users customize iOS Home screens

There’s probably good reason why Apple has, until now, avoided letting users mess around with iPhone icon design. For anyone old enough to remember the early days of social networking, the most notorious example of readily available customization was MySpace. The service let users tweak nearly every element of their profile pages, resulting in hot messes that would burn the eyes of any sane graphic designer. (Think leopard-print backgrounds splashed with bright pink writing.)

MySpace proved that very few of us possess a designer’s eye — and most of us shouldn’t be trusted as if we do. Giving customers the ability to change the look of their iOS icons will almost certainly end badly in some cases, but at least theses design disasters will be private.

Where there is chaos, there is opportunity

This new trend also opens up exciting possibilities for talented pros. As people rush to modify their Home screens, some seek out custom icon packs that to give their iPhones a custom look that isn’t hideous.

When San Francisco-based James Traf, 28, noticed growing interest in iPhone mods, he wasted no time designing a set of beautifully minimalist, monochrome icons. Traf, a former iPhone jailbreaker, set up a website on Monday, and began selling his custom icon pack for $28 a pop.

By striking while the iron’s hot, Traf made $12,292 from 439 customers and counting in just a couple of days. He says creating the icon pack took only two hours of work.

Like the initial App Store gold rush, this iPhone modification fever won’t pay off for everyone. A few talented people who jump on this bandwagon early and monetize quickly could make a killing, since they have both novelty and scarcity on their side.

Nonetheless, this could open up a new opportunity for designers. Most people aren’t going to design their own icons. They don’t have the time, inclination or, most importantly, skill.

The crazy revenues pulled in by the makers of App Store games that rely on in-app purchases (think Fortnite’s skins before Apple gave the game the boot) show that people will pay up to stand out from the crowd. Traf said he thinks the craze could create an iOS theme marketplace similar to the one for novelty ringtones back in the day.

Dark icons
What could be more sleekly minimalist? (You get a set of lighter icons, too.)
Photo: Traf

A theme store?

“iOS themes have been happening for years within the jailbreak community,” Traf, who created his first set of icons for jailbroken iPhones in 2013, told Cult of Mac. “This is the first time you can customize iOS icons natively, which is why I think there’s so much hype around it. I think it’s here to stay.”

Themes won’t profoundly change the experience of using iOS 14 in terms of functionality. In fact, the custom icons actually limit functionality: They don’t display notifications, for instance, and tapping one loads the Shortcuts app rather than taking you immediately to the app the icon represents.

But aesthetics are important. The folks at Apple know that better than just about anyone.