Friday, September 12, 2014

The Finder icon at twenty

This month marks the 20th anniversary of a symbol that is seen daily by millions of computer users, the MacOS logo. It was introduced in September 1994 as part of Apple's ill-fated plans to license its operating systems to third party hardware manufacturers. As the operating system was about to be decoupled from Apple hardware, it needed a separate identity.

The MacOS icon was created with AlbenFaris, a California-based firm founded in 1985 by Lauralee Alben and Jim Faris. During the 1990s, they worked mostly in interface design and had several other high-profile tech companies as clients, including Netscape and Hewlett-Packard. According to AlbenFaris, the logo represents the "interplay between the face of the computer", making the user part of the computing experience. It was designed to represent ease of use, friendliness and humanising technology.

Steve Jobs terminated the licensing plan as soon as he returned to company, but the MacOS icon lives on today, both as the icon for Finder and to brand MacOS software. It has received various updates through the years. With the launch of OS X in 2001, the icon was given a shiny three-dimensional coating to reflect the operating system's 3D capabilities. However, its basic form remained largely intact until a few months ago when it was redrawn with the introduction of OS X Yosemite.

Finder icon of 2014.

"The interplay between the face of the computer and the profile of the user reinforces the idea of a special relationship, a partnership, between people and their computers. The symbol also anticipates changes to the Mac OS – such as active assistance and intelligent agents – that will improve the way computers work with the people who use them. We worked closely with Apple's Corporate Identity and Design group to develop the symbol, making sure it embodied the traditional Macintosh strengths: ease of use, friendliness, and humanizing technology." - AlbenFaris

There are of course some precursors that had served to identify the Macintosh in it previous decade. Its original packaging featured a stylised image of a computer, designed by Tom Hughes and John Casado. It is often referred to as the "Picasso" graphic, although the artist behind has said it was inspired by Matisse. In fact, the double-faced Finder icon may be more inspired by Picasso, as something resembling it has been found in one of the Spanish cubist's paintings.

Another precursor was the "Happy Mac" icon that appeared at start-up from 1984 onwards and was designed by Susan Kare. Both the "Happy Mac" and the "Picasso" graphic remained for some time after the MacOS icon was introduced.

Although the icon was revealed in September 1994 and Macintosh's System 7.5 was introduced the same month, it may not have been available in that version of the operating system. Several sources say the double-face and the MacOS name wasn't introduced until version 7.5.1 (released March 1995). One of the first splash screens to feature the MacOS logo can be seen at the GUI Guidebook Gallery.

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