The history of macOS system preferences icon design

History

The current version of macOS is derived from Mac OS X, announced by Steve Jobs at the Macworld conference in 2000.[1]… Since then, including the 10.0 public beta, there have been 17 different releases. The new version 11.0, called Big Sur, will be released later this year.

Much has changed over the past two decades. In 2002, Steve Jobs dropped support for OS 9, burying it at WWDC. Mac computers switched from PowerPC to Intel chips, and then only to 64-bit processors. Apple has moved from naming releases after big feral cats such as Panther and Jaguar to names after locations in California. They also renamed Mac OS X to macOS to better match iOS and later iPadOS.

The interface is sleek and skeuomorphic, mimicking the materials used on the Mac. Over the past decades, it has undergone significant changes[2]

The only thing that seems to have remained pretty much the same over the years is the system settings screen.

But upon closer inspection, we will see that this familiar part of the operating system has changed a little and hides funny Easter eggs and surprises.

How things have changed

Favorites bar

Early versions of OS X up to release 10.3 had a favorites bar at the top of the page where users could drag and drop frequently used settings. In 10.4 this panel has been removed and replaced with a search function that highlights matching icons as you type a query.

Mouse

The first mouse to appear in System Preferences is the black glowing Apple Pro Mouse [3]… Between the public beta and the final 10.0 release, a red glow from the optical sensor was added to show what the mouse looks like when used. Then came the white iteration of that mouse, the short-lived Mighty Mouse, and then finally the Magic Mouse, which has undergone only minor changes to this day.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Keyboard

Likewise, the keyboard trails represented the keyboard currently available. In version 10.0, this is the Apple Pro keyboard. From 10.1 to 10.5 it’s just one Command key and then in 10.6 the full keyboard is displayed again.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

It is noteworthy that in versions 10.3, 10.4 and 10.5, the mouse and keyboard settings were combined into one section, but then in version 10.6 they were separated again.

Displays

Unsurprisingly, the Displays icon has always reflected the latest Apple displays, from clear polycarbonate Cinema displays to today’s latest Pro Display XDR. The small size of the icons means that they usually look a little cartoonish and disproportionate, but still fit the rest of the icon set. However, in Big Sur, the proportions of this icon have been adjusted much closer to how the Pro Display XDR actually looks.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Print & Fax

In version 10.3 a section of “Print & Fax” settings appeared. Then, in version 10.7, amid declining fax usage, it was renamed Print and Scan. Finally, in 10.9, it was renamed again to the nouns “Printers & Scanners” to grammatically match the rest of the sections.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Energy saver

In the first public beta of OS X, the night outside the window represented energy savings. Before the release, a light bulb took its place.

Over the years, this badge has represented the most efficient light bulb technology of the day. So, in version 10.5, the icon has changed from an incandescent lamp to a more efficient compact fluorescent lamp. Then, in version 10.10, the light bulb became LED.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Big Sur will ditch the “Energy Saver” section for the MacBook entirely (they keep it for desktops), replacing it with the more intuitive name “Battery setting.” Oh light bulb you will be missed.

Network

In the public beta, the network icon was a globe showing the western hemisphere, with lines drawn as if they connected cities. After just three releases in version 10.3, it was replaced by the abstract glass ball with circular lines, a variant of which we see today.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Date & Time

Starting with the public beta, the date “18. 10.10 “. July 18th probably refers to the day the Mac OS X public beta was first unveiled at the Macworld conference in New York.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

In Big Sur, 20 years later, the date on the icon has changed to July 17, which probably corresponds to the Calendar app icon. iCal, formerly known as the “Calendar” app, was first released to the public on July 17, 2002.

Language and Region

The section was first called “International”, then it was renamed “Language & Text” and finally “Language and Region”. The icon was a flag with the logo of the United Nations. In version 10.13, the trite globe icon replaced the UN logo.

The history of macOS system preferences icon design

Looking forward to Big Sur

The Mac user interface has evolved significantly, but this development has occurred gradually over the past two decades. Big Sur goes on [4] and tones down the 3D aspects of the interface such as gradients, shadows and borders.

The icons in system preferences, on the other hand, have changed in a completely opposite direction. The Sound icon now emits transparent sound waves. Screen Time is now a realistic hourglass. The Spotlight icon is now a realistic magnifying glass.

I welcome these changes and look forward to trying them out after Big Sur is released.

  1. Macworld San Francisco 2000↩︎
  2. On the Past, Present and Future of Apple’s Aqua User Interface 512 Pixels ↩︎
  3. Apple (Pro) Mouse Minimally Minimal ↩︎
  4. A visual comparison of macOS Catalina and Big Sur Andrew Denty ↩︎

Thanks to Q for proofreading the draft article. thanks John Gruber and John Siracusa for helping me understand the meaning of July 18th. Thanks to Stephen Hackett from 512 Pixels and GUIdebook for screenshots of older macOS versions.

Update: I previously mistakenly said that the Battery option would be used instead of the Energy Saver section, but I learned that this only applies to MacBooks. The name “Energy Saver” will remain on desktop computers.

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