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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…


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.


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).


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.


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?




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.

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  1. usmansaghir - 7 years ago

    Really don’t think Apple should do that to iOS. iOS is to big and would make it all complicated. Imagine all developers changing and making thier icons unique just so people figure out what it is. Or Apple could just get rid of labels on its native apps only. It looks smart on the Apple tv and Apple watch. But i do think Apple will change it around in next iOS. Especially iOS 8 and 9 we’re not any game changers as iOS 7 was. Now with 3D touch being the focus point on multi touch. Its going to be exciting what Apple do next with the functionality of iOS.

  2. thejuanald - 7 years ago

    Apple does need a real redesign of the homescreen, but I don’t think this is it. The homescreen is looking pretty ancient.

    • usmansaghir - 7 years ago

      Definitely needs to change its ways now. Looked the same since the 1st generation. Think 3D touch will be the next game changer. It has proven to be helpful for me. Just have to wait and see what Apple have up its sleeve.

    • rogifan - 7 years ago

      So? It works for man people. Mouse and keyboard are ancient too, doesn’t mean we should be throwing them out.

      • epicflyingcat - 7 years ago

        I just want to place icons where I want… and maybe custom icons… along with widgets.

        The current one may work but it doesn’t work as well as it could. That’s the point.

      • o0smoothies0o - 7 years ago

        I don’t think Apple should allow anyone to place the icons anywhere they want. It should remain a grid based system, no matter what they do.

      • Widgets? Are you serious? Oh man, grow up!

    • Rich Davis (@RichDavis9) - 7 years ago

      And how would you design it? Put more things like weather info, date/time, a search box and less icons? I wish they gave us the ability to have more icons on the dock for the iPads and more icons in the grid since there is enough room, especially the 9.7 and 12.9 inch screen sizes.

      • thejuanald - 7 years ago

        Allow people not to have to have all of their apps on the screen (like Android), plus real widgets. I like a lot about the iPhone, just not the homescreen.

      • thejuanald - 7 years ago

        Plus, maybe the ability to decrease the icon size so you can put more on a page.

  3. gkbrown - 7 years ago

    Doubtful. Apple appears to have put a lot of thought into what works best for each type of device. My guess is that they’ll continue to use text on the Mac and iOS devices and no text on watchOS and tvOS.

  4. Dustin Moskowitz - 7 years ago

    Way too difficult to identify lots of apps without the text… same with folders.

    Also, answer your emails! 😉

  5. Would be nice to see it as an option. Screenshots look nice, I’d probably go without text. Without the option (titles on by default) I’d say it’s probably too big of a shift for some people who use the iPhone (vs. your typical user of Apple TV or Watch).

  6. presslee - 7 years ago

    I need “apple apps” just like apple music. Ill just tell siri i need this done and shell give me a new home screen with all the apps from the app store that do just that. This way i dont need to sit there waiting for the app to download on my phone and take up space, siri just iclouds the apps to my home screen temporarily. No waiting, no space taken up, no worries. Phuck 3d icons!

  7. appl3w0rm - 7 years ago

    Not the best idea, definitely.
    watchOS doesn’t have text because the screen is small, tvOS doesn’t have text because images/icons/previews large enough to fit text or an image.

  8. RP - 7 years ago

    Sounds good to me. I think that’s how most people identify apps in the first place. And now with 3D touch we can just press and hold to get more options.

    • o0smoothies0o - 7 years ago

      3D Touch has no bearing on text for icons. It in no way alleviates what you lose from taking away text…

      • RP - 7 years ago

        Of course it does. It identifies the app further

      • o0smoothies0o - 7 years ago

        That would be a waste of 3D Touch. It is good for Quick Actions (which they need to make far better, and a little customizable). It could also be useful for quick, real-time information for an app in the future, when they decide to allow it, (e.g. you press the weather app, and it shows you instantly updated information such as current temp, conditions, chance of rain, wind, etc.,).

  9. Greg Kaplan (@kaplag) - 7 years ago

    There is a difference between icons and show titles/logos . On the apple tv the amount of space the channels have allows for full logos that have the name of the product in them. It was super redundant before to see “ShowTime” – “ShowTime.” The only apps that didn’t do that were apple ones. Icons don’t contain the full name of the product so a system text label is pretty handy. The apple watch hardly has room to fit the icon by itself.

    The other difference is that the hover state is built into the selection process on the apple tv. While we can get “hover” with 3d touch on the iphone, you don’t need to hover first to launch an app.

    3d icons would be nice anyway. Especially after seeing how cool the settings icon looks on apple tv.

    • amazingrugs - 7 years ago

      Was going to say the same thing. Tv stations and video channels nearly always have the full name, or 2-3 letter abbreviations of their corporate name.

      Right on with the watch comment. There just isn’t room for text.

      With the flattening/simplification of design, icons are starting to more and more look the same, so on the iPhone at least, where people are more likely to have lots of apps, I can’t imagine text labels going away any time soon.

      What I do think will happen is Apple will put in 3D screens into the phones. I never got my hands on an Amazon Fire phone, but Apple’s UI and fx really lend itself to this, and now with 3D Touch it seems to be the next step in adding true depth.

      • Smigit - 7 years ago

        Exactly. Many of the services on Apple TV have a logo that incorporates the name of the company. E.G Netflix, Showtime and many others. Where the logo isn’t the name, the icon on Apple TV is still large enough to have extra text added.

        Media content tends to have the contents name in the image, as in the images shown in this article.

        For iOS and Apple Watch the icons are too small to always show the full company name, so you get cut back versions often which may be a symbol or the first letter of the company name. The text under the icon compensates for the lack of information able to be shown in the icon. Watch OS doesn’t do this, but it hasn’t got the space to do so but it does encourage other ways to interface with Apple through complications or Siri which may cut down on the need to find the icon anyway.

        They could remove the text in iOS, but I’m not sure they will. I also think parallax based icons is unlikely when they already have the effect being used for the wallpaper.

  10. taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

    Apple already doesn’t use the extra space on the home screen on iPads. On my iPad Air I can only have 4 columns and 5 rows of apps, but get an extra row on the 6 and 6 plus. Apple lets you squeeze 6 columns on the launch row strangely.

    I don’t see Apple removing the app names from iPads and iPhones anytime soon. I think they will wait to they have screen that can detect the app your finger is hovering over to do parallax like tv OS and reveal the apps name. I guess you could do it with a soft touch to reveal the name using 3D Touch, but that way just seems to add more gestures for people to remember.

    • usmansaghir - 7 years ago

      Now that would be reslly good. Just hovering over the app and showing you the app information, name etc. That would definitely ne a neat function.

  11. Niklas Forsman - 7 years ago

    Removing the text would be big problems for not well know or new apps.
    I can hoverer hear Ive’s voice in my head speaking about how the game changing 3D touch inspired 3D icons.

  12. Steve Grenier - 7 years ago

    I would prefer it without labels. When I used to jailbreak my phone I would always hide them. Looks much cleaner without them. Most apps are pretty easily distinguishable. Games can be harder.

  13. uniszuurmond - 7 years ago

    What if there were no icons whatsoever on the home page?

    On my Mac, I have been using the dock less and less, the better Spotlight Search became. Now I don’t have anything in the doc anymore, I don’t use it at all, I just go to Spotlight Search to open / do what I want.

    With Siri, this seems the more obvious next move for iOS, not?

    • Totally agree with you about Spotlight search and the dock. I find it so much easier to type in the app I want to open. That said, I find input on my phone slower. I’ll use search to open an app hidden away in a folder, but only if I know its exact name. My usual pattern is still to find the icon on my screen.

      On the other hand, how many people are investing time to carefully organize their apps? Probably the same number of people who know how to add and remove things from the dock–not many! :-)

    • triankar - 7 years ago

      How about the times where you wanna use your device without anyone listening in on what apps you’re launching? (I’m sure you can think of quite a few such occasions, both work-related and social )

      Siri would be much slower than Spotlight, actually.

      Then don’t forget that Siri doesn’t understand all languages (and not all perfectly). So, engineering-wise, that’s a very long shot for the time being.

  14. kevicosuave - 7 years ago

    No, the Apple Watch is too small to have text with the icons, and is likely to have far fewer apps installed on it. Apple TV provides a display that is large enough such that the icons can have the text within the graphic. iOS is right in the middle. It makes sense for icons to have text to go with them and is necessary for the huge numbers of apps that people might have.

  15. Doug Bixler - 7 years ago

    I don’t have text under my icons in my dock in OS X but I know exactly what the are by sight. It’s no different for iOS.
    If you feel you are going to be confused by not having the name of the app below the icon, maybe you are have too many useless apps that you hardly use on your mobile device then.

  16. Blake Beavers - 7 years ago

    YES PLEASE! This is literally my favorite thing about jailbreaking! That, and 5 icon dock!

  17. Don Horne (@DonHorne) - 7 years ago

    If they do so it should be a configurable option since it’ll affect usability for some users.

  18. read you email jeez ! How can you live like that lol

  19. Terrence Newton - 7 years ago

    Yes. The iPhone home screen has seen so little change since its inception that even the idea of removing the text from the icons warrants an opinion piece. I’m not saying it sucks, but it’s obviously quite dated. How long will it take for Apple to invent home screen widgets?

  20. charilaosmulder - 7 years ago

    Trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The homescreen is both functional and beautiful at the same time. The only thing that needs an overhaul are some third party icons which look completely out of place, and removing the text underneath won’t solve that or any other problem.

  21. srgmac - 7 years ago

    There was an OS many years ago from an Israeli company that looked AWESOME…unfortunately they went out of business I think…it was called Emblaze mobile.

  22. I think that Apple should keep the text in the apps names, because what if some is visually impaired, or has some other disorder

  23. Paul Andrew Dixon - 7 years ago

    On a large screen, like apple TV, icons can include the text within itself – for example the disney icon… on a watch the screen is too small to include text…

    however…with iphone for most icons we know what they are, they are recognisable – for the most part that is…. i actually have a few that are a bit unclear – worse is when i update and they have changed the icon…

    However, the text becomes very useful for folders – i have games, media, social, etc — i would have to make sure i have easily recognisable icons on the first page of the folder so i can see what is in the folder without opening it… otherwise i will have to remember what i put where…lol

    i think it would be nice as an option!!!… but you can guarantee that apple will force it upon us…lol

  24. bb1111116 - 7 years ago

    I need the text under icons and folders on iOS. If some people don’t want that, it could be an option. But the default should be what it is now.

  25. Charlypollo - 7 years ago

    Very Simple. Allow us to switch between both modes. Put it inside the accesibility Menu. If you like it then you can activate it or deactivate it.

  26. dailycardoodle - 7 years ago

    I don’t find myself reading the text under icons on the iPhone, even folders. I’m looking for the icon design so I think the labels could go.

    I’d like to see a widget option that takes up the space of four icons. Long press icons to get them wiggling, then some icons have a marque on the opposite corner to the delete to denote a widget option. Taking up the space of four icons would look neat and developers could add useful functionality – weather, news etc

  27. Ironically on the AppleTV the most ambiguous icons are the one by Apple.

  28. craftytony - 7 years ago

    I would LOVE to get rid of the text under my icons. At the very least an option to enable/disable the text would be great.

  29. Robb Major (@robbmajor) - 7 years ago

    Overall I think this would look really nice! As far as UX, though, it might not quite work. Folders would be a real bitch, but I guess we could learn.

  30. amitvedant - 7 years ago

    Hope they keep the texts.

  31. jiggerslovesthemapples - 7 years ago

    That’s the first thing I do when jailbreaking: remove all text labels. It then looks soooo clean and smooth. But, I’m on 9.1 pb3… When you move from a jb phone to stock/beta, the text labels are so jarring… Would love a native ability to turn them off.

  32. mashdots - 7 years ago

    This is going to require app designers to make more meaningful icons so their apps don’t get lost.

  33. triankar - 7 years ago

    ummm…. no!
    Not very practical, especially when you have all that screen real estate hanging about

  34. Paul Allen (@starxd) - 7 years ago

    Wow, most of this makes no sense.

    Those Apple TV icons are NOT 3D. They are very much 2D, with some effects designed to give a 3D-like appearance, but there is nothing 3D about them.

    Removing text identifiers makes sense on the Apple TV because that interface requires you to scroll through icons, so as each one is highlighted, the text label can appear. How could you do that on the iPhone (and why would you ever want to)? if you tap on an icon it doesn’t highlight it, it opens it. To add a UI paradigm that allows for icons to be highlighted but not opened would introduce a big layer of unnecessary complexity. Does that sound like something Apple would do?

    To explain why they might want to do this, you say they could cram the icons closer together and add a 7th row. Does that really sound like something Apple would do? Why do we need to cram 4 more icons onto each home page? You can have as many pages and folders as you want, so it’s not like space is a concern. From a design and usability standpoint, I can’t see them ever doing that.

    You also say they could make smaller screens that are more efficient, presumably because they could hold the same number of icons… but that implies that the only measure of screen efficiency is how many icons it holds, and that larger screens serve no other purpose (like reading, watching videos, etc.). We now only measure screen efficiency in icons per inch?

    Sorry, but this whole article wasn’t very carefully thought through.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      First, parallax creates a 3D effect using multiple 2D layers. Saying that the icons aren’t 3D is like saying that standard televisions aren’t 3D. It’s technically accurate in one way, but missing the point: the icons now move in 3D space, showing different views as they tilt. They are not merely flat, completely 2D icons any more.

      Second, the brief text labels on the new Apple TV have become so small and comparatively illegible relative to the icons that they’re virtually pointless. Look at the images above. Even now, on the iPhones, text labels have become small (and decreasingly legible since iOS 6), and could be integrated directly into the icons. Whether that’s a good idea or not is up for discussion.

      Third, regarding the use of screen space, there are other things besides adding a row of icons that could be accomplished after removing text labels. A space could be added, for instance, for a virtual Home button with 3D Touch, eliminating the need for the hardware button and reducing the height of the device. This was noted explicitly in the article, but I didn’t sketch this out in an image solely because I didn’t have the time. The suggestion was based on long-standing speculation that Apple has wanted to move to a software Home button; having just debuted, 3D Touch is a technology that could enable it.

      There’s actually a lot of thought (based on actual Apple UI changes that have happened) behind this article, but it requires an interest in exploring “what if” scenarios and considering future possibilities in light of recent Apple UI decisions. No one’s saying that these things are necessarily going to happen, but they make for good discussion amongst our readers. Sorry if you didn’t understand that.

  35. atokosch - 7 years ago

    So on the watch the screen is only so big, how could you fit text on the home screen when it would be too small to even read? With the TV, have you ever tried reading on a tv from across the room? It’s not always the right size text so you need to get closer to read it, not everyone has perfect eyes, the apps are big enough to distinguish what is what from across the room. I think this is why Apple did not include text on the home pages of both devices. Just doesn’t make sense.

  36. The answer is NO. With good reason: without the text below the screen, people won’t be able to figure out easily what those icons stand for, which will make using the phone that much harder.

  37. sar2607 - 7 years ago

    While I think doing this would be completely ridiculous from Apple (and I honestly don’t think they will), but what I will like them to do is to give us an option to delete their apps. I have no use whatsoever for the apple watch app, since I have no intentions of buying one. Nor do I need the Tips, Videos, Find Friends apps. Probably don’t need Stocks either. Or even Podcasts.
    All of the aforementioned apps are in a folder called ‘useless’ on the last page of my home screen, just because I don’t need them and Apple won’t let me delete them. Not cool at all.

  38. Amitai Palmon - 7 years ago

    Apple should make a more substaintial change to its iOS home screen than removing icons’ texts. The iOS bear the same static applications grid since 2007 and it’s really time for a change. The home screen is not informative enough – the notification center is not handy and is not the right place for widgets. Apple can copy from Google or MS or develop a new approach, but a change is necessary.

  39. I don’t agree with this. The home screen is a key factor of the iPhone and making it more complicated would be a big mistake.