Editor's Note: What's more iconic than icons? John Siracusa of Ars Technica weighs in with his four favorite Mac icons of all time.
The icon for the Finder seems like a near-total failure: it's just a simplified drawing of the computer itself. What the heck is that supposed to mean? In System 1.0, this icon was actually used for most of the files in the System Folder. Over the years, each of those system files got its own distinctive icon--except the Finder. For more than a decade and a half, the Finder held such primacy in the Mac user experience that its icon alone represented the thing itself: the Finder was the computer. (Remember that in the early years the top item in the Apple menu was not About This Macintosh but About The Finder.) Those days have passed, but the original Finder icon remains a powerful emblem of a revolutionary change in our interaction with machines.
Developer tools have historically been given short shrift when it comes to icons, and ResEdit is no exception. Its icon has too many elements for the available space and is not particularly attractive. But it's got one thing in spades: character. Mac development has never been a staid, serious endeavor. The independent spirit (and mild insanity) of the pioneering Mac developers is perfectly captured in the icon for this once-indispensable classic Mac OS developer tool.
System 7 Folder
In the Mac's history, there have been a few important moments when the platform set off in a new direction and its visual metaphors followed. The move to fully embracing color graphics in System 7 was one such moment. System 7 reconsidered every element of the user interface, from the lowly folder on up. It's easy to take the subdued, tasteful look for granted, but things could have gone very differently. Many computer interfaces have been overwhelmed by the abuse of color. The Mac avoided that fate. But why isn't the folder the pale beige of a manila folder? System 7 also signaled the growing independence of the Mac user interface from the real-world anachronisms it was replacing. Hence, a pale blue folder: simple, elegant, and a harbinger of a new era.
Once startup commenced, this was the first icon to appear on the screen of the original Macintosh, and on every Macintosh thereafter for eighteen years. It set the tone for all aspects of the platform in more than just the obvious ways. Yes, it promised a quirky, fun, friendly experience for the user. But it also revealed Apple as a company with an endearing self-awareness. Apple didn't just create an odd, upright computer that looked like an adorable little person with a screen for a face; it did so knowingly and wanted to be the first to point it out. The Happy Mac is gone now, replaced by the corporate logo, but let's hope the spirit it represents endures, in both Apple's products and the company itself.
This story, "Four Great Mac Icons" was originally published by Macworld.