The Viral Iconographer

Meet the designer whose signature iOS icons are so popular, they’re often mistaken for Apple’s own.

Almost three-quarters of a million apps are now available in Apple’s iOS store. Almost as impressive as the sheer number is the extent of their uniformity: You know an iPhone app when you see one. This is mostly because of Apple’s exhaustive Human Interface Guidelines, an ever-improving SDK (the set of software tools developers have to actually make apps), and a stringent review process. But it’s also, in one small but salient part, the work of a single man who’s never even been employed by Apple.

Joseph Wain is the designer behind Glyphish, an icon set that is little-known but nearly ubiquitous in the menu bars of tens of thousands of iOS apps. One tends to think of cat videos or chain letters as “going viral,” but the term could just as aptly describe Wain’s icons. His drawings have proliferated across the mobile web and outward, appearing on signs and billboards and even in Apple commercials. Gylphish icons — thirty-by-thirty-pixel pictograms released in a set of 400 — have been used by every major player in the app world, from Facebook to Twitter to Flipboard to Apple itself. Wain’s images are so prevalent that developers are often surprised to find out they’re not made in-house by Apple.

Three examples of Glyphish navigation bars.

“I’m also surprised that Apple doesn’t have a larger internal library of icons,” says Wain.

But he’s not complaining.

In 2009, Wain was on his way out from Google, where he had worked since the search giant acquired his previous employer, Jotspot (what became Google Sites). In his spare time, Wain had been gifting icons to colleagues at work on a stealth platform called Android. In the meantime, Apple had launched an App Store — with one notable problem.

“There were just thousands of apps showing up, and a lot of them had really pretty crappy icons,” Wain remembers.

Wain had grown up with icons. As a kid in Northern California, his mother had a Mac IIci that ran ResEdit, a developer’s toolkit. He became enamored with the dingbat font, Cairo, a creation of the Apple designer, Susan Kare. Among many other creations, Kare is credited with the Chicago typeface and the ominous bomb.

Many of Kare’s icons — “burned into my retina,” as Wain says — found equivalents in the first Glyphish set, launched on April 29, 2009 as one of Kickstarter’s earliest projects. Seeking to raise $500, Wain earned $1,820 from 98 backers.

The release was successful, wildly so, with over one thousand apps adopting Glyphish icons in the first month. Wain published the whole set for free under a Creative Commons license, and adoption snowballed from there.

“My best guess is it’s probably approaching 50,000 apps currently using them in the App Store,” Wain says. “Maybe even more.”

While there are back-end solutions shared among the tech giants, it’s hard to think of another front-end product, especially one with such prominent frontage, that has been embraced across the board. Facebook now uses its own iconography, but Wain’s found a Glyphish icon in the social network’s Messenger app. And in Concierge, Apple’s internal app for attending to customers at retail stores.

Tweeted one developer, “It’s amazing how pervasive Glyphish’s icons are in iOS! Second only to Apple in influencing look and feel.”

Wain uses Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop to fashion the icons, depthless silhouettes that begin as black geometric shapes. Like Bernini, who was famously asked how he carved an elephant, Wain’s approach is to strip away everything that’s not an elephant. The resulting images are sleek and inventive signposts — everything from Twitter’s birdhouse to Jason’s hockey mask.

Glyphish, Wain says, is and will remain a passion project, a tool for the developer community. At $25 for the full set — and half the icons, without Retina display, are available gratis — the price is right. Freebies are regularly released on Twitter; last week, Wain drew up a donkey and elephant for election season. And a publicly editable wishlist exists in the form of a Google Doc.

“I like to think it’s altruistic,” says Wain. “The goal I set out for was to help developers make better-looking apps.”

Rob Fishman, formerly of Kingfish Labs and the Huffington Post, tweets here.

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