It has been more than three decades since Windows icons began to appear in the first versions of the operating system. Since then, they have evolved along with imaging technologies, screen resolutions, sizes, or color depth, but their goal remains the same.
The computer icons were first developed in the 1970s by Xerox PARC, a research laboratory to which we owe numerous innovations and standards in improved software and hardware that we still use today. These pictograms, close in nature to iconic signs painted by prehistoric human beings in caves and which preceded writing systems, had the mission of facilitating the use of computers.
Years later they were included in graphical user interfaces of operating systems such as Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and today we would not understand these developments without them. Although in Windows they began to represent accesses to applications and disk drives, today they can be used for any indicator, a file, a command, a folder or any type of process.
Their format varies depending on the operating system and they can use standardized image formats or proprietary binary files such as Windows with the extension .ico. They are part of the general user interface and all operating systems include base icon packages for applications or components and there is software for generating icons from images or other programs that allow their editing.
Evolution of Windows Icons
Windows 11 will release an icon pack extensively renovated. Some already released in the latest versions of Windows 10 and others derived from Windows 10X, all have been created using the design language Fluent Design that Microsoft has been using since 2017 to renew all the visual sections of its operating system.
Although the icons have been improved over time, not all versions of Windows have offered profound changes and even some icons have been kept for many years. A great example has been the floppy drive icon, which was revamped last spring, but had been present unchanged since Windows 95. Howtogeek has published an article where he reviews the development of Windows through the visual history of your icons. And it will be curious to see its evolution.
Windows 1.x (1985) and Windows 2.x (1987)
In the first two major versions of Windows, application icons only appeared when you minimized a program to the taskbar, at the bottom of the screen (Windows 1.x), or on the desktop (Windows 2.x). The icons were simple black and white illustrations with a size of 32 × 32 pixels.
And it is that the system did not give for more. Remember that in those days Windows ran as a basic graphical shell on MS-DOS and to run applications file names were used from a list in a program called “MS-DOS Executive” that did not display icons.
Windows 3.0 (1990)
Windows 3.0 introduced the ability to display 16 color icons in a size of 32 × 32 pixels. They featured a new “3D” look (as it was called at the time) with simulated shadows, courtesy of Susan Kare, an artist who had previously designed icons and fonts for the original Macintosh.
With 3.0, Windows icons used color for the first time, and Kare imparted the right combination of fun and business sense to them that made them very attractive. She established archetypes in icon design that would have a great influence on subsequent versions of the system.
Windows 3.1 (1992)
Few changes. Microsoft kept the resolution at 32 x 32 pixels and 16 colors, but offered more detail by using dithering effects to simulate greater color depth and adding enhancements to the shading effects in the illustration style.
Windows 95 (1995)
The vast majority of icons had their graphic revision, although others from Windows 3.1 were preserved and in general the 16 colors and 32 x 32 pixels were maintained. However, the Win32 API used in Windows 95 introduced support for 256 × 256 pixel icons with 16.7 million colors for the first time.
In fact, the Microsoft Plus! which was later released as an add-on package with visual enhancements, themes, games, and third-party content, enabled 65,536-color icons to be enabled in what was called «high-density colors«. This mode could also be enabled with a registry hack. As mentioned above, some of the Windows 95 icons, such as the floppy drive, have remained
Windows 98 (1998)
This version of Windows debuted 256 color icons default. Although the default size was 32 x 32 pixels, also for the first time Microsoft offered a larger size of 48 x 48 pixels that were ideal for the high resolution screens that were beginning to appear in those years.
Many icon designs (such as My Computer and the Recycle Bin) received updates, but Windows 98 also included others legacy from Windows 95 and even from Windows 3.1. Something that has been repeated in every release of Windows.
Windows 2000 and Windows Me (2000)
The intended unifier of Windows 9x and Windows NT, kept the 256 colors and the two sizes of 32 × 32 and 48 × 48 pixels of the previous one. Several important icons such as ‘My PC’ were renewed again, gaining more detail and depth of color, but without being a revolution. Windows Me used most of the Windows 2000 icons.
Windows XP (2001)
If there is a version that represented a great leap forward in icons for Windows, it was XP. For the first time he admitted 32 bit icons (16.7 million colors and an alpha channel for transparencies), allowing translucent shadows and glassy effects, as well as improved edges thanks to the new anti-aliasing process.
Also in design the XP icons offered a fresh start, with rounded corners, greater color depth, and the use of smooth gradients. It was the first version to move away from Susan Kare’s work on Windows 3.0, although less-used application and system icons were repeated from previous editions.
Windows Vista (2007)
Vista was criticized ad nauseam (more than it deserved, in my opinion), but it was the most ambitious version since Windows 95 and the one that tried to bring more news. One of the biggest was the graphical interface Windows Aero which looked great (if you had a powerful team to handle it) and which influenced the icons as well.
For the first time, the Windows icon pack was shipped at a size of 256 × 256 pixels by default, which the system dynamically scaled to other sizes according to the user’s personal preferences. They included the interface’s shiny translucent effects and drop shadows and were cited as the first set where Microsoft caught up with Mac OS X on this matter.
Windows 7 (2009)
Windows 7 mainly used the same set of icons as Vista, but changed some of the system like Control Panel and applications like Microsoft Paint. Those that were reviewed Got a flatter, more frontal appearance that began to alienate Microsoft from Vista’s glossy icons.
Windows 8 (2012) and Windows 8.1 (2013)
Microsoft opted for a user interface radically different from what it had produced until then, thinking of positioning itself on smart phones and other devices with a touch screen. Commonly known as ‘Metro’ and later ‘Modern UI’, it released a new type of icon called “Live Tile” that allowed dynamic updates of information within the tiles. Sort of like a mini-widget on the home screen. They worked well on a smartphone, but much less for use on a computer desktop.
As for the app icons, most became simple white silhouettes of objects or shapes on a solid color background. Additionally, Windows 8 included standard desktop icons carried over from the Windows 7 package and earlier.
Windows 10 (2015)
At launch, Windows 10 kept the Live Tiles icons from Windows 8, as well as others from earlier versions such as File Explorer. The few that were redesigned had a more angular look and smoother gradients. As of 2017Microsoft included the Windows icons as part of the major UI makeover it was working on, which they said would last for “years.” The objective is to overcome the inconsistencies that from its very conception have weighed down the general design and user experience.
Microsoft already published a first renewal in 2020 with designs that said goodbye to flat formats and muted colors and bet on using the possibilities of language in depth, gradations, vibrant colors and movement. We saw it mainly in the universal apps Mail and Calendar, Calculator, Groove Music, Movies and TV or Alarms and Clock, renewed. and many new ones are expected. They should be available in the fall version Windows 10 21H2, although they can be installed in earlier versions by following this practical.
Windows 11 (2021…)
The next Windows will shelve the ‘live mosaics’ that they have not finished curdling and in general the -failed- Metro concept that has been maintained -with some improvements- the last decade. The idea is to end the double interface that has penalized the user experience and break with legacy components. As far as possible because you already know that the Windows ecosystem is gigantic and it is not easy to support it while new features are introduced. We will have to wait to see how far the ‘revolution’ goes.
On the line of the latest icons prepared for the next version of Windows 10 and taking advantage of the development carried out in Windows 10X, Microsoft will offer a completely renewed package, where you will update the missing files, file explorer, control panel, and desktop items. It includes system folders, disks, and some custom buttons like the new icon for the recycle bin.
They will be offered in various styles and will go better with the dark theme, ditching the flat look, with softer gradients and the new Segoe typeface. What we have seen so far in beta version we like. They are undoubtedly more attractive that the original Windows 10 and in conjunction with the renewal of the general interface should be a new point in the icons for Windows that we have reviewed.