iOS 14 and beyond: Home screen aesthetics soar

Apple's latest software update lets your imagination go wild, but making a digital space your own goes way back.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
6 min read
Hayleigh Murphy

The biggest flex on the internet right now is showing off screenshots of a carefully curated aesthetic iOS 14 home screen. We don't make the rules. The teens on TikTok do.

When iOS 14 was released to the public last week, many people at first couldn't see much that was new with the latest version of Apple's software. But gradually, and especially over the weekend, iPhone users began to come to grips with Apple's Shortcuts tool and newly allowed widgets to personalize their home screens.

The results are so radically different from anything Apple has allowed before that it feels as though the iPhone has just undergone its biggest design overhaul we've seen in years. And the iPhone 12 hasn't even been unveiled yet.

For the longest time, Apple has kept a firm handle on how much users could customize its mobile software. The result was that anyone buying an iPhone, assuming they didn't try to jailbreak it, could be guaranteed an almost identical user experience to that of the next iPhone user. 


Custom icons are key.

Jill Ralke

Meanwhile, Android, particularly in the early days, was overlaid by busy and confusing "skins" that meant little consistency between phone models, but also allowed users much more power to customize their phone's interface and take control of their user experience.

But with iOS 14, the lines are beginning to blur. Sure, if you prefer you can opt to keep your iPhone largely as it was before. But if you're feeling creative and desire more control over the design of your software interface, you can transform it into a brand new device -- at least on the surface.

Creative iPhone owners from across the internet have been posting screenshots of their home screens, which have been going viral on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. They are dazzlingly varied, but largely all fall under the banner "aesthetic af" -- as described by 23-year-old Katarina Mogus, whose iOS 14 tutorial video had been viewed 27 million times at the time of writing.

"I set up my phone within minutes of realizing we had the capability to customize," said Mogus, who runs a social media marketing agency. "I knew my followers would love this and I shared it right away knowing that it would blow up."

Speaking to people who had made an aesthetic home screen, many had spent over three hours working on them. The more time-intensive efforts often involved creating custom icons for individual apps.

Curating these home screens usually means picking a singular aesthetic trend -- which can be as vague as a color scheme, or as specific as Animal Crossing -- and customizing each element of your home screen around it. Members of stan communities (hardcore online fandoms) are using widgets such as Widgetsmith, which has rocketed in popularity since iOS 14 was released, to insert pictures of their faves in between icons.

Hayleigh Murphy, a 24-year-old from New Zealand, spent three and a half hours working on her star-spangled, neutral creation that incorporates pictures of Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson.

"It's pretty easy to do, just a bit tedious, but I love it," she told me. "I think I'll leave it like this for a while but can definitely see myself changing it again when i get bored."

Lighting up the aesthetic home screen

While it might seem like the aesthetic home screen trend has appeared out of nowhere -- a simple result of Apple giving users new tools -- the truth couldn't be more different. 

There's a long history of people (especially teenagers) personalizing their digital spaces to make them their own, starting with early social networking and blogging sites such as MySpace, LiveJournal and Geocities.


Aesthetic AF? We think so.

Lauren Lopez

Over time social networks have started to look increasingly homogeneous, rarely allowing people to take control over the design of their digital space, other than choosing an avatar, and if they're lucky, a cover photo. The result is that the companies that own the platforms retain control over the user experience and can keep it consistent, just as Apple has done until now.

There's one big exception to this in the 2020 social media landscape, and that's Tumblr . Amanda Brennan, who works as Tumblr's meme librarian, is well versed in the various aesthetic trends that the platform has spawned in recent years. She immediately recognized the parallels between Tumblr content and aesthetic home screens when people started posting their screenshots online this weekend.

"It's really lovely to me to see people celebrating their personality in their tech, which I think is very reminiscent of Tumblr themes and of old internet," she said in an interview. 

As with aesthetic home screens, many people put significant time and energy into creating their Tumblr themes, which usually follow a singular notion or trend so that it looks aesthetically cohesive and matches up with the content they're posting there.

Brennan could also see aesthetic trends that are popular on Tumblr, including cottagecore, historical paintings and fall (which she describes as "Tumblr's power season") regularly cropping up in people's custom designs. "Tumblr is where these trends ignite," she said. "It's where the people who are maybe a little less mainstream will find their thing, and it'll just get out into the rest of the internet."

Timing could also be an important factor when trying to understand why people have embraced aesthetic home screens with such verve, Brennan said. September is back-to-school time, making it a particularly popular month to organize your life. The organizational aspect of home screen design reminds Brennan of Tumblr's studyblr community, in which people post pictures of beautiful, well-organized desks and their carefully illustrated bullet journals. 

Studyblr has resonated particularly well with people this year due to the circumstances we've found ourselves in, Brennan said. "Now that we're all home all the time, the things that we can control our spaces," she said. 

Mogus also believes that taking control of your digital space can impact your mindset. "Having an 'aesthetic af' home screen can spark creativity in other aspects of your life," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also boosted a macro-trend on Tumblr this year called Webcore, which feeds into many of the design choices people are making about their home screens -- playing with fonts and customizing icons and even going all out and creating a Windows 98-inspired, or Microsoft Paint-inspired home screen.

Webcore is, at its heart, a nostalgic trend that's all about embracing the aesthetics of the early internet -- zany graphics, cutesy Neopets, MySpace, dial-up. This represents a time when using the internet wasn't such a streamlined experience, and people would spend an hour or two online before completely logging off.

It's not altogether surprising that, in a year when people have had to rely on the internet in ways they never have before, there's nostalgia for a different kind of technology experience, Brennan said -- one where you have more control, one that's less stressful. "It really feels like people are longing for that time where the internet was something that wasn't touching every single part of our lives," she said.

Home screens go viral

Unlike Tumblr blogs or other social media profiles, home screens aren't usually outward facing -- a way to share your interests and present yourself to the world. Instead they tend to be for you and you alone to look at, the tech equivalent of decorating your bedroom. But the way people have been sharing their home screens across social media in recent days is highly reminiscent of  yet another Tumblr trend: that of posting fan art, edits and other creative content and asking for feedback. 

"To tie it all back together, even studyblr people will share their bullet journal layouts or their worksheets and be so proud of feedback," Brennan said. "You're finding this thing at your core that makes you so happy, sharing it on Tumblr with the people who just have that same passion as you do."

Positive feedback often sparks requests for tutorials and how-tos, which makes a trend even more accessible and allows communities to form around it. Even though home screens are largely private spaces, they have become yet another way to connect with people online.

Of course, no one is under any obligation to share their home screens, which means that if you're not a member of Gen Z -- the demographic that has led the trend -- and you like the idea of giving your home screen an aesthetic makeover, you can do so and keep it just for you. 

But before you take a crack at it, be sure to check out our tutorial and also search Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or Tumblr for inspiration. And you never know, if you do create a unique home screen and decide you're proud enough of your work to put it out onto the internet, you might just find people come a-knocking to find exactly how you did it.