The most exciting part of iOS 14 isn’t picture-in-picture video display or the app library — it’s widgets.
Instead of once-boring app icons for your calendar or clock that might get placed in a utilities folder, the new wave of widgets let you spice up your homepage with anything from custom notes to astronomy and weather reports. Those options have existed on Android devices for years, but their sudden arrival on the iPhone has created a kind of gold rush, with users combining them into custom layouts that can be tweaked, shared, and even sold.
The new options have also turned a small utility called Widgetsmith into a surprise success, garnering more than 2 million downloads since it launched on September 16th, according to CNBC. Widgetsmith isn’t necessary for layouts, but its wide-ranging custom widget options give users more control. Most importantly, it’s become the preferred tool for most layout tutorial videos, which has put it at the center of the growing scene. Even with Widgetsmith, designing the perfect layout can take several hours — but it’s worth it for users who are trying to make a splash on Instagram or TikTok.
With those tools in place, the layouts are as eager, intricate, and fannish as could be expected. One user focused on Club Penguin-themed layout, using Widgetsmith and Apple’s Shortcuts tool to make a home screen look and feel exactly like the now-defunct social gaming app. In another case, a TikTok creator used an orange, red, and brown color palette to coincide with the aesthetics of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and the fall season. There are also viral Star Wars and Marvel home screens and others designed with minimalist aesthetics in mind.
Gia, a 15-year-old Twilight fan, spent five hours making her Twilight-dedicated home screen, which includes a GIF lock screen image, characters from the Twilight films as app icons, and Widgetsmith boxes used to display Twilight dialogue. Her video quickly amassed thousands of views. Part of the inspiration for her home screen came from being a devout Twilight fan, but Gia also told The Verge that it “would be very cozy especially since we’re transitioning into fall.”
Some layouts are appealing enough to pay for. Katarina Mogus, owner and creative director of En Flique Creative, a social media marketing agency, runs an Etsy shop that has started selling iOS 14 packs for $4.99. They’re designed with “aesthetic AF” in mind, something Mogus believes is key to understanding why iOS 14 designs have taken off in the last week. Mogus told The Verge that after her TikTok video demonstrating how to use Widgetsmith to make cool home screens was seen more than 25 million times, she decided to sell some of her designs on Etsy for people (like me) who might not be as artistically inclined.
“I really wanted to make it easier for people,” Mogus said. “I put out a price point where I’m like, ‘Ok, for one Starbucks drink, would someone be willing to buy the widget that I’m creating?’ I’ve been getting a lot of sales on it, and I’m continuously making more because I’m getting a lot of requests for different ones.”
Sharing those designs — and the skills it takes to create them — has become a sensation on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. There are new accounts entirely dedicated to tutorials, asking people what they want to learn and showing them how to do it in a minute or less. The #ios14tutorial hashtag on TikTok has already garnered close to 20 million views.
Christian Parrotte, a freshman at the University of Florida, is an iPhone owner who spent a few hours working on his own iOS 14 layout that incorporated different characters and elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of the time was spent hunting down photos that he liked that would work functionally against the dark backdrop he was using as wallpaper. The more views his video collects, the more people ask Parrotte in the comments to drop a tutorial. They want to make it their iPhone backgrounds, too.
It made Parrotte realize that there’s a huge market for developers to make it easier for people to customize their own phones — something that may only continue growing as more people buy and receive Apple products during the holiday season.
“I definitely think that as app developers start to see how impactful iOS 14 is, and how we use our phones, they’re going to start making adjustments,” Parrotte told The Verge. “Right now, it’s really only Widgetsmith. I think we’ll start seeing a lot of other apps purely aesthetic widget apps really soon.”
It’s hard to say how long the fad will last, or how long users will keep their intricate home screens. Parrotte and Gia think part of it is simply creating the designs for clout. (“I think it’s a way for people to flex,” Gia says.) But with form factors and operating systems settling into a dull sameness, there’s a powerful appeal to having a home screen that looks different from everyone else’s.
“Since the iPhone has always looked the same and there’s no ability for customization, it’s so exciting as a creator and as just a regular iPhone user that you can change things,” Mogus said. “I’d love to see more customizable aspects to the iPhone in the future, and even other Apple devices. I have every Apple product, so anyway to change them up a bit more is really exciting.”