One of the biggest differences between iOS and Android has always been customization. Google’s mobile OS allows more control over how the software looks and feels, while Apple limits these changes in the name of consistency and usability. But with the launch of iOS 14 last week, iPhone and iPad owners are suddenly discovering how to make their phones and tablets look and feel truly different.
Search “#ios14” or “#ios14homescreen” on Twitter, for example, and you’ll see hundreds of examples of themed layouts that combine custom app icons, wallpaper, and widgets. (Be careful, though, as a couple of results for those searches are very much NSFW.) All over TikTok and YouTube, too, people are showing off custom home screens and layouts.
Many are themed around pop culture phenomena like Animal Crossing, Steven Universe, Harry Potter, Minecraft, and BTS, while others focus on a single aesthetic, like line drawings or neon icons. Some even recreate older user interfaces, riffing off the PlayStation 2’s memory card screen, for example, or making iOS 14 look like iOS 6. All in all, it’s the sort of beautiful, visual chaos you usually associate with custom PC themes or Winamp skins.
Why is this happening now? In part it’s because of the release of iOS 14, which gave the option to add widgets to their home screen. Usually, widgets are used to add quick-access functionality to your home screen, letting you see information about reminders, the weather, or calendar appointments at a glance. But you can also use them to display any image of your choice, which has led to users turning them into picture frames for their digital front rooms. You can also, with the right app, customize the appearance of the default widgets.
The other customization options users are taking advantage of are much older. Choosing your own wallpaper is obviously an option that’s been around for decades, but creating custom app icons was only made possible by Apple’s Shortcuts app. This was first introduced in 2018 in iOS 12 and allows you to automate certain actions in iOS. People have been using Shortcuts to create custom app icons for years, but it seems with the release of iOS 14 and the arrival of widgets, many people are discovering this functionality all over again.
How to customize your iOS home screen
Making your own custom home screen is easy but time-consuming. The main thing you’ll need is the actual visuals: a custom wallpaper and accompanying icon pack. Some designers are already sharing these in easy to download packages (as with the Animal Crossing example above) but a bit of Googling will usually get you what you need.
For the Windows 98 layout I made for the top image of this article (inspired by this tweet) I found all the background images and app icons I needed through some quick searches. Though it must be said that getting all these assets into shape, including coloring in the backgrounds of the transparent PNG icons by hand, was a complete pain and took at least an hour. Definitely go for pre-made packs if you can.
To add custom widgets to your home screen you’ll need to download an app called Widgetsmith. Once you’ve downloaded that just open the app and click to create the widget size of your choice. You can then customize the default iOS widgets like the clock and calendar with different fonts and colors, or create a widget that shows a static image. Once you’ve created your widget, just head to your homescreen, long-press on the screen to bring up the customization options, then click the + sign in the top left of your screen to add a widget. Scroll down to find your Widgetsmith creations.
Lastly, to add custom app icons you’ll need to download Apple’s Shortcuts app. Once you’ve got that, open it up and click the + sign in the top right to create a new app. Then go > Add Action > Scripting > Open App > Choose, and select the app you want to customize. Once you’ve done that, click “Next” in the top right, name the app, and click Done.
Then, to customize the icon and add it to your home screen, click the three-dot menu next to the shortcut action you just created, then click the three-dot menu again, and then select “Add to Home Screen.” Then click on the icon under the “Home Screen Name and Icon” pane and select the image you want to use from your camera roll. Phew! All done.
You’ll now have an app with a custom icon, though there is one very annoying caveat: each time you click an app it will jump first to the Shortcuts app and then to your app of choice. This means there’s a slight delay every time you open an app, but who said getting the #aesthetic of your choice was easy? However, if you know a way around this please let us know in the comments — and share any creations you’ve been inspired to make yourself!