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See the retro icons that let you turn your computer into a 1984 Mac screen

If you’re feeling nostalgic for 1980s Apple, British designer Ben Vessey has just the thing for you.

See the retro icons that let you turn your computer into a 1984 Mac screen
[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]

Some things have become so ubiquitous that we never stop to wonder what came before them. Take the neat row of icons stacked at the bottom of your Mac screen. Before 1984, these little icons simply did not exist. Then came graphic designer Susan Kare, who created Macintosh’s very first icons.

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[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
The look of these icons has come a very long way since then, but if you’re feeling nostalgic, British designer Ben Vessey has something for you. Vessey created a set of 166 retro icons inspired by Kare’s work. Dubbed OS, for old-school, the project lets you turn your computer screen (Windows included) into a retro Mac, bringing 1980s UX to the 21st century.

[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
Some of the icons, like Finder, are exactly the same as Kare’s original versions. “It would have felt sacrilegious to try and alter them in any way,” Vessey says. But hundreds more are “reimagined anachronisms” where new icons like Slack or Spotify get the black-and-white, pixelated treatment.

[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
To design the new set of icons, Vessey turned them into a 32-by-32-pixel grid. He applied pixel blocks over the current app icons to get the rough outline right, then added shading to create the illusion of contrast.

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“Every icon is designed by hand, pixel by pixel,” he says. “There is no Photoshop filter or computer trickery that would create a result pleasing to the eye.”

[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
This isn’t the designer’s first foray into the past. Last year, he launched a similar theme for the iPhone, dubbed iOS. (Both packs can be downloaded on Vessey’s website.)

I haven’t tried the iOS icons, but I did download the full pack of icons for the computer, and the throwback was instantaneous. The process, however, reflects how hard it is to hijack Apple’s closed ecosystem, which leaves little room for customization compared to Android devices.

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[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
Once you download the full pack, which costs 6.99 pounds (around $9), you must download a third-party app called Icon Champ. Then you have to drag the icons from the OS pack into Icon Champ, which replaces the icons for you. Except Icon Champ’s free version lets you change icons only for downloaded apps, not system apps. So if you want the full experience, with every single one of your icons going retro, you have to pay another $9.99 for the pro version, bringing the total up to $19.

The process for iOS is just as painful, albeit a little cheaper. After downloading the pack for 4.99 pounds (about $6), you have to use the Apple Shortcuts app to install the retro icons one by one. The app lets you create a “shortcut” to any app with an icon of your choice, but the original icons remain (although you can drag them to another home screen or lump them all into one folder to keep things cleaner).

[Image: courtesy Ben Vessey]
Vessey is aware of the challenges, but he’s hopeful that people will be willing to go through the lengthy process in the name of customization. I did go through the process on my computer, though I didn’t spend the extra $10 for the pro version. As a result, my computer screen right now is a hybrid of pixelated illustrations and crisp, vibrant icons. Dizzying, for sure, but a dazzling side-by-side comparison of user interface design, then and now.

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