Last week I mentioned that you can use the Glyphboard web app to access 48 special characters, such as an Apple, that you can paste into the title of a folder. After the article was picked up on Daring Fireball, I got a large number of comments on that post, including some pointing out that you can do a similar trick with Emoji icons.
Emoji is the Japanese word for picture characters, and in Japan, Emoji are incredibly popular for use in text messages and instant messaging. There are tons of different Emoji images ranging from happy and sad faces to animals to flags to musical instruments, and most Emoji characters are in color.
Emoji has been a part of the iPhone since version 2.2 as an alternative keyboard, but it is typically available only to Japanese iPhone users. (Indeed, I remember reading way back when that few Japanese customers would consider buying a smartphone that lacked Emoji, so Apple essentially had to add the feature for that market.) Nevertheless, it is possible for iPhone owners outside of Japan using iOS 4 to enable Emoji just by downloading a free app and restarting your iPhone. This does not require jailbreaking your iPhone. Sebastien at the iPhone Download Blog has a great post on how to enable Emoji on your iPhone running iOS 4, so rather than repeat the steps here I'll just refer you to his article.
Once you have turned on the Emoji keyboard on your iPhone, you can just switch to that keyboard and select a picture character to use in the title of a folder using the same steps that I outlined last week. In fact, it's even easier because you don't have to copy from one location and them paste into a folder name; just enable the Emoji keyboard and directly type any picture that you want.
Some pictures look better than others. For example, I tried to use an umbrella for the folder containing my weather apps, but it didn't look very good against a dark background. So instead, I used the sun icon, and that works quite well.
I also like using some musical notes for various music-related apps and a color airplane for some travel apps.
I don't plan to have picture icons for all of my folders, but so far I find that having pictures on a few folders is nice. Indeed, it seems faster to identify a folder with a unique picture. I suppose that is because of the old picture-thousand-words phenomenon.
UPDATE: I see that Alan at Art of the iPhone has a similar post today, and in his examples he puts an Emoji icon right before the text in the folder name. That's another interesting way to do it, so check out Alan's post to see that approach.