OK, so as an ardent GUI Designer and general fan of winning computer interface design, I took a strong interest in Canonical’s recent announcement about their new Ubuntu branding, complete with two new default themes set to appear in the upcoming “Lucid Lynx” LTS release in April – named “Ambience” and “Radiance”.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, or any other solid mineral aggregate of your choice, here’s a couple of screenshots of the new themes (with thanks to Softpedia):
The darker theme called “Ambiance”
The lighter theme called “Radiance”
Firstly, my personal opinion on the branding: excellent. The new logo is clean, simple and very professional. The revised colour palette works brilliantly; there has clearly been a lot of thought gone into the new colour palette and logos and I approve of the move greatly. Sterling work, Canonical. Of course, as a typeface geek with an unhealthy obsession with fonts, I am also really excited about the new Ubuntu font.
Secondly, my personal opinion on the themes: rather good. Not bad at all. I prefer the darker version of the lighter one, I have to say… I just think it works better. I enjoy the use of the new Ubuntu colour palette in these themes, it works, it’s simple, clean and elegant. These themes definitely signal a move towards a much more professional, polished GNU/Linux OS. If I have one small gripe about the new themes, it’s the colour chosen for the buttons; I personally feel the button colour is both wrong and far too dark. I would be tempted to have the button colour just a few shades darker than the window background colour, much simpler and blends better with the theme. It’s important to note, as well, that these themes are by no means finished – we’ve already seen the scrollbar design changed from what you see in the screenshots above.
In general, opinion around the interwebz suggests approval of these new themes except for one small, tiny detail, which seems to have split the Ubuntu community better than Moses did with the Red Sea…
The window controls layout…
What am I talking about? See those buttons at the top-left of the titlebar that allow you to minimise, maximise and close the window? Those are the window controls and people have been going schizo over them.
One of the largest complaints, and I completely, and sadly, expected this, was “OMG MAC OS X RIP OFF GIVE ME MY LINUX BACK NOOOOOO!!!!”
Another was, OS-X ripoff or not, the new window control layout is a dramatic change to how users commonly control windows, people will get confused/angry/flip out and kill their grannies.
Personally? I quite like the new button layout. I like how the close button is coloured red. Red has obvious connotations, moreso in western society, and a common one is “danger”. Colouring the close button red subconsciously signals caution to the user. Good idea, I like it. Likewise, I like how the minimise and maximise/restore buttons are paired together in colour as they have similar core functions – that of manipulating the state of the window. This is also a good move. I like that, now the buttons are on the left, they are within easy reach of the window’s menubar, a heavily accessed area of the window. Overall, I think it’s a good move. And while I can happily ignore all the cries of “OMG MAC OS X RIPOFF” there is one small issue I can understand: changing the window controls layout to the left, and in a different arrangement, breaks lots of other GNOME themes that have all been designed and produced with the standard right-justified min-max-close layout in mind.
Different System, Different Layout
Various different operating systems and desktop environments have, over the years, employed many different window control layouts. To demonstrate, here’s a very quick, rough-’n'-ready sketch I produced in Inkscape of a few examples; this is not an exhaustive list and there have been many more variations.
Of course, I’m ignoring other buttons that have appeared, such as “sticky” buttons or “help” buttons. I’m focusing more on the commonly used buttons: minimise, maximise/restore and close, as well as the positioning of the title text.
Of all those window control layouts, the one used in Windows 95 onwards, with only small modifications in Vista and 7, is by far the most well-known. Considering that most people work with Windows operating systems, whichever version, this is unsurprising.
The main shift away from this popular window control layout was in the advent of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. As demonstrated above, they moved the window controls to the left of the titlebar and changed their shape to circular buttons (thus making the “target” equally accessible from any direction, read up on Fitt’s Law). Apple have stuck to this particular layout ever since and Mac users have become very accustomed to it.
The layout that most GNU/Linux operating systems and desktop environments have used has been essentially the same as Windows 95. Ubuntu, with the “Human” theme featured from version 6.06 “Dapper Drake” to the current version 9.10 “Karmic Koala”, has been no different.
Ubuntu 6.06 “Dapper Drake”
Ubuntu 9.10 “Karmic Koala”
So as you can see, with the advent of the new “Lucid Lynx” LTS release, and a complete image and branding refresh, the new themes and window control layout change presents a definite shift away from Human towards a more professional look, which lots have interpreted as “ripping off Mac OS X”.
Where do I stand?
Me? Do I like buttons on the right, Windows style, or buttons on the left, OS-X style?
My answer to this is: neither.
I’ve always been an advocate of having the close button separated from the minimise and maximise buttons. Considering that the close buttons kills the application, whereas the minimise/maximise buttons merely alter the state of the window, I like to keep their functionalities physically separate. Here’s how I have it in KDE:
Here’s the arrangement: minimise, maximise, help –> title text –> close.
In KDE4.x, adjusting the window controls layout is extremely easy, it’s one of the settings in the “Windows” section under “Appearance”. Does GNOME, the desktop environment that Ubuntu uses as standard, have a similar easy-to-use configuration?
And I think that needs to change. You can alter the window controls layout in GNOME, but it involves opening the “Configuration Editor”, finding the necessary key and then altering it. Not user-friendly at all.
Luckily, a concerned user has developed a very simple window control switcher. Another reason why I love Linux and Open Source. Got a problem? Here’s a fix. It would be advantageous if Ubuntu Lucid Lynx was to include this simple little application.
The Great Window Control Layout Debate For Lucid Lynx is far from over and I feel it may rage on for quite some time. The only thing I would say is: if you’re tempted to just shout “MAC OS X RIPOFF”, I implore you, stop, think for a minute, analyse the situation then come back to me with your thoughts. Sticking window controls on the left doesn’t automatically imply OS X inspiration. Remember: there’s a reason why Apple used that particular control layout in the first place.
Ian Cylkowski aka Izo
Logo & Brand Identity Design, GUI/UX Design
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