Ubuntu Lucid and THAT button layout

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.

Just a small examples of window control layouts


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:

My personal window control layout

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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14 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Nice topic.
    I like what Canonical did to Ubuntu (maybe except blurry GDM background).

    After talk with my buddy, I agree that close button placed on the left side is not too smart. Let’s say you’re drunk, you barely see mouse pointer (or see many of them) – you may accidentally miss trying to invoke “File” from menubar 😀

    Personally, I don’t care what default layout is, because I always change it to: title, hide, close (or title in the middle). Maximize is needless – you can do the same by double-click on title.
    Of course, defaults matter for those who are new to certain OS/DE.

    • Izo,

      @weakhead: thanks for the comment! I think it’s the one of the beautiful things about GNU/Linux and OSS in general that things can be configured so easily. I would, however, like to see that window switcher in Lucid, I think it’ll be a boon to new users of Ubuntu Lucid.

  2. Ambleston Dack,

    Nice article. Its good to hear an objective article about 10.04’s theme instead of the usual I hate it, but I hate brown too. I like the new theme very much. I don’t mind the buttons on the left either (Apple Mac user) and I also don’t think that they are trying to rip off the ‘Mac look’.

    The one thing that Steve Jobs and Apple have done from the word go, is design. Steve Jobs was very particular on the early Apple’s design that he even made sure that the printed circuit boards had a design as well.

    I can see why Canonical wants to emulate the look, but it will morph over the years and get tweaked.

    • Izo,

      @Ambleston: thanks for the comment and thanks for the nice words! I’m glad there’s at least a few of us who can keep cool heads and think about these things rather than getting all reactionary. As said, I’m happy with the window controls being on the left-hand side, but more importantly I think they work better like that, it’s just more ergonomic.

  3. I have a strong opinion about the button layout: it doesn’t make sense! It won’t work for people! I think, the OSS-community should’t handicap Windows users – we are not like Apple, no ego trip is needed.
    Bsicly it’s the same thing as with keyboard layouts, the didn’t change, because people don’t want to change.

    • Izo,

      @Marco: thanks for the comment! I think it does make sense, as described in my post. The problem to consider is: if window controls are Windows style then we handicap Apple; if we window controls are Mac style then we handicap Windows users. Net result: SOMEONE will have to do some adjusting when switching to Ubuntu.

  4. CalKid,

    Your usual excellent insight into design issues. I agree with you that having the Close button with Max/Min buttons was always bad. As weakhead said above the Max button is pretty useless, and to access the window controls I always right click on the title bar. So, using the utility you linked to, I put just the Min button on left and Close button on the right, thus:
    Clean and simple.

    • Izo,

      @CalKid: thanks for the comment! It’s interesting that you right-click the titlebar, I wonder how many people do that? But I’m glad you like that close button separated; it just makes more sense to me.

  5. Good article, was waiting to see if you would weigh in on this.

  6. Omar,

    I still can’t understand the motivation of moving the buttons to the left (and i’ve really tried to read up on it. Mark Shuttleworth recently claimed, that they wanted to try innovative new things on the right side of the windows decoration come 10.10. I hope that’s true and the things they want to try out don’t involve stupid web2.0 thingies (like “share my application view with facebook” or “instant twitter”).

    The problem is that the right side now is pretty empty which doesn’t look nice. Having been used to the buttons on the right side, isn’t the only reason to keep them there. Some have pointed out, that the buttons now are in very close proximity to the window menu, which makes it more likely to miss the menu and accidently hit “close”. Remember: on mac, there isn’t this problem, since mac places the menu bar at the top of the screen rather than on the top of the menu.

    One small remark yet: three of the example layouts you presented are in essence the same. The only one standing out (until now) is macosx and that – as i explained – fits in the general layout in macosx. So actually, there haven’t been much variance in button placement.

  7. Jack Thomas,

    If you don’t like the controls in the new left side position for Radiance and Ambiance, you can download slightly modified versions of those themes entitled Radiance_R and Ambiance_R. I have modified these thems and posted them on Gnome-Look.org for people who would like to use them.

    Here are the links to the themes.

    Ambiance_R (Ambiance Right Side)

    Radiance_R (Radiance Right Side)

    I hope you find these beneficial and enjoy them.

    – Jack Thomas

  8. überRegenbogen,

    “The main shift away from this popular window control layout was in the advent of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. … they moved the window controls to the left of the titlebar … Apple have stuck to this particular layout ever since and Mac users have become very accustomed to it.”

    Apple didn’t move the close button. It has been at the left end of the titlebar for the entire existence of the Macintosh—since before MS-Windows existed, and 11 years before it grew a dedicated close button. In gconf language the Mac System 4 through 7 arrangement would be “close:maximize”. The Mac OS 8 through 9 arrangement would be “close:shade,maximize” (except that GNOME doesn’t support a shade button). In Mac OS X they did away with the shade button (leaving that function to double-clicking the titlebar), added a minimise button next to the close button, and moved the maximise button to form one cluster—with a nice sane order (minimise is more similar to close than maximise is.

    In MS-Windows versions prior to Win95 (4.0) and WinNT4, double-clicking the window-control menu (on the left, ooh) was the closest it had to a close button—a method which not only still usually works, but is an option in many unixoid window managers. In gconf language it would be “menu:minimize,maximize”.

    When Microsoft eventually added a close button, they ridiculously put it next to (indeed in the position formerly occupied by) the control with the most contrary functionality—maximise. (I can’t tell you how many expletive-rich occasions i accidentally closed a window instead of maximising it, when i first went from Win3.1 to Win98.) This yielded the now familiar, annoyingly middle-endian, min,max,close cluster that most late-’90s Windows users lemmingly accepted without question, along with absurdly frequent system hangs and crashes. (I was delighted to find that both KDE and GNOME let me fix that nonsense.)