Ever since my impa­tient and juve­nile decon­struc­tion of the new “light” GTK themes for Ubuntu Lucid, there’s been a lot of talk else­where, as well as some more clues about the new interface.

First came Mark Shuttleworth’s announce­ment on the rebrand­ing. Some­thing that seems to have been over­looked, most likely because of its ambigu­ous word­ing, is his men­tion of a new desk­top font:

We have com­mis­sioned a new font to be devel­oped both for the logo’s of Ubuntu and Canon­i­cal, and for use in the inter­face. The font will be called Ubuntu, and will be a mod­ern human­ist font that is opti­mised for screen legibility.

It sounds here like he’s only talk­ing about one font: the logo font we’ve already seen some of. But “for use in the inter­face”? Unless he’s talk­ing about hav­ing two vari­ants within the same fam­ily known as “Ubuntu,” it doesn’t seem that this logo font will trans­late well to menus and but­tons. Here’s hop­ing they’re devel­op­ing some­thing a lit­tle more pleas­ant than DejaVu Sans, whose bulk­i­ness has long been a cause for ire among Ubuntu users. And although I’ve always found it to be rather nice (pro­vided that it’s bumped down a size), I don’t doubt that the art­work team could come up with some­thing that exceeds it.

Maybe the most pos­i­tive thing to come out of Shuttleworth’s announce­ment is his expla­na­tion behind the logic of the two col­ors, orange and aubergine. These two col­ors, as well as some other visual cues, are the vocab­u­lary used to dis­tin­guish between the dif­fer­ent appli­ca­tions and users of Ubuntu. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into this design vocab­u­lary, and, as many have said, the new web­site mockup and other mis­cel­lany, such as the CD case and con­cepts for sig­nage, are pretty much home runs for Canonical’s art team. It doesn’t approach per­fec­tion, by any means, but it’s far more than any of us prob­a­bly imag­ined to be pos­si­ble. For that they deserve enor­mous acclaim.


Sadly, far too much of the con­ver­sa­tion around this redesign has been focused on the new default but­ton place­ment. It’s an inter­est­ing choice, one that I’m sure they wouldn’t make lightly, and it would be valu­able to have a dis­cus­sion about the mer­its of dif­fer­ent but­ton place­ments — a dis­cus­sion that con­sisted of some­thing other than “WAHHHHH MAC ZOMG BUTTON FAIL.” GNOMEr Ivanka Majic mer­ci­fully explained some of the rea­son­ing behind this deci­sion in a recent blog post, and there are valid argu­ments to be made for all kinds of dif­fer­ent approaches — in fact, in my opin­ion they’ve got it wrong. But it warmed my heart a lit­tle bit to read Mark Shuttleworth’s response to this bug report (as pointed out by Web Upd8):

The issue is not a bug, it’s a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion on what is the best result. We may change it, or we may hold it.

Fuck yes! You tell ’em, Mark. For as much com­plain­ing as I’ve done about the aes­thet­ics of this new desk­top theme, “usabil­ity” is much more a sci­ence (though still inex­act), and if you believe that these new but­ton loca­tions are more ratio­nal, and that peo­ple will ulti­mately ben­e­fit from them, then by all means, yes, do it. It’s that kind of (rel­a­tively) bold exper­i­men­tal­ism that makes me think they’ve got some balls after all.

And please, guys, please don’t ask for this to be made into another option. This same thing hap­pened when every­body started bitch­ing about Karmic’s new Notify-OSD behav­ior. Obvi­ously option-bloat presents sev­eral tech­ni­cal prob­lems, but it’s philo­soph­i­cally unsound, as well; it’s the easy way out. Here’s what Mark had to say on the matter:

In Ayatana, we’ll take an opin­ion­ated stance, and we’ll apply some com­mon prin­ci­ples to the design process, and we’ll live with the results.

I have no inter­est what­so­ever in mak­ing it pos­si­ble for any­body to have any envi­ron­ment they want — we already have that. I’m inter­ested in dri­ving for­wards to build a default out of the box expe­ri­ence which is as good as we can make it for the new, con­sumer user.

Mean­while, even a blog as impor­tant as Web Upd8 is plagued by this attitude:

But I’m putting my money on the fact that noth­ing will be done regard­ing this. Why? If Ubuntu copy the OS X theme, they must really like Apple, right? The secret announce­ment of the new theme that came in the last day of the UI freeze and all that was also some­thing very Apple-ish. Well then, just like Apple, they won’t lis­ten to what the users want and will do things their way. The only dif­fer­ence is Ubuntu was sup­posed to be open. But I really hope I’m wrong!

First, this rep­re­sents a grave mis­un­der­stand­ing of the word “open.” Sec­ond, “lis­ten­ing to what the users want” is impos­si­ble. Which users? On which issues? Whose wants are deter­mined in what way? This is not pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion. Nor is this:

There is no par­tic­u­lar rea­son for mov­ing them to the left, it’s change for the sake of change

I can for­give some­one for not hav­ing read any of the ratio­nale behind the new but­ton place­ment, but to assume so hastily that it was an arbi­trary deci­sion is unfair and closed-minded.

There’s of course plenty more to be said, but I’ll wrap up here with two quotes, the first from Mark Shut­tle­worth:

Exper­i­ments are also not some­thing we should do lightly. The Ubuntu desk­top is some­thing I take very per­son­ally; I feel per­son­ally respon­si­ble for the pro­duc­tiv­ity and hap­pi­ness of every Ubuntu user, so when we bring new ideas and code to the desk­top I believe we should do every­thing we can to make sure of suc­cess first time round. We should not inflict bad ideas on our users just because we’re curi­ous or arro­gant or stub­born or proud.

And, finally, Máirín:

Some folks under­stand­ably believe art and design are stuffs enshrouded in a mys­te­ri­ous haze of incense smoke with­out much logic or rea­son involved. I get it. I’ve been there too, and I think it’s easy to feel that way – dis­cus­sions about art works some­times get a bad rep­u­ta­tion for being any­where from fussy, to bizarre, to com­pletely pointless.

You may find solace in the fact that there’s actu­ally plenty of log­i­cal prin­ci­ples and ele­ments and a vocab­u­lary for them that can be use to dis­cuss such works in a pro­duc­tive man­ner that doesn’t involve ‘invok­ing an embod­i­ment of emo­tive sym­bol­ism’ or sim­i­lar. I strongly rec­om­mend you explore some of this vocab­u­lary, as not only will it help you more effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate your cri­tique but read­ing through a brief sur­vey of basic design prin­ci­ples will prob­a­bly even help you explain why you feel a par­tic­u­lar way about an ele­ment of a work you’re critiquing.

This quote is right on the money. Every time Ubuntu makes a sub­jec­tive or con­tro­ver­sial change, they do it last minute and accept no dis­cus­sion or crit­i­cism. Or my per­sonal favorite they ref­er­ence some mail­ing list that was never adver­tised and say “you should have said some­thing there.”

“But I’m put ting my money on the fact that noth­ing will be done regar­ding this. Why? If Ubuntu copy the OS X theme, they must really like Apple, right? The sec ret announ ce ment of the new theme that came in the last day of the UI freeze and all that was also some­thing very Apple-ish. Well then, just like Apple, they won’t lis ten to what the users want and will do things their way. The only dif fe rence is Ubuntu was sup po sed to be open. But I really hope I’m wrong!”

Like it or not the art team has done a great job in re-branding Ubuntu. How­ever as has been pointed out numer­ous times in the past week, some­one should have run by QA or even bet­ter the com­mu­nity that is expected to use this new theme.

snkiz · 11 Mar 2010

I’m no designer by any means, so this may be com­pletely inac­cu­rate, but I’m begin­ning to think there’s a dis­tinc­tion between ‘design’ and ‘usability’.

For instance, the but­tons place­ment seems to be a usabil­ity move. They haven’t fully jus­ti­fied why they’ve done it, but the assump­tion is that once you get used to it, it’s con­ve­nient to have them there.

I do believe there is some­thing to be said about it just look­ing bad. With­out con­sid­er­ing the whole space and sur­round­ing ele­ments, the change just looks bad.

Some peo­ple are very happy to sac­ri­fice usabil­ity for some­thing that just looks sexy. This is where Apple has found a great bal­ance and can be con­fi­dent in their decisions.

The same goes with the weirdly placed noti­fi­ca­tions, how they some­times appear 1-inch below the noti­fi­ca­tion area. It’s sup­posed to be more ‘func­tional’ or ‘usable’, but it just looks broken.

I do hope the Canon­i­cal design team get there though, and you’re right, bold-ness and push­ing bound­aries is important.

Jackflap · 12 Mar 2010

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