The New Ubuntu Lucid Look: An Appraisal

Update: Read my take on the pre­view of Maverick’s new Light themes here.

Let’s start with the good.

The new logo, while not per­fect, is accept­ably good. Cer­tain­ly palat­able, with a stronger con­no­ta­tion that this is an oper­a­tion sys­tem to be tak­en seri­ous­ly.

The new home­page is what con­veys Ubuntu’s new “brand” most effec­tive­ly. It’s clear here that they are iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves with orange and pur­ple (although which orange and pur­ple isn’t con­sis­tent — more lat­er). Yes, there’s some­thing gener­ic about it, but in a way that’s famil­iar and fresh. For all the talk of “light­ness” with this new brand­ing, the home­page is what embod­ies it the most. Com­pare to their cur­rent home­page, which is bleak and dis­mal. The new one looks a bit like the Apple home­page, admit­ted­ly, but only because they both adhere to some cur­rent web design motifs. To say that it’s imi­tat­ing Apple’s home­page would be unfair.

Now, the bad. And there’s a lot of it.

What is your orange? Is it #ef5a29 (as it is on the home­page), #f37936 (as it is in the orange logo), or #e54b00 (as it is in the “spread ubun­tu” logo)? And why is “spread” still in the old Ubun­tu font? Of course, these col­or issues may have to do with hav­ing saved images with weird col­or pro­files. I can’t be sure. But get it togeth­er.

Ok. It gets worse.

Take a look at this abom­i­na­tion. I want you to real­ly look at it. There’s a lot to con­sid­er. Let’s get start­ed.

The but­tons. They’re on the left. This makes sense, actu­al­ly, since the sys­tem noti­fi­ca­tions being in the upper-right of the screen was a huge obsta­cle — why, I’m not exact­ly sure, since you can per­form clicks on any­thing under­neath a noti­fi­ca­tion bub­ble, but it was a seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion among Canonical’s Noti­fy-OSD devel­op­ers. This solves that prob­lem — at the expense of forc­ing users to learn new behav­iors, maybe, but I don’t see it as such a seri­ous out­rage. In any case I’m not here to talk usabil­i­ty. (But where’s the menu but­ton?)

Why the incon­sis­ten­cy in the depth of the but­tons? The close but­ton is more spher­i­cal and glossier than the oth­er two, even a bit translu­cent (since its high­light extends to its bot­tom side). And the but­tons are not even­ly spaced — the min­i­mize but­ton is clos­er to the close but­ton than it is to the max­i­mize but­ton. This is espe­cial­ly notice­able (and, in fact, lit­er­al­ly more pro­nounced, pix­el-for-pix­el) in the inac­tive win­dow. Are these just mock­ups?, or work­ing GTK themes?:

Not only that, but the ‘×’s appear to be dif­fer­ent, with the lines of the inac­tive × being oblique, and those of the active × being per­pen­dic­u­lar. And here’s anoth­er col­or for you: #e24912. Where’d that come from? Let’s take a clos­er look at it:

Why not make it orange? It’s a sick­ly red, and with the reflection/refraction of light takes on the appear­ance of a pim­ple.

The but­tons are also rest­ing in a lit­tle reser­voir. Because of its size, it cramps the but­tons against its edges. Two pix­els of padding would have done won­ders. The reser­voir also adds unnec­es­sary visu­al noise, some­thing you see a lot of in the more gar­ish themes from GNOME-Look. You almost feel as though they were absent the reser­voir at first, then decid­ed that the but­tons had become uncom­fort­ably sim­i­lar to those of Mac OS X, and threw the reser­voir in there to solve that prob­lem. This is a trend among the new theme, actu­al­ly: the ad hoc method of solv­ing prob­lems the design­ers have cre­at­ed.

Let’s take a look at the title bar and menu bar.

There is more space between the title­bar text and the menubar text than there is between either line of text and its upper or low­er edge. The rea­son for this is that most pre­vi­ous themes had a title­bar that was a dif­fer­ent col­or than the menu bar; so what you’re see­ing would actu­al­ly be an appro­pri­ate amount of space, if there were a vis­i­ble dis­tinc­tion between the two bars. Since the text from both bars now occu­pies the same visu­al area, this cre­ates a huge prob­lem. The title­bar text, espe­cial­ly, feels crammed up against the top of the win­dow. Even sim­ply reduc­ing the padding at the top of the menubar would help alle­vi­ate this prob­lem; but again, that’s the wrong approach. Encoun­ter­ing a prob­lem like this means that it needs to be solved at a more fun­da­men­tal lev­el. Espe­cial­ly when it comes to the default theme of your OS.

And while we’re look­ing here it’s a good time to talk about the harsh gra­di­ent that’s put at the top of these win­dows. This indi­cates a strong curve away from the user. Why? For what? For some depth, sure­ly, but there are more sub­tle ways to achieve depth with­out mak­ing your win­dows appear to be half a cen­time­ter thick. They want this to feel “light,” and yet are cre­at­ing the illu­sion of bulky mold­ed plas­tic. It’s a lam­en­ta­ble acqui­es­cence that only adds to the visu­al noise already begun by the but­ton reser­voir.

Let’s move down to the bread­crumb but­tons in Nau­tilus:

Where is the source of light here? The “back” but­ton is lit from the left, but the fold­er but­ton is lit from above? And the dis­tinc­tion between pressed and not pressed is bare­ly pro­nounced.

Alright. Let’s back up again.

Okay, what? The wall­pa­per? Here it is in full as tak­en from the home­page Web Upd8 (thanks):

Ubuntu Lucid wallpaper

What are we look­ing at? Okay, it’s some abstract blobs with some lens flare. Some have com­pared it to vom­it, and the rea­son is obvi­ous: that unnec­es­sary after­thought of a salmon high­light in the upper-right. Again, they were work­ing with a wall­pa­per, and decid­ed, “Shit, y’know what? We should put some orange in there.” Gra­di­ent, boom, done. And, again — looks like a throb­bing pim­ple. No con­cern for col­or har­mo­ny what­so­ev­er. And, yes: abstract pur­ple gra­di­ents are going to get you OS X com­par­isons. It’s deserved.

The icon­set stays at Human­i­ty, which is sud­den­ly com­plete­ly out of step with the rest of the entire desk­top. At least the tooltips are pret­ty nice­ly done.

Obvi­ous­ly, yes, I’m most­ly com­plain­ing about no more than sev­er­al pix­els and degrees of hue here. But this is what design is. What I real­ly hope this new theme demon­strates is this: brown was not the prob­lem. It was its exe­cu­tion that pissed every­body off. Brown/yellow/orange/crimson is a beau­ti­ful col­or scheme from which to work, and Canonical’s design team could have turned it into some­thing that blew every­one away. I hope that this new direc­tion wasn’t a reac­tion to those per­sis­tent, unin­formed com­plaints over the years, but I imag­ine it may have been. There’s prob­a­bly more to be said, but I’ll stop here.

Read more reac­tions to this change: