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:

46 Responses to “The New Ubuntu Lucid Look: An Appraisal”

  1. Wow.

    Bloody brilliant analysis.

  2. Jay says:

    Thanks man, I tried to be thorough.

    I didn’t even notice at first — the small, bright, salmon-colored blob closer to the middle of the screen has a flare that is darkening the flare of the blob “behind” it. Good god. This post could have been twice as long.

  3. LOL.

    The more I look at your points the more I am saying the same thing. I tried desperately to temper my commentary with the fundamental question:

    “Is this change for change’s sake or is this a legitimate push in a certain direction?”

    So for all the faults and half-assed ness of presentation (identity PDF?) I still firmly believe that where the new identity work takes them is in a more positive direction from whence they came.

    Really value your blog and your insight. Do more of it dammit.

  4. yan says:

    I don’t like changing buttons place to the left… You know, I’ve still some habits so deeply rooted in my brain that… sometimes I still close apps when I want to minimize them.

    Why? Because this was windows 3.x norm…

    So I really dislike this bad idea

  5. Moshanator says:

    I completely agree with the buttons part. Since when is it a step towards usability if buttons I use every day are made *smaller* ? Also, there will be a lot of closing windows instead of clicking on the Edit menu.

  6. Not all the characters in the font have been finalised yet – rest assured that the “spread” will be rendered correctly by the time the new look goes live.

  7. Bob V says:

    I agree that brown was never the problem. We’ll all have to see how things turn out in the end, but what’s been presented at this point is hardly much of an improvement. Different, yes! Better – meh.

    Great write up! Thanks!

    Bob in Pendleton, OR

  8. Alamir says:

    I really liked this blog and thought you pointed out a lot of things that I didn’t even notice. I was going to ask why don’t you develop a mockup, and then I thought I’d just go ahead and try out a mockup of your suggestions and maybe later go on to develop a theme that’s close to it (if I have the time.) The main thing I tried to do was reduce the number of oranges and opted for ‘lighter’ elements such as minimizing the bevels and depth. Check it out and let me know what you think:

  9. freeztar says:

    Great analysis!

    I think that the salmon pimple/overall vomit is a good thing to point out. I’m a big fan of simple design and they completely dropped the ball here. Color schemes work for a reason and they only work if the colors are consistent.

  10. Jaycob says:


    The buttons to close, maximize, and minimize aren’t at the left. This was just a setting of this guy who made the screenshots!

  11. Paradiesstaub says:

    I like the new light style.
    But I’m still waiting for a GUI space reducing. To make long story short – here is my Nautilus mockup:

    Space usage of my idea:
    Space usage of the current Lucid Nautilus:

    Key idea: Reduce GUI element space and obtain functionality. When mouseover an folder after 0,5 sec folder information should be shown – like it is in Lucid for the system menu right now.

    Thats all – Keep on going, your aiming in the right direction.

  12. pern says:

    i really think the hard criticism on 10.04 is actually a sign of the ubuntu design getting better. Nobody would get the idea of criticising debian or fedora that hard, because it’d be ridiculous.

  13. Jay says:

    @Pern: actually I think it’s more to do with the fact that there was so much hype built up around this, due in part to Canonical’s (or Shuttleworth’s, anyway) mission to trump Apple in the looks department. And also a desire to have terrific new theme to use. I think Karmic’s default theme is superior to this one.

  14. Koyomi Mitsuhara says:

    You should consider filing some or all of these points as bug reports. Some, like the ugliness of the wallpaper, may be too subjective to work that way, but many of your points are very specific. The button spacing and toolbar padding in particular spring to mind, and some of the color inconsistancies could be explained as bugs as well.

  15. Weegee says:

    I didn’t even notice all these “abominations” … but you’re right. At first I just disliked the new theme, and now I really know why.

  16. Anon says:

    Oh, god, what have they done to my beautiful Ubuntu…

  17. Benjamin Humphrey says:

    Good review.

    You can add my reaction to the change to your list where I cover the window button placement and the new branding inconsistencies in some detail:

  18. Benjamin Humphrey says:

    Oh and I almost forgot my blog post that lists 16 things that are wrong in Lucid… “It’s the little things that count.”

  19. Dylan Taylor says:

    I totally agree with your points, and I really wish they would make the familiar brown theme better instead of killing it off.

  20. Jay says:

    I’m pretty sure that just about every person reading this has completely remade their desktop to look nothing like the original. gnome-look and kde-look will get your desktop looking nice in no time. But on the other hand, I know the critical review is meant to better the default desktop look.

  21. colorado springs says:

    It is trivial for the user to change everything to the way each user wants it, so who cares what the design team puts up as the default? Sometimes I think they make it ugly on purpose just to encourage everyone to change it – which is the first thing we all do, huh?

  22. Joshua says:

    Okay, I’m lazy and I only half-read the comments…but for the average user…they don’t care. Just saying. I’m only a little bit above the average user, but I don’t look at the design like you do. I just customize it to my liking. :) And yes, I know it’s been a while since you’re typed this blog, but I wanted to get my opinion out there.

  23. Jay says:

    To the last couple commenters:

    “but for the ave­rage user…they don’t care.” I disagree. In fact I think the average user cares a great deal how their desktop looks, or, at the very least, their opinion of an operating system is informed to a large extent by how the desktop looks. They of course don’t consciously examine pixel metrics and font hinting and gradients, etc., but they most likely notice them subconsciously, contributing to an vague un-ease with their computing environment. All these little things add up to make a bad impression.

    “It is trivial for the user to change everything to the way each user wants it.” I also disagree with this. While it’s trivial to change among the pre-installed themes, knowing where to go for new themes and what to do with them once you’ve got them is not “trivial” — it’s not difficult by any means, but it’s something you have to look up the solution for. And it’s something you’d only attempt to do after having decided to live in Ubuntu for a while — a decision you’re less likely to make if you’re promptly turned off by the aesthetics of it.

    There is no substitute for the experience of the first five minutes of using any piece of software, and if Ubuntu is going to convince people to give it a chance, it needs to be more attractive by default than it is.

  24. IAB says:

    While yes the buttons are default to be on the left, it is very easy to move them back to the right, and there are plenty of applications in the software center that would let you change and fix any and all of the things you are ranting about.

  25. Jay says:

    IAB: In my post I make clear that I don’t have a problem with buttons being on the left, and that of all the things to take issue with in this redesign, the button placement is not the most important.

    I know that I can change my desktop to look however I want, but I want more than my desktop to look good — I want the default desktop to look good right out of the box, for the purpose of attracting new users.

    And, because I dislike the amateur stuff being peddled at GNOME-Look and similar sites, I did selfishly have my hopes up that Canonical would be able to produce the first theme I actually enjoyed using.

  26. AgravatedDOShead says:

    AAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH. What Bleeping Idiot defaulted the buttons to the WRONG side of the screen? Change for Changes Sake just ain’t good… take the US Government for example… we voted for change… and that’s all that’s left from our bucks… TO FIX IT…. use Alt+F2 to bring up the Run Application dialog, and type in gconf-editor to launch the Gnome Configuration Editor… and find the key apps \ metacity \ general… and for the buttons_layout section, change it to read :minimize,maximize,close and now your reflexes will work as 30 years of programming dictate… and replace all the crooks come election time.

  27. James1st says:

    Overall this was a good article. But I have one complaint. That being your negative comment relative to pimples. You have the option to like or dislike pimples, that is your freedom of choice. But don’t attempt to force your bias on others.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *