The New Ubuntu Lucid Look pt. 2: Reactions and Follow-Ups

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.