Tag: design

The typography of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?”

I couldn’t help but notice how jarring the titles for Showtime’s “Who Is America?” are, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. It’s clearly some condensed extra bold, which are often pretty ungainly, with some exceptions (Futura Bold Codensed, of Nike fame). My first thought was that it might be something like Calibri or Tahoma, some unsightly humanist sans that was even possibly manually stretched.

I Googled around for a screenshot of the titles, and what I found instead was a lot of promotional material that primarily does use Futura Bold Condensed:

(And Arial Bold, unfortunately.)

I can’t help but wonder if the designers behind the titles in the aired show were trying to mimic Futura Bold Condensed, but either weren’t able to or didn’t know they weren’t using the same typeface.

I admit I had to look it up, but the typeface they are using is Abadi Condensed Extra Bold. Why this typeface? After a little more Googling I learned that Abadi is included in several Microsoft products.

What isn’t included in most Microsoft products? Futura Bold Condensed.

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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.

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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:

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