The New Ubuntu Maverick System Font

When Mark Shut­tle­worth announced the rebrand­ing of Ubun­tu, it seemed nobody noticed that he men­tioned a new sys­tem font was being devel­oped. Cur­rent­ly Bit­stream Vera Sans is the default (if I’m not mis­tak­en), appear­ing on menu bars, title bars, but­tons — pret­ty much every­where. I’ve always thought it has served its pur­pose well, and was frankly a lit­tle wor­ried that they wouldn’t get the new sys­tem font right. Type design is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tricky.

Now how­ev­er details are start­ing to emerge. OMG! Ubun­tu! describes how to get a boot­leg copy of it. And at UDS back in May, Bruno Maag gave a ses­sion enti­tled “Mak­ing Beau­ti­ful Fonts” in which he elab­o­rat­ed on the cre­ation of the new font. There is now video of that ses­sion, as well as the slides, which were sad­ly not includ­ed in the frame.

My first impres­sion is that it feels a bit too stiff, rigid, and tech-y. Of course there’s no way to tell until you use it on your desk­top. Reas­sur­ing, how­ev­er, that they’re giv­ing it prop­er ital­ics.

Web Typography in Ubuntu: Part 1

One of the first things a care­ful observ­er will like­ly notice about a fresh Ubun­tu install is the dis­tinct­ly odd appear­ance of their favorite web­sites. The cause for this is that, although Ubun­tu ships with a fair selec­tion of fonts, they aren’t prop­er­ly assigned as alias­es to the pro­pri­etary fonts that most web­sites call for; Hel­veti­ca and Ari­al have a per­fect cousin in FreeSans, yet are sub­sti­tut­ed with Lib­er­a­tion Sans by default, the lat­ter of whose stemmed “1” and barred “J” (among oth­er things) is a dead give­away. Like­wise, Ver­dana is also sub­sti­tut­ed with Lib­er­a­tion Sans, when DejaVu Sans is a much clos­er fit. Then there’s Times New Roman, Luci­da Grande, Baskerville — none of which is ade­quate­ly mim­ic­ked.

Sev­er­al of these fonts are bet­ter served by some Ubun­tu defaults, and still oth­ers — Gill Sans, Opti­ma, Caslon, Tahoma, and more — have decent sub­sti­tutes just wait­ing in the repos­i­to­ries. Typog­ra­phy plays a greater role in user expe­ri­ence than I think most peo­ple work­ing on Ubun­tu real­ize, and it should be a goal of 10.10 to ele­vate this part of the OS as much as pos­si­ble. This requires just a few extra kilo­bytes in pack­ages and some changes/additions to the files in /etc/fonts/conf.d/. In a sub­se­quent post I’ll be cat­a­loging what those changes should be.

Con­tin­ue →

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.

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:

Typography in Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex

One thing I’ll nev­er under­stand is why Ubun­tu ships with such hideous default sys­tem fonts, when there are some per­fect­ly great open source fonts built right into it. For instance, UnDo­tum is a near-exact clone of Franklin Goth­ic, although strange­ly a Google search for undotum "franklin gothic" only turns up one page that men­tions the two togeth­er. It seems to be an arbi­trary sim­i­lar­i­ty, as the pur­pose of UnDo­tum and oth­er UnFonts is to pro­vide Kore­an char­ac­ters. Any­way, it makes a good win­dow title font.

Then there’s Nim­bus Sans, which is indis­tin­guish­able from Hel­veti­ca; DejaVu Sans, which as far as I can tell is a descen­dant of Frutiger (and, hence, a cousin of [Apple’s] Myr­i­ad and [Microsoft’s] Segoe UI), and makes a nice all-around sys­tem font; and Lib­er­tine, which makes for a great gen­er­al-pur­pose body serif. Once you set these as the fonts in GNOME and in Fire­fox, every­thing looks scores bet­ter — bet­ter than Ubuntu’s default look, cer­tain­ly, and arguably bet­ter than Win­dows.