Nitpicking, Design and The Fact That It Ain’t Magic

A few weeks ago I decided to use the spare 50GB partition on my laptop to install Ubuntu Karmic. And while Crunchbang is still my main desktop at this point, I can say that Karmic is seductively gesturing me to switch. I like the look of my Karmic desktop. It’s pretty much bog standard although I have switched to the Dust theme and use the Humanity icon theme:
Thoughts? I like the warm feel of it. There are those who will forever hate the brown, but I think this is a strength to which Ubuntu could play should they ever really get focused, figure out who their audience is and design accordingly.. a little more on that in a minute.
But what about checking how the other half lives? What about KDE? Maybe I should have given 4.2 or 4.3 a chance? I’ve never been a KDE user, and frankly I’ve never liked what I’ve seen there. But hey, it’s been a while. So here’s a KDE screenshot from the kde.org site:
Impressions? Not good. It makes me feel uneasy. Not exactly run-screaming-from-the-room-uneasy. More like a not-in-a-million-years type of thing. Rather than just say “I think it’s ugly”.. I’ve decided to actually try to suss out exactly why I don’t like it – at least get that conversation started. And let’s not try to couch it, this is not a KDE-only discussion. Gnome has its fair share of problems too.
Here is a quick overview of some problems I see with that KDE desktop screenshot:
Attention to Detail
I don’t understand how the button text is supposed to work in KDE. The text on the buttons is not centred vertically. There is very little padding around the text, which means that the button label with hotkey underline *is* centred (see that Select button?) But the “To” fields have no underlined hotkey so they’re thrown visually off centre vertically.
The gap between the second recipient text field and the subject line is almost but not quite the same as the gap between the two recipient text fields. Is there supposed to be a visual separation between the the subject field and the recipient fields or not?
Look at the top right of the information panel in the Dolphin window. Is the home folder supposed to be up against it like that? And without much visual separation between functions (info panel/breadcrumbs/toolbar) it’s a mess.
The items in the toolbar along the bottom of the screen appear to be cramped. It looks very amateur. There is so little padding around the various items that it looks cartoonish. In fact the icons, clock, batter indicator.. heck everything looks like it was placed there and then scaled up 10% without scaling the toolbar itself. There is also very little visual separation of areas within the toolbar (kicker menu, virtual desktop pager, application launchers, active application panels etc.).
Visual Hierarchy
There is very little in the way of hierarchy. Look at the breadcrumb trail in the Dolphin window. The text in that breadcrumb trail is slightly (again indecisive) larger than the toolbar button text. Should it be larger and more important? Smaller and less significant? Or identical?
The icons and text in the places package are bigger and more distinguished. In fact to me they look like the dominant component in the Dolphin window. Is it supposed to be?
In the mail window is there some attempt being made at horizontal separation of various toolbar functions? It’s barely noticeable, but there are some vertical grooves. Whether they actually separate anything is debatable.
And looking at the entire desktop, the differentiation between what is active and what is inactive is weak. Other than that small piece of window title text, which is light grey, the Dolphin window looks every bit as active as the KMail compose dialog.
I think a lot of desktops put very little thought into visual hierarchy.. how to guide the eye so to speak. KDE is no better, probably worse.
Focus
The problem with any design discussion like this is that it invariably falls apart into a subjective argument between things like light vs dark, cleanliness vs features etc. I have deliberately tried to stay away from the actual style or character of the desktop, and only dealt with cold and calcuated design items like visual separation, alignment, and consistency.
But of course you could take all of the best design items and intentions, throw them together in a pot, but without defining your focus (and by prequisite your audience), whatever you come up with will invariably lack soul or conviction. I’ve done enough half baked graphics projects to know this full well.
Free Software developers have very little problem asking for, seeking, and using the knowledge of others to improve their work. It happens all the time, on the shoulders of giants and all that. Well what about art and design? Why is so little attention paid to the already well-developed knowledge base of art and design? Why do people have to consistently shout about finding an audience and why does it fall on deaf ears? Why do classic design principles take a back seat to almost everything else? I for one think it’s actually quite easy for Free Software to raise it’s game design wise. Even baby steps could yield big improvements once it’s really taken seriously.

A few weeks ago I decided to use the spare 50GB partition on my laptop to install Ubuntu Karmic. And while Crunchbang is still my main desktop at this point, I can say that Karmic is seductively gesturing at me to switch. I like the look of my Karmic desktop. It’s pretty much bog standard although I have switched to the Dust theme and also use the Humanity icon theme:

Karmic Dust Humanity Screenshot

Thoughts? I like the warm feel of it. There are those who will forever hate the brown, but I think this is a strength to which Ubuntu should play if they ever really get focused and figure out exactly who their audience is and design accordingly.. a little more on that in a minute.

But what about checking how the other half lives? What about KDE? Maybe I should have given 4.2 or 4.3 a chance? I’ve never been a KDE user, and frankly I’ve never liked what I’ve seen there in the past. But hey, it’s been a while. So here’s a KDE screenshot from the kde.org site:

KDE Screenshot

Impressions? Not good. It makes me feel uneasy. Not exactly run-screaming-from-the-room uneasy. More like a not-in-a-million-years type of thing. Rather than just say “Ugh, I think it’s ugly”.. I’ve decided to actually try to suss out at least some reasons why I don’t like it – at least get that conversation started. And let’s not try to couch it, this is really not a KDE-only discussion. Gnome has its fair share of problems too.

Here is a quick overview of some problems I see with that KDE desktop screenshot:

Attention to Detail

kde_buttonalignmentI don’t understand the thinking on alignment of the button text in KDE. The text on the buttons is not centred vertically. There is very little padding around the text, which means that the button label with hotkey underline is centred (see that Select button?) But the “To” fields have no underlined hotkey so they’re thrown visually off centre vertically. The small amount of padding only accentuates the centering problem.

kde_linegapsNote also that the gap between the second recipient text field and the subject line is almost but not quite the same as the gap between the two recipient text fields. Is there supposed to be a visual separation between the the subject field and the recipient fields or not? It’s wishy-washy which then results in a not-quite-polished feeling.

dolphin_windowLook at the top right of the information panel in the Dolphin window. Is the home folder icon in the breadcrumb trail supposed to be up tight against it like that? And without much visual separation between functions in that area (info panel/breadcrumbs/toolbar/application menu) it’s a mess.

toolbar1toolbar2The items in the toolbar along the bottom of the screen appear to be cramped. There is so little padding around the various items that it looks cartoonish. In fact the icons, clock, battery indicator.. heck everything looks like it was placed there and then scaled up 10% without scaling the toolbar itself. There is also very little visual separation of areas within the toolbar (kicker menu, virtual desktop pager, application launchers, active application panels etc.).

Visual Hierarchy

breadcrumbThere is very little in the way of hierarchy. Look at the breadcrumb trail in the Dolphin window. The text in that breadcrumb trail is slightly (again indecisive) larger than the toolbar button text. Should it be larger and more important? Smaller and less significant? Or identical? I’m not sure whether that question was ever asked.

Look at the overall KDE screenshot once again. The icons and text in the places panel are larger than just about any other components in the window. It looks like the dominant component in the Dolphin window. Is it supposed to be?

In the mail window is there some attempt being made at horizontal separation of various toolbar functions? There are some vertical grooves, but they are barely noticeable. Whether they actually serve to separate anything is debatable.

And looking at the entire desktop, the differentiation between what is active and what is inactive is weak. Other than that small piece of window title text, which is light grey, the Dolphin window looks every bit as active as the KMail compose dialog.

I think a lot of desktops put very little if any thought into visual hierarchy, on how to guide the eye. KDE looks to be no better, probably worse.

Focus

The problem with any design discussion like this is that it invariably falls apart into a subjective argument between things like light vs dark, cleanliness vs features etc. (I fully expect to be called a hater of some sort or another). But I have deliberately tried to stay away from the actual style or character of the desktop, and only dealt with cold and calcuated design items like visual separation, alignment, and consistency. The discussion should be about design. Not personal preference, taste or style, but design. All that other stuff can only come with a defined audience.

But of course you could take all of the best design items and intentions, throw them together in a pot, but without defining your focus (and by prequisite your audience), whatever you come up with will invariably lack soul or conviction. I’ve done enough half baked graphics projects to know this full well. To really start down the road of really improving the visual design, the first step is to define the audience.

What next?

Free Software programmers have very little problem asking for, seeking, and using the knowledge of others to improve their work. It happens all the time, “on the shoulders of giants” and all that. Well what about graphic design? Why is so little attention paid to the already well-developed knowledge base of graphic design? Why do people have to consistently shout about finding an audience when it is so intrinsic in all other areas of design, graphic and otherwise? And why do those cries seem to fall on deaf ears? Why do classic design principles take a back seat to almost everything else? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Free Software to raise its game design wise. Even baby steps could yield big improvements once graphic design is taken seriously.

Clearly good graphic design is not trivial. I should know, I’ve created plenty of bad design myself. But it ain’t magic either. There are rules, theories, and concepts that govern it. We should learn them.

4 thoughts on “Nitpicking, Design and The Fact That It Ain’t Magic

  1. I think this might be plasma theme oriented, for the taskbar things you see, and perhaps also style oriented for some of the other ui issues you see. I am not seeing these things in Kubuntu for example, though to my old eyes some of the things may be too subtle for me to easily pick out. Dolphin definitely does not have these ui issues in Kubuntu.

    I do know some plasma themes do change some things in this area. For example, I find that the Air theme adds more padding between the systray and the taskbar than, say, the Carbon theme, and this also seems to change the taskbar icon padding as well.

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