Before I start, let me get one thing off my chest. The progressbar animation in Ubuntu 8.10… It moves the wrong direction! Sadly the original default in Clearlooks was chosen from a poll, which had a subtle flaw: The progressbar wasn’t actually progressing, and that makes all the difference (as more people will hopefully realize now 😉 ).
Thank you, this was important.
Some observations about current trends in GNOME themes:
- Desaturation. I see many many themes and mockups tone down the amount of colour in the general chrome, which also happens to be what Apple and Microsoft are doing. The popular Ubuntu Dust is a good example of this. Personally I find this style very attractive, so I welcome this development.
- Another popular thing seems to be the reduction of borders and bevels. Many themes for a long time have tried to reduce the window border to a thin line, to create a cleaner look (as OS X does), which obviously fails to the lack of a consistent resize handle for GNOME applications. A workaround is to only make the bottom border thick, but this can look rather crude, especially when the application also has a status bar with a resize handle. Dust uses a fairly small bottom border which looks nice, but I find the usability of it to be fairly poor.
- Along the same lines, people are trying to create a more unified look and remove the separation between titlebars and the application (again, Dust is a decent example for this). This makes a lot of sense, it doesn’t just look good, it also makes windows appear more like objects and it should increase the area of the chrome which can be grabbed. Of course the latter isn’t the case with Gtk. Another problem is that the menubar gets in the way. Creating a unified look that works well with and without the existence of the menubar is near impossible. Dust does a better job than most, but the lack of a separator on no-menubar windows still feels like a bad compromise.
So what could we do to support these trends? It is unreasonable to think that themers will come up with something truly remarkable, if we don’t provide them the means to implement popular concepts. I see this as a general problem in the GNOME art community, design generally seems to be seen as this thing that has nothing to do with programming. But providing a set of API functions and replaceable images just isn’t enough. Great design has to be a top to bottom effort. I’m not optimistic that we can ever rival OS X (or Windows even), if we don’t start talking to each other and take design seriously on all layers.
That said, here would be some thoughts:
- Reconsider the menubar. Soon we are the only ones left who still stick to the traditional method of putting the menubar at the top of every window, right below the titlebar. It’s not just bad for design, there are other problems too. E.g. it really isn’t well suited for applications that have a very small profile, like a buddy list. And a small menu looks silly on a large window, which invites application developers of simple applications to add countless trivial menu items, instead of keeping the application menu nice and tidy. Let’s brainstorm some alternatives and let’s not be afraid of breaking consistency. We will have to do it sooner or later, if we don’t want to be trailing behind for all eternity.
- Make the resize handle ubiquitous. Resizable windows should have a resize handle, not just to make “borderless” designs a real possibility. I regularly find myself unmotivated to resize a window if it got no resize handle. Marrying the resize handle with the statusbar seems fairly pointless to me. Let’s make it possible to integrate the handle in every possible window design (even if it has to transparently overlap the content area).
- Pull the window frame drawing into the toolkit. The strict separation between frame and application causes many problems. The application should have complete control over the appearance of the window object, and there should be no difference in behaviour between different (often equal looking) parts of the chrome. This could also allow applications to tweak the entire window object, if the conventions are not ideally suited for a specific task. Consistency can be ensured by using common themes/layouts (more thoughts on this coming). This would also open up the possibility for many alternative menu designs (and of course “legacy” applications would still be supported with a separate frame).
I planned to write more, but this is already getting quite long (and I tired), so I will break it up into two posts. I will go more into my reasons for some of the more controversial thoughts and add some more thoughts about theming in general.
I am aware that this must look like armchair-criticism, but I am mostly just trying to express the various thoughts I’ve had in my head for a while now. I fully intend to make up for it in the near future with some actual work.