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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Clarity and serenity on the desktop

The Appeal-project is a subproject inside KDE that aims to refine, redefine and beautify the desktop. Besides Plasma, it's the most interesting KDE-project at the moment, in my opinion.

(Note: I'm not related to either the Plasma-project or Appeal-project. Opinions and ideas presented here are purely my own personal opinions)

If I were the benevolent dictator of Appeal-project, how would I go about creating a "serene" desktop? What would it be like?


Keep the shapes of objects, windows and icons smooth. By this I mean no sharp corners (if possible). For example, windows with rounded corners look nicer and "friendlier" than windows with sharp corners.

When I look at app-windows on this XP-machine I'm typing this on, the windows look harsh with their sharp corners. They look... old.

EDIT: I feel like I need to clarify this point. Of course it's OK to have sharp-corners in icons, if the icons represent objects that have them (arrows for example). But if there's a choice between having a smooth icons and harsh and pointy icon, I would prefer the smooth one.

Related to the shape of the icons: KDE should take a hint from Apple GUI-guidelines (even though Apple itself doesn't always follow them....). That is, the icons should have clearly distinguished shapes that make them easy to tell apart. For example, I Konqueror there could be arrows for back and forward, round button for reload and square button for stop. Each of those would be recognizable from their shapes alone.


Keep the colors toned down. Bright colors demand attention from the user and they are distracting. It is OK to use colors, but they should not be bright. Use bright colors only when they are genuinely needed. If the system requires urgent attention from the user or it's conveying an important piece of information, then it's OK to use bright colors. But if we use bright colors everywhere, it becomes very distracting because it makes it seem like every object on the screen is demanding attention.

Use colors that fit well to the surrounding area. For example, compare Finder and Konqueror. Notice the lines around the content-area. In Konqueror they are very harsh and apparent, whereas in Finder they blend in with the background. the line is still there, but it's a lot less obvious. As a result, Finder looks a lot smoother (well, there are other factors in there besides that, but still).

Pop-ups, flashing and the like

We all hate flashing banner-ads. I don't know anyone who likes them. They are annoying, distracting and a general pain in the ass. Banner-ads as such might be OK, but if they flash, they became a nuisanse. So why would we want to have flashing things on our desktop? Instead of having flashing things, have something smoother and nicer. Fade-in/fade-out would be a lot nicer than simple flashing.

Related to this: instead of having windows, dialog-boxes and the like simply appear and disappear from the screen, have them fade in and out. It makes the whole process seem gentler. Other option besides fading would be sliding (like sheets in OS X do).

Separators and other UI-elements

Keep a keen eye on all that generic stuff that can clutter the UI quickly! As an example, look at these two screenshots of a proposed KDE-GUI:

shot 1
shot 2

The two look very similar. But the second shot has no framing around the content-area in Konqueror (I touched on this subject in my Konqueror/Finder-comparison). End-result looks smoother and nicer. And this begs the question: why do we have those frames in the first place? To tell the user "this area here shows your stuff!"? I think they get the idea without the frames as well ;).

Same thing can be seen in toolbar-separators and the like. Even the text-boxes (like location-bar in Konqueror) have those unneeded frames and lines. Why? They make the UI look cluttered and "un-smooth". I have tried photoshopping few Konqueror-screenshots and removed many unneeded lines. With few minor changes, the whole UI looked a lot smoother and nicer, yet usability was not harmed one bit.In fact, I think that good-looking UI's are inherintly more usable, everything else being equal.

What is beauty?

We want KDE to be beautiful. But what is "beauty"? To some, it means fancy 3D-effect, cool gizmos ("whoa, the video is thumbnailed when minimized, and it keeps on playing while being minimized!") and general bling-bling. And while those things might be good, there's more to beauty than that. I think the important beauty is the kind which makes the system joy to use. the user looks forward to the time when he can use the system again. The system just feels right, and it's easy on the users eyes. The interface can be beautiful, without resorting to "bling-bling".

The difference between those two is that the first one is very apparent and easy to show off, whereas the latter is less obvious and harder to show off. But in the long run, the latter is the better approach. Of course, the perfect system would offer all the benefits of the latter, while offering the benefits of the former as well.

"Bling-bling" can be useful as well. For example, in the recent discussion on about the Strip, I suggested that instead of minimizing or shading the apps, we could push them to the background. The app-window would get smaller and transparent when pushed back, but it would still be visible. And when the user moved around the strip, the windows that were pushed back would seem to move slower than the maximised windows that are closer to the user. It's the same effect when you sit on a train and the landscape close to you zooms past very fast, whereas the mountains far in the background move a lot slower. In this case the effect would look very cool indeed, yet it would be familiar to everyone since they see it in real-life every day. And it gives the workspace the feeling of depth. And it would be useful, just like shading of apps is useful even today. It would have both the bling-bling, and it would serve a genuine purpose

I bet many of us would spend long periods of time just moving around the strip, just to see those windows fly by :).

I know I would.


  • At 5:54 AM, Blogger Pharaoh said…

    Totally agree with the frame-less designs. Having borders around icons especially sucks (in the kde 3.4 that I use)!

  • At 5:52 PM, Blogger superstoned said…

    i agree here too. and the 3d effect you propose sounds nice, too. yeah, i'm looking forward to KDE 4 - i hope they will be able to deliver :D


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