The Mac Monochrome Trend – A Plea For Keeping Things Colourful

On Twitter today, someone posted some mock-up screenshots of their ideas for improving Scrivener’s interface:

(In his own words: “Based on the Scrivener. It’s an app with great functionality for storytellers. UI could be improved in my opinion. This is my approach.”)

Everyone has their own opinion about this or that UI, because visual appeal is entirely subjective. So, I’m not going to dissect these mockups; they are undeniably attractive, he’s clearly a talented UI designer, and it’s flattering that someone would be interested in Scrivener enough to spend time mocking up their own UI ideas. It’s also useful for me, because I get to see a different approach and think about it. I would say that the result isn’t very much like Scrivener, in that it doesn’t convey any of Scrivener’s core concepts beyond the corkboard (and throws in elements that wouldn’t work in Scrivener at all), as the designer himself admitted on Twitter; and, in my humble not-very-designer-y opinion, it also suffers from a problem you often see when a UI is considered purely from an aesthetic perspective with less regard for what the user actually wants to do with the program, in that it allows for very little data on the screen – you wouldn’t be able to get much of an overview of your writing on an 11″ screen with that UI as it stands. These aren’t criticisms of the artist, though – he was clearly just playing with ideas for his own ideal UI, and there are certain aspects of his design that I like. Over all, it looks very pretty and modern, in an iOS kind of way.

As much as I enjoyed looking at these mockups, though, they have reminded me of one thing I dislike greatly in many recent Apple UIs – monochrome icons. I will be striving to keep monochrome icons out of Scrivener for as long as possible. This was a trend introduced in Lion, as part of Lion’s attempt to be more iOS-like. Anyone using Lion will have noticed this trend – you can see it in the Finder, Mail and Preview, among other Apple programs. As of Lion, all the toolbar icons and all of the source list icons in these programs are solid grey – all colour has been drained away.

I’m going to take a wild guess that half of the people who read this will agree with me that the new grey icons are really annoying, and the other half will think, “So what? The new minimalist look is much smarter, less gaudy, and you can still easily tell the icons by the shape.” And I’d agree with the first part: at first glance, these programs do look a little smarter, a little less fussy. Monochrome looks good. The trouble is that, sometimes, making something look more coherent and better as whole can come at the expense of the unique functionality of its components.

As Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone (although in all fairness she was talking about trees rather than colours in icons, and I’d concede that trees might be a little more important). When Apple decided to drain the icons in these programs of their colour, I learned something about the way my brain works that I hadn’t hitherto ever had to think about: my brain is an awful lot faster at processing colours than it is at processing shapes. This makes sense – I’ve never been very good with faces, for instance. Whilst I don’t have full-on prosopagnosia, there have been times when I’ve been talking to someone I know only in passing, unsure of whether the person I am speaking to is Bob or Jeff – because both Bob and Jeff wear the same brown corduroy jacket, NHS glasses and brown hair (names changed to protect the Morrissey lookalikes).

It also makes sense, I suppose, that just as some people are colour-blind, some people won’t be as quick at processing shapes in particular contexts. But what this means is that, since installing Lion, I spend a lot more time poring over the sidebar in the Finder and the icons in Mail’s toolbar looking for something I could find at a glance in earlier versions of OS X. I thought I’d get used to it, but I haven’t. Even a year later, I often click on “Get Mail” instead of “New Message” in Mail. In the Finder, I have found that I no longer even look at the icons in the sidebar: because my brain can process the words more quickly than it can the colourless icons, I just read the items in the list instead. The same in Mail – but with multiple email accounts resulting in the same titles in different places, I frequently find myself in the “Sent” list when I meant to be in the “Drafts” list. Before Lion, quickly finding the sidebar folder I wanted in the Finder was easy: I subconsciously found the Downloads folder by looking for a splash of green, the Documents folder by looking for mostly white, the Applications folder for sticks of brown. I didn’t consciously look for a colour: I just looked at the sidebar and my eyes were drawn towards the icon I was looking for. I didn’t know it was the colour that guided my eyes until after the colour had been removed and I found myself having to read the titles.

Yes, this is pretty much the definition of a “first world problem”, but it’s still one we have to think about as we continue to enhance and improve Scrivener and ensure its UI remains modern. And the simple fact is that an icon has a single job: to represent a feature of the program in a simplified pictorial form that can be immediately recognised by the user. How is this achieved? The icon designer has two main tools at his or her disposal: shape and colour. And while we may disagree about what makes an attractive or ugly icon, because aesthetics are very subjective (some users hate the Scrivener application icon, others love it; Ioa hates the tone of green used in the “Add” icon in Scrivener’s toolbar, but the palette is borrowed from iWork and I rather like it), shape and colour are the only information an icon can contain, and it is from that information that we ascertain meaning. An icon succeeds if we can find it quickly when we need it, at only a glance; it fails if we have to compare it carefully to the icons around it to discern its meaning, or if we have to read its title. With only 32×32 pixels to play with for the largest icons, getting this right is difficult enough; I have thus always been baffled by the decision by Apple – renowned, rightly, for its UI expertise – to remove half of the information (i.e. colour) from many of its icons and therefore make them a lot less readable to potentially half of its user base.

I know I’m not the only one to feel this way – I’ve spoken to a couple of other people who find icons difficult to read without colour, too – but are we in the minority? I’d be interested to know if other users have similar problems with these monochrome icons, or whether it is a complete non-issue for most people. Imagine, for instance, that all of the icons in Scrivener’s binder were grey – you’d no longer be able to pick out a PDF file by its red header bar, or the Research folder by its maroon border. I’d find that difficult, and so I’ll be resisting this trend for as long as possible, if only for my own sake. And I would beg Apple and other UI designers not to kill the colour in their icons, and to spare a thought for those of us who are a little shape-blind.