The Life Aquatic

I recently stumbled onto a site hosting various Apple media from over the years, and I went to have a look at the first session introducing Aqua at WWDC, and what I heard was very interesting.

Don Linsay, Apple User Interface group, WWDC 2000, Session 140: Aqua Overview

[excerpt starts at 07:20]

Now, we played around a lot with translucency. We tried translucent windows, we tried all sorts of controls that were fading in and fading out, and what we discovered in all of that exploration was that translucency is a novelty, that you could very quickly tire of this.

So, our conclusion was that translucency only added value if it had meaning. This is very important because it comes up again in something else I’m going to talk to. We chose to use translucency on those controls which are of more transient nature.

So, for example, I can see here a menu. Menus come and go, they only exist for a very short time. You make a selection and it disappears. Translucency is nice because it reinforces that a menu is very light.

Likewise we use translucency in our sheets. Sheets, again, typically only exist for a short time. They’re usually not presented for long periods of time: saving a document, printing a document, or an alert for example. Sheets come and go, therefore translucency was perfect. Translucency was perfect for sheets as well because sheets are tied to their parent document; of course they obscure some of the content that’s underneath, so using translucency allowed you to reveal just enough of what was underneath to remind you what that document was.

Like translucency, we had the opportunity to use a lot of color in Aqua, and we tried a lot of colors. We played around with colors for the better part of last year, trying to find what kinds of colors, what palette to use, what would be the theme of our color, but like translucency, we came to the conclusion that color was useful only, again, if it had meaning, and in this example, in this dialog where you see an assortment of controls, color says “I am the selected control; I’m the one you’ve chosen”. The tab, for example, that’s the selected tab. Radio buttons, check boxes, even the pop-up says that “I am the current choice that you have”. That’s the meaning of color and how we have chosen to color our controls.

In the windows, we actually have used three colors. We have three controls in our title bar, we have carried forward from Mac OS 9. We have the close box, we have the minimize control and we have the zoom control. And they have very different functionality, so first of all we knew we had to group them. Secondly, we had to distinguish them somehow. So we chose to go with three colors - somewhat of a playful decision but I think it’s quite effective.

Yes, the first version of Aqua looks gaudy by today’s standards, but a lot of thought went into principles that still hold up well today. The controls all had visibly different shapes. Color was used to mark selection (and the ability to select something) even on top of different other affordances - and as confirmed by the Graphite theme, the color affected the contrast, and so didn’t depend on being able to tell one color from another. Translucency was showy but was also relegated only to places where it would not grate on you by sticking around, and it was purposeful.

One way or another these principles are basically abandoned by now in macOS and iOS. Transparency is turned into a showier way to distinguish some element or other, and is continuously present, causing constantly new patterns to parse if laid over content, or making a desktop picture a decision that will seep through almost every app. And the only alternative to side-step these choices is to tell the OS wholesale to opt out of transparency.

One of the goals of Aqua was to find a UI that would be easy to learn and easy to be productive in, that would fit everyone. What we have now instead in macOS is a much more showy look — showy in the way that it abdicates usability to look slightly sleeker, or bleed backgrounds through in a slightly more sophisticated way. And instead of making it work for more people, they created elaborate escape hatches, which give up and add clarity almost passive-aggressively, at the cost of changing a deliberate experience to one annotated with a sharpie; like a restaurant staffed with quietly lilting mumblers as waiters, who upon each “what was that” take our a megaphone and e-nun-ci-ate ev-‘ry syl-la-ble.

I’m not asking for a return to Aqua (especially not the Mac OS X 10.0 version used in the video), but I do think it’s time for the current interface to undergo a revision to these ends, and to drop the obsession with letting things show through for its own sake, or to give the appearance of personalization. And look at a text field and a button in Aqua from the video, and then look at a text field and a button in today’s Finder toolbar - they both have practically identical bezels. With that kind of interface, you don’t make pros more productive, nor newcomers more familiar.