Brushed metal and graphite blobs, whither the HIG?

Apple has long been known for devising and popularising good solid computer user interfaces. However there has been an increasing, and worrying trend for Apple to throw conventional UI wisdom out the window to apparently either meet the whims of Steve Jobs or the marketing department. The spread of the brushed metal look, like a plague, across every flagship Mac application is one example of this. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, for a long time seen as the bible of user interface design, kept contorting and twisting trying to add new reasons as to why brushed metal should be used rather than the standard Aqua look. First it was anything that interacted with a digital lifestyle device (in other words excusing all iLife apps), then it was anything with a ‘source list’, excusing the Finder. At this point it’s basically a free-for-all, visual consistency be damned.

That’s not to say brushed metal doesn’t have its place in the world, iTunes, the DVD player, calculator and other simple applications that are seeking to mimic something from the real world make sense in looking a bit different because they are trying to build on people’s familiarity with those devices. But this doesn’t excuse applications like the Finder, which has been sorely lacking visually ever since OS X was released. The source list shortcut bar is useful, but is it really any different to what you could do in OS X 10.2 by dragging icons into the toolbar to act as shortcuts? Nope. It’s just a Windows XP inspired add-on, and unlike its Windows counterpart it’s arguably less useful because it’s not context sensitive. Wouldn’t it be cool if it displayed some photo editing features (like rotate, crop etc). when you were in your Picture folder? How about the ability to quickly edit an MP3s ID3 tags when you click on a music file in the Finder? This could easily be done through AppleScript and would allow for a whole new class of application development using the Finder as the backbone. But instead we just have a list of shortcut icons that just sit there hoping they might come in handy. Just like those in the dock, and on the Finder toolbar and any shortcuts you might have on your desktop. Sure choice is a good thing, but at what point does it get in the way of adding some useful features for the rest of us?

Anyway my issues with brushed metal aside, OS X 10.4 Tiger is continuing this downward spiral of user interface design. Looking at the new interface in Mail (go check it out), where Apple has done away with the old drawer and introduced a more Outlook-style sidebar, or source list as we now call them. Of course it doesn’t look like any other source list in OS X, but at this point we should be used to each Apple application going its own way. The departure of the drawer, and the ability to place it on which ever side of the window one desired, or to hide it completely will no doubt be sorely missed by some. But drawers in and of themselves always looked a bit weird anyway so I’m not entirely sure if I’ll mourn them falling from favour in Mail, which I think is probably one of the only Apple applications to actually use one aside from iCal. I’ve decided to drop the drawer in NewsMac Pro as the source list makes it unnecessary now.

One glance at the toolbar and you immediately notice something odd, aside from the new ‘unified toolbar look’, the icons are now grouped together in graphite aqua blobs (which as you can see by the colour of the window’s open/minimise/zoom widgets, is ignoring the user’s preferences). If you ask me it looks butt ugly, compared with the current crop of elegant and colour themed icons in Mail. The other oddity is the great big chunk of blank space to the left of the delete icon, hopefully icons will move in to fill this as you add more to the toolbar, but still it looks damn weird.

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