An interesting trend – our computers are going flat.

As display resolutions increased, Microsoft and program designers were able to get more details into icons and toolbars. Buttons and icons picked up distinctly 3D appearances, with shading and gradients and shadowed borders.

There’s a design trend back to making things simple and flat. Take a look at the ribbon bar for Word 2007, for example.


The buttons are flat and much of the artwork on the buttons has given up any 3D effect. (“Shapes” and “Chart” have obvious 3D, for example, but “Table,” “Picture”,” “Bookmark,” and others are flat.) Each button gets a nice 3D gradient when the mouse hovers over it, but the buttons in each group are otherwise not even defined by lines.

That can create a pleasant, simple interface – certainly Google has profited greatly from simplicity in the last few years. At its worst, we have to deal with “mystery meat navigation,” a wonderful nickname for an interface that is so obsessed with aesthetics that it’s impossible to figure out what to do.

Microsoft engineer Larry Osterman wrote an article about changes to the sound controls in Windows 7, drawing particular attention to the clean appearance that results from using flat buttons. He uses an interesting example. When you left-click on the speaker icon down by the clock in Vista or Windows 7, a volume control comes up. The picture on the left below is the control in Vista; on the right is the same control in Windows 7.

windowsvistavolume windows7volume

See the difference in the speaker icon at the bottom? In Vista, it’s at least plausible that you’d guess the speaker icon is a mute button. It looks like a button, eh? The Windows 7 icon is also a button – a border appears around it when your mouse goes over it. But there’s no visual feedback to help you guess that.

Comments on the blog are mostly critical. “’Flat’ buttons that show up when you mouse over them are like door handles that don’t appear until your hand is on them.  While it may look cool, it doesn’t exactly make the door any easier to open.” It makes a difference that this button is isolated. It’s not important in a toolbar or ribbon bar where we expect to find buttons, but this looks more like the kind of thing we’ll only find by accident.

Speaking of accidental finds – see the picture of the speaker at the top of the volume controls? In Vista, it’s just a picture. In Windows 7, it’s a button that brings up the device properties screen for whatever is controlling the sound. All 12 people who discover that will probably be very impressed.

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