(dark) Gray’s anatomy

The cool trend in visual design lately for web-based and desktop UI has been applying “dark gray” (or charcoal gray or slate gray) for various sections of an application’s interface. iPhoto (and the various apps in the iLife suite) seem to be the first to start this trend, with having palettes for adjustments and so forth rendered in a semitransparent ~ 75% #333 look, as an attractive complement to the main application UI. Apple, being the fashionista leaders of digital visual styles, made it hip and cool…and so “dark gray” has been The New Black for some time now. (along with orange, green, blue, etc. you get the picture ;-) And it’s great as an accent color or punch color.

However, I’ve noticed lately that Adobe’s new web-based offerings, arising from the macromedia acquisition, go for the dark gray look with overwhelming aggressive force, perhaps to the detriment of the product’s aesthetic quality and usability. Hey, I love the dark look, don’t get me wrong. I love that sexy glossy piano-black finish, like high-end gadgetry, or the Lamborghini Superleggera (a “wondrous riot of carbon fibre” as one car ‘zine enthusiastically declares). And I know pro video and photo and 3D modeling apps have had a “dark UI” for many years before it became hip, primarily b/c their users use them in some darkened room! (Modo in particular has a very nice visual style overall)

But when it’s a single dominant shade for the entire freaking UI of mainstream (“everyman”) app, per some trendy Web 2.0 RIA ethos, as done for Adobe’s Media Player, Photoshop Express, Digital Editions, and whatever else coming down from the Adobe Labs (including the AIR installer dialogs), I just find it all a bit…problematic. (also guilty, is MS’s Expressions Blend)

  • In terms of mood, it feels quite heavy and grim, almost depressing if not stale
  • Practically speaking, the look can obscure user’s tools and commands and menus, making them hard to find in order to accomplish a task
  • Text becomes lost or indecipherable; or you have the “sparkle” effect of light text against dark backgrounds
  • The focus of interaction can become lost, particularly if both the primary focus window and the background application are rendered in the same gray shades with little contrast
  • If everything is gray, then how does one distinguish easily disabled controls? The hierarchy of UI planes or windows can be lost
  • Overall the UI loses the rhythm and texture of contrasts, as the eye gets lost in a sea of flat sameness, overdone for the sake of “coolness”, which unfortunately devolves into “lameness”, thus backfiring upon the entire user experience

I understand the original Adobe motivations behind the “dark gray” look: for a sense of fresh hipness as fashionable street cred (as XD head Michael Gough once told us at Adobe, “we’re all fashion designers now”–and certainly style does matter as I’ve said many times as well), for ostensibly minimizing the interface chrome (as “no-chrome”), and of course for videos and photos to visually “pop” nicely.

I just think it’s a little overdone when it comes to the newest creations from Adobe Labs. Other better examples include:

Adobe’s Lightroom does a fabulous job of applying a darkness but balanced with lighter gray shades, and it all feels somehow appropriate, a sense of “fit”, for the product’s purpose and value to the critical pro photographer carefully (and rapidly) sorting and adjusting hi-res images for a client. It truly is a digital darkroom experience made real in the interface.

Adobe’s Acrobat has a nice use of the “dark gray” for the side well, nicely contrasting the overall lighter look, as an accent/punch color. It also defines clearly a functional zone or area that the eye can quickly gravitate towards and develop an easily remembered/recall-able mental model for the next use. Again, balancing against the dominant lighter UI for reading documents in enterprise environments, etc.

And coming back to Apple’s iPhoto and Aperture and iLife products, using the “dark gray” for transient palettes, rather than the central task area. It works nicely (although personally, the palettes are just a bit too transparent for me, making some palette labels and controls harder to read/use)… Dark gray works also for other peripheral or transient UI’s: I have Adium set in the dark gray (and minimal) style, I love Growl’s nifty status messages, Apple’s HUDs and tooltips offering key commands, so forth.

I just think for their interface style, Adobe Labs and XD team might consider some elegant contrast, towards improving product usability and add some rhythm and texture to the interface. Or even try multiple shades of gray, some lighter and darker, with touches of other colors as highlights. Contrast, balance, all the stuff Mullet/Sano describe in their classic textbook of visual UI design. Else, going all the way with just one dominant pervasive tone of “dark gray” can undermine or obscure the niftiness and the coolness of the novel products & features.

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