is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Now that Mac OS X Tiger has given us yet another variation on window chrome — the user interface ‘parts’ that frame windows in the operating system — I got to thinking about how they all work together. Well, to begin with, I’ve more or less given up on the idea that there truly is any kind of overarching strategy at work between the various styles of chrome offered by Apple. For instance, there’s no clear reason to me why the Finder is adorned with brushed metal or that Mail 2.0 looks completely foreign from its logical close cousin, the Address Book. Even saying there was, at one point, some kind of tidy logic governing chrome styles, that original concept has taken yet another debilitating body blow.
What Do You Mean
Given the absence of an expressly articulated strategy, it seems reasonable to assume that this is an instance of user interface design put in service to marketing — always a part of usability engineering, sure, but here it’s in a greater proportion than we’ve commonly seen in major operating systems. Taken together, the three dominant chrome styles available in Tiger are pretty clearly making emotional appeals to various segments of the user population. What they represent is a vocabulary, if you will, of imperfectly reconciled expressions of usability — they’re vehicles through which the developers are sending right brain signals about their products.
So, while on the train to the D.C. area a few weeks ago, I jotted down some notes about the way window chrome styles are used and to what purpose, and I tried to decode what it is exactly that a developer is trying to say when they choose one style over another.
What follows is a brief and dramatically unscientific table that outlines my interpretation of each usage, divided up between Apple and, um, the rest of the Macintosh developer universe. It’s a gross division, to be sure, but I think it’s a decent summary of the messages that I’m hearing, at least. I would actually be keenly interested if others, especially independent software developers, are interpreting these things differently.
|Window Chrome Type||What Apple Computer Is Telling You When They Use It||What Third Party Developers Are Telling You When They Use It|
|“We don’t consider this piece of software to be
particularly important or a very convincing tool to sell new Macs, but here it is anyway.”
|“We have reluctantly given in to the Aqua sensibility, but we still don’t buy that trendy
brushed metal or other fickle nonsense.”
|“This is a really, really important piece of functionality, so you should pay close
attention, even if we don’t fully understand it ourselves.”
|“It’s not clear how best to use this trendy brushed metal stuff, but you should consider this software
to be as cool as anything from Apple.”
|“Okay, we grudgingly admit that not everyone is crazy about brushed metal, so here’s something
more subdued but still a little fancy.”
|“We can’t stand brushed metal, but we want to keep up with the times, so here’s something
a little fancier than a plain old window.”