Why design matters

Simon Steinbeiß simon at xfce.org
Sat Jul 25 13:42:42 CEST 2015

Hi Patrik,

On Sat, 25 Jul 2015 12:48:20 +0200
Patrik Bubák <bubapa at privacyrequired.com> wrote:

> Hello,
> I joined the mailing list to propose ways to improve the visual
> experience of Xfce by default and to help create standardized guidelines
> for themers to abide to. 
> There is always a need for a good looking desktop (just look at Mac OSX
> and you'll get the point of why it sells despite its weaknesses), which
> is why many (visually) prefer some other options like Pantheon, Gnome,
> MATE, Cinnamon, even Unity for that matter, or KDE. Now I'm not going to
> give you charts, but it's a fact that visually Xfce is one of the least
> popular desktops, although I am aware it was created for speed and
> functionality.

Frankly, I'm not sure why you think that is a fact – and I disagree. Xfce is customizable enough to look like any other DE, it can resemble Gnome3, KDE, OSX or Pantheon, you name it. The main complaints here seem to be based on the fact that artwork isn't upstreamed in Xfce (and that's the case for a reason, but more below).

> The most common reason why many shun Xfce I met with in my 5 years of
> Linux is because it:
>         - lacks standardized Human Interface Guidelines (HIG)

Errr... https://wiki.xfce.org/dev/hig/general

>         - is generally visually unappealing (base themes are a nay)

The reason why artwork created for Xfce, like the Gtk+ themes of the Shimmer Project you mention or other things are kept elsewhere and not upstream on git.xfce.org is because of their dependencies. Gtk+2 themes depend on / use various engines and not all of them may be present on $your_distro, so we decided to "outsource" that and keep it in an independent place. Another problem is the continuous breakage when it comes to Gtk+3 version jumps and themes. Basically you need an adjusted/fixed theme for every Gtk+3 release, which creates a problem in terms of maintainability. I try to account for that with Greybird, but it really is a pain.
Furthermore, since Xfce still uses the Gtk+2 toolkit (also: the HIG is written with Gtk+2 in mind) the abilities of the Gtk+2 engines are your design limit if you want a theme that looks consistent with Gtk+2 and 3 applications.

> For a start I would propose to focus on the following few things:
>         - the notification area/tray/whatever you call it, make the
>         space between icons breathable, even, make icons uniform in size
>         (currently it's pretty much chaos, one icon looks bigger, other
>         one smaller, one takes more space, the other one less and so on.
>         Just look at the Gnome panel or Pantheon desktop and you'll know
>         what I'm talking about.) While some (in particular those who
>         don't even need a GUI and terminal suffices) would argue that
>         these are meaningless changes, the general audience, even though
>         not designers, pays attention to details and somewhere deep down
>         feel something's not right. Call it gut instinct, a bad feeling,
>         or an awakening aesthetic "touch", regardless, it's there.

This is a problem of the way the systray works. The problem there is that the panel has no control over what is being displayed, so it's not easy to enforce icon sizes. The inconsistency there is why Ubuntu has introduced its indicators (which Pantheon/elementary and Xubuntu are using, but which are not available in every distro) and Gnome3 started to hide the systray and build its own system. In Xfce, the "first class citizens" on the panel are plugins and for Xfce apps we've been trying to improve those, like the xfce4-power-manager one.
So yeah, I'm not sure this is truly solveable the way you expect it to.

>         - allow for fixed positions in centres of panels and windows.
>         (Ever felt like you want to centre some things on your desktop
>         but can't get them quite in the position you want? Again, a
>         minor detail that counts.)

I'm not 100% sure what you're referring to here. Is this about window positioning or about the positioning of items within the panel? If it's about the latter, that would be a nice feature, but somebody would have to code it first.

>         - the window buttons plug-in of the panel displays icons a lot
>         smaller than that of the start menu e.g. I would propose making
>         all icons of a fixed size, regardless are those shortcuts, or
>         plug-ins.

That is mostly a matter of settings/theming, I think that we've mostly solved that in Xubuntu.

> As you can see I'm not suggesting to add Compiz or anything like that,
> that would take away the speed or functionality of the desktop. I am
> merely proposing cosmetic adjustments.
> While I recognize the effort of some communities like Xubuntu and
> Shimmer Project to whom I am thankful for the effort they have put in in
> beautifying the Xfce desktop and making it more appealing for general
> audiences, I don't know the standing at its base. I've used some vanilla
> Xfce flavours offered by many distributions and the base (default Xfce4)
> artwork was... well...
> So my question is whether there is interest in making the DE more
> visually appealing, or you just want to continue with your current
> paradigm.

Not sure what you're referring to with the "current paradigm" and it seems you're insinuating that we don't care about design. That's a false perception, we even have a "special interest group" for design that focuses on improving app UIs and making them more consistent: https://wiki.xfce.org/design/start

> I am already a part of the Ubuntu GNOME project where I already made
> some contributions, but the working pace is slow, as usual, we all are
> busy with real lives. 

Same here, everybody's always busy with RL.

> While I cannot code Gtk+ themes (need to find the time to learn that), I
> could still be of help by coordinating the visualization of the desktop.

Feel free to submit bugreports - ideally with patches - for the visual improvements you have in mind. Or write specifications and propose them for the Design SIG. Also, feel free to join us on IRC for discussions (beware though that people aren't always around, as always).
However, you'll like have to put in more effort than merely "coordinating" other people who should do the real work. That's not really how Xfce works (in my experience, anyway).


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