Assorted MacOS Big Sur Design-Related Observations

Ten years from now, Big Sur will be remembered for many big changes it ushered in: it is the very first release of MacOS 11 and, therefore, truly closes the book on Mac OS X; it is the first version of a Macintosh operating system that runs on Apple’s own silicon; and it is the first time one of Apple’s operating systems can natively run software from an entirely different platform. But it is also the biggest redesign of the Mac operating system since Mac OS X debuted twenty years ago.

I have some thoughts on overarching themes and trends in Apple’s operating systems that I want to more carefully consider. But I wanted to share some brief observations on Big Sur’s design direction that, I think, feel suited to a bulleted list. I have been using betas of Big Sur since they were released in June, and have used the final release candidate since yesterday. If you have yet to install the update, I think Andrew Cunningham’s review at Ars Technica and Stephen Hackett’s screenshot library are excellent resources if you would like to follow along.

So, some observations:

  • This design direction feels like it takes greater advantage of bigger and higher-resolution displays. Almost everything appears to be the same size, but Big Sur’s unified title bars and toolbars have allowed for bigger, bolder window and document titles, with a little more space around them. Similarly, the larger radius of rounded window corners is something that looks best on high-density displays with less-noticeable aliasing.

  • Folders in Finder have more readable icons than the styles Apple has been using since Leopard.

  • Windows use much brighter, whiter textures when using the “light” appearance, which I always use.

  • Combine all of these bullet points and you might think it points to a welcome higher-contrast trend. Alas, the vast majority of UI elements in Big Sur have far poorer contrast than Catalina. Many toolbar elements have either entirely no background or a very subtle one.

  • While buttons, menu bar items, toolbars, window control widgets, and many other parts of Big Sur have more padding, notifications and tabbed window controls appear to have less. It is an odd choice that makes these features — particularly notifications — look unfinished.

  • Big Sur is a victim of Apple’s current preoccupation with hiding things that only become visible when hovering. Notifications are a good example: any buttons that were present on the right-hand side of that notification — say, the “close” and snooze buttons on a Calendar notification — are now buried in a chintzy-looking “Options” button that only reveals itself when you hover over the notification.

    Most glaring is the way Big Sur hides the proxy icon in any window with a unified toolbar. It will show up a beat after you hover over the window title. You can do proxy icon things before it is visible, but hiding it is unnecessary and the slight delay before it becomes visible makes the system feel slow. I hope there will soon be a universal preference to make it visible at all times. Make it a command line-only preference for all I care, but it should be possible.

  • Big Sur introduces an iOS-like rounded square standard icon shape. I miss the carefully jumbled look of my pre-Big Sur Dock less than I thought I would. Apps that have not been updated to the new standard shape stand out.

    That said, as with iOS, many system icons are simply a glyph on a white or black background, and there are very few circumstances where I think that is an appealing design choice. The icon for System Information is particularly weak. That is not the case for all utility icons — Grapher, for example, looks like it was designed with great care and love.

  • I love how the new Dock looks like it is floating. But do not fear — MacOS continues to respect Fitts’ law by extending the click target all the way to the edge of the display.

  • Highlighted elements — like a menu item that you’re hovering overtop, or a selected email in Mail’s message list — now have rounded corners. I am surprised this has not happened before because it feels so Mac-like.

  • The full-height sidebars that have been hinted at in Catalina apps like Music and Podcasts are now mostly systemwide, and I think they work well. If you want to nitpick, they create a visual separation between window control widgets and the window itself, but I don’t think anyone will be confused. This is a nice way to clean up the multiple layers of toolbar and sidebar. It also means that the toolbar is no longer a primary anchoring element for the entire window, and I will miss that clarity.

  • Dialog boxes and sheets remain my least-favourite changes in Big Sur. I tried to get used to them — I really did — but I think both are weak replacements.

    Sheets used to be attached to the window’s title bar; they were among the most clever and wonderful elements in MacOS. They now sit atop an insipid dimmed window, and look semi-detached — not quite anchored in the way sheets used to be to the title bar, but not quite independent either.

    Dialog boxes build upon these flaws by inexplicably centring their contents and stacking action buttons at the bottom. Sometimes, those buttons appear side-by-side; I think this is only the case if there are exactly two actions. In any case, these dialogs are often very tall with small and hard to read text, but the buttons are unnecessarily large. At the very least, it is a truly strange use of space on displays of all sizes. In most cases, I think they are an unforced regression.

Overall, I have found Big Sur’s new design direction to be a welcome refresh that successfully bridges the Mac OS X world of past with Apple’s iOS and iPadOS motifs. I am annoyed by its poor contrast, but there are a couple of Accessibility preferences that correct its most egregious qualities.

If there is anything I wish Apple had scrapped, it the new approach to sheets and dialog boxes. I find the changes to those to be not a problem of taste, but a serious detriment to usability and clarity. I have quibbles with a few aspects, and am largely pleased by most of the new changes — or, at least, the direction they suggest. But those new sheets and dialogs have got to go.