In Praise of Heart and Soul

A little thing I noticed when I was looking up great older Mac software is how much of my appreciation for it was driven by its feel. I put Coda on my list of all-time great Mac software because Panic worked hard to make it feel just right — just the way they had intended. When I look at screenshots of Aperture, I remember how its atmosphere of technical precision was still friendly.

There are plenty of reasons why that is, but I think a major one is their tactile quality. Everything which can be manipulated not only looks like it can, but invites you to do so. And there is no more foundational tactile interface element than a button.

Niko Kitsakis:

This should make it clear why there is a reason that the virtual buttons in our graphical user interface should indeed look like buttons: They should communicate that they can be used. When they just look like icons, they don’t do that.

One objective of the visual interface language introduced in MacOS Big Sur was, according to Alan Dye, to “[reduce] visual complexity to keep the focus on users’ content” which meant, for example, that “buttons and controls appear when you need them, and they recede when you don’t”.

In practice, it means interfaces become ambiguously interactive. A design system of line art glyphs floating in detail-free window chrome makes it easier to create light and dark themes, but it also turns everything into a flavourless smear of grey tones.

One of the great examples of this is Time Machine. Its original aesthetic invited emotional investment in — of all things — backing up your computer. I remember wanting to create a backup just so I could see that interface work. Unfortunately, its current guise is an accurate interpretation of the phrase backup utility, and little more. This is not specifically an argument in favour of decorated, glossy, detailed user interface elements — though I do like those — but it is an argument in favour of craft. Of heart and soul. I know what I am supposed to feel when I look at Time Machine in Leopard. But with this current iteration? I have no idea.

Today’s Time Machine does have one thing going for it compared to many other visual interfaces in MacOS: at least it has buttons that look more-or-less like buttons.