Throwing Shade on Grey

Peter N. Lewis, developer of Keyboard Maestro:

How exactly do I explain to someone that in Big Sur menus, command keys that are dimmed out in menus are not disabled, despite being drawn in exactly the same grey as menu items that are dimmed out and disabled? What lunatic decided this was a good idea?

Dr. Drang:

If Big Sur had chosen some new method to tell the user that a command was disabled, then maybe using gray text for the keyboard shortcut would be defensible. But as Peter says, it still uses gray — the exact same shade of gray — for disabled items.


I know that complaining about how things were better in the past is a laughable characteristic of the elderly, but god damn it, this was better before. Yes, I can still learn new keyboard shortcuts by slowing down and peering carefully to read the gray-on-gray text. But why should I have to?

One of the main knocks I have against the principles of Big Sur’s design refresh is how many interface elements are minimized or hidden completely until you interact with them. This seems to be intended to minimize visual clutter, but it almost turns different parts of the interface into mystery meat navigation.

The presentation of keyboard shortcuts is in that same vein: by making them grey, the thinking presumably went, the command becomes more prominent and indicates availability, while the keyboard shortcut is still shown for those who need it. But is this a problem that needs solving? Are even the pickiest designers bothered by the apparent clutter of keyboard shortcuts in menus? If you want to consider it a problem, this solution means that the keyboard shortcut is hard to read and the meaning of grey text is ambiguous.

Oh, and for extra measure, it is compounded by physical keyboards that do not share the same markings. This is not a new phenomenon. I’m looking at the keyboard of my 2012 MacBook Air and none of the keys except Command have the symbols for what they mean. If anything, recent keyboards are an improvement.