Amar Sagoo

26 April 2006

If Microsoft had designed Finder Labels...

... they would look exactly how they do now.

When colour labels made a return in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther after years of waiting, it was a bit of a letdown. For most, this was because they were functionally the same as what the Classic Finder used to offer. Personally, however, I don't really need more than 7 colours, and the colours are distinct enough, so I don't really feel the need to customise them either.

But this doesn't mean that I was happy when I saw the new implementation. It wasn't a matter of functionality, but one of visual design. Consider this:

Somehow this look immediately made me think of Windows XP, with its overpoweringly saturated, bevelled window frames and buttons. It just didn't look like Apple. But even leaving taste aside, it simply doesn't work very well. The colours are so strong and dark that it becomes harder to read the actual names of the folders. And why those gradients? They just add more clutter.

In his book Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte explains the principle of the smallest effective difference, which implies using the most subtle visual distinctions that still achieve the desired effect. The word effective is important here. There's no point using the smallest perceivable difference if it doesn't tell the story you want it to tell. In case of Finder labels, I see two possible desired effects:

  1. To allow you to quickly spot all the files of a particular colour, whose meaning you have memorised, e.g., "All archived stuff is grey."
  2. To bring certain files to your attention that you have previously marked with that intention, e.g., "I must review this document, so I'll make it red to remind myself later."

So applying the principle of the smallest effective difference for Finder labels would mean finding a set of colours that fulfil these two purposes when set against the white background of a window.

You can now easily read all the folder names and ignore the labels if you wish, but you can still choose to focus on all the files of a particular colour. Toning down the labels also makes the selection much more prominent. (Also notice I tried to improve how the labels of selected items are shown.) Although the colours look paler, they are still bright enough to have an attention-grabbing quality, especially in isolation:

It's a real shame how simple, proven design principles like this are ignored for the sake of eye candy (and not very good eye candy in this case). I think what we need is an option in the system preferences to switch from "Shop Demonstration Mode" to "Work Mode".


  1. A good read. Love your apps.

  2. That's fantastic - simple but effective. I'm changing them on my system right now.

  3. I guess the candy style has something to do with the finder option that allow users to set a background color for finder windows.
    I actually know many mac users (mostly girls, but also some geek...) who change their background color to some washed out pastel tone.

    Those dark gradient would remain noticeable on most backgrounds (and on most desktop wallpapers too), while the proposed alternative wouldn't.

    Said that, Apple of course could easily have set up the labels to detect the background and change style accordingly, or allowed the users to tweak it.

  4. How'd you do that?

    [matt said...That's fantastic - simple but effective. I'm changing them on my system right now.]

  5. There's some interesting philosophy that goes far beyond this post as to how we as a species respond to our surroundings. Similar to McLuhan's idea that we changed our entire way of thinking from wholistic to linear with the invention of reading/writing and even more so when that became common with the printing press or Burke's concept that we live in a prison of Cartesian linear thought processes that these boxes are supposed to free us from. Your small post points at the idea that we see the world in a particular manner more related to our physiology than our intellect. I might speculate here that our physiology hasn't changed much since the 12 minutes or so ago that we were living in caves, chasing down whatever ambulatory protein caught our eye, or reading some subtle shading difference that meant edible from poisonous. This recognition that small changes to presentation make a huge difference in our comfort level, your Tofu program is a great example, I'm producing much less throw away paper, fundamental to ease, pleasure & efficiency of use. I've noticed with dogs that a choke chain is an ineffective device for control. Most of the pressure is applied to the collar bones and the "choking" effect is too little to deter a determined animal. On the other hand that small device that applies pressure to the bridge of the nose if the leash is pulled on is effective since dogs hate even the slightest pressure there. The same applies for some dogs to harnesses since some detest the pressure across the chest. Some dogs even respond with the leash merely run under the armpit. These are organic approaches to dog physiology and psychology rather than applying what would certainly be a deterrent to humans to a different species. Now that all that is out of the way, as anonymous said, how do you make the colors pastel.