Dissecting Maverick’s New Ambiance Theme

August 9th, 2010

Earlier today Canonical announced the availability of a modified version of “Ambiance,” one of Ubuntu’s default “light themes.” The results represent a tremendous change and address many of the complaints leveled against the original themes when they were first unveiled in March of this year. Just compare the new theme with the old and you’ll see immediately what I mean.

Let’s run down the list of visible changes, with as many screen shots as I can stomach.

New Window Control Buttons

The window control buttons have been given less depth, new min/max symbols, made slightly larger (15px in diameter instead of 14), pushed closer together (and, indeed, closer to the edges of the troughs), and the “grooves” of their close/min/max symbols have been made sharper. Also worth noting is that the close button is a shade of orange that is not identical to the spec, at a hue of 20 rather than 16, moving it further from red. (Update: I’ve since realized that the hue at the top of the button is, in fact, 16, but grows more yellow toward the bottom of the button before stopping at a hue of 21. My mistake for assuming the button would be one consistent hue.) I understand that at small sizes and in certain contexts, colors can have the illusion of being a different shade than they really are, and maybe that’s what they’re accounting for here; I imagine Ubuntu Orange might look “too red” when filling a 15px-diameter circle. Interestingly, the previous close button was actually closer in hue to Ubuntu Orange.

Also obvious is that the trough is much more shallow than it previously was, a trend that (thankfully) persists throughout the new theme. And the “square” symbol for the maximize button turns into a shorter rectangle when the window is maximized. Kind of weird given that these days maximized windows are likely to be less square than restored ones.

Because other areas of the theme put white against any backgrounds that are orange, I wonder how a white “x” would work on the close button. I expect not well, but I’m curious. There is less of a contrast between the button backgrounds and their symbols, so a brighter value for all of them would probably be welcome.


A quick run-down on the many changes in control elements:

  • The buttons. The buttons have a much more pronounced interior highlight — i.e., the pixel border just inside of the outermost pixel border — and a more pronounced exterior shadow, causing them to appear to float in front of the windows they’re a part of. They look disconnected, as though they’re not true buttons, but instead just pieces of plastic taped onto the window background. If you look at the current Ambiance theme, you’ll see that its buttons appear to be an extension of the surface out of which they’re rising. Because of these differences, the new ones also resemble KDE’s button styling, which I’ve always found to be inferior to GNOME’s. It’s a step back.
  • Active buttons now have a border instead of highlights. Well, most of them do. It’s hard for me to discern the reason that some have orange borders and some are colored orange throughout. Previously, active buttons had a kind of an incomplete, rectangular orange “glow” to them. The border is an improvement, I feel — it’s more subtle and natural. The ones that are orange throughout — “primary” buttons, in a sense, like “Cancel” and “OK” — don’t really work. The orange is too pronounced, and because the text inside of them is highlighted and shadowed with light white and dark gray, the text is given a hazy effect against the orange. They really lose points here and I hope they fix this before the final release.
  • “ComboBoxes” are missing the line that separated the text from the down-arrow. This is welcome, as the separator was never necessary in the first place. The separator has not been removed from “OptionMenus,” but I expect that they will be.
  • The scrollbars are narrower. Not only that, but the buttons at their ends have been given a more distinct border, something that both gives them a sharper appearance, but also makes them seem less integrated into the window. They do look more carefully refined, but there’s still something illogical about their shape. It’s a thorny problem that Mac OS X and Windows also have difficulty dealing with.
  • The scrubber grabber has an angled bottom. This will surely bring out more hordes of “IT LOOKS LIKE MAC” complaints, but the fact is that it increases your sense of accuracy when you’re changing a scrubber that has tick marks underneath it. I feel certain that I’ve seen such a thing in some program, but for the life of me I can’t think of where to find an example. The one problem is that the grabber on vertical scrubbers has its arrow pointed to the right. I’m not sure if GNOME can specify two types of vertical scrubbers — one with the tick marks on the left and the other with them on the right — but if not, this could be problematic.
  • Progress bars are thinner; in addition, they’ve solved the problem of very short progress bars showing strange artifacts, something that really startled me when I started using the first version of the Light themes. One problem is that this creates an inconsistency; some progress bars require text to be written over them (such as when your software sources are updating), and because of this, these need to be wide enough to accommodate the height of the text. Why GTK feels it necessary to write text onto the scrollbar is beyond me, but this creates an undesirable inconsistency in progress bar thickness. Also, currently the text written over progress bars is dark gray instead of a soft white, which is clearly an error, as text on top of (orange) menu selections is white. My assumption is that they’ll fix this.

    It’d also be nice to see them add animation back into the progress bars. It provides confidence to the user that something is actually going on, and its importance is scientifically based, as someone named David pointed out in the comments of the Canonical Design blog.

  • Scrollbars are thinner. In my opinion they are too thin. I understand the bent toward “precision” in this new theme, a word Shuttleworth likes to use when describing the desired feel of Ubuntu in general. But their new thinness makes mouse interaction just barely too difficult. An extra pixel or two wouldn’t hurt.
  • The troughs of the progress bars, scrollbars, and window controls are more shallow. This makes a “Lego” interface out of a previously more “Duplo” one — that is, it gives a feeling of precision rather than clumsiness. Its mimicking of a real, three-dimensional object is also more convincing given these new troughs, so it’s a welcome change throughout.
  • Like the window controls, the checkboxes have a reduced gradient, which is welcome, and the check marks extend beyond the edges of the checkbox, which because of its complexity provides a feeling of freedom in this design, of being unconstrained by the otherwise “limiting” feeling of Metacity themes. It’s “livelier.” The check marks themselves, however, ought to be darker, and the white border around them ought to be less pronounced — i.e., darker themselves.
  • Titlebars/Menubars

    The titlebar gradient — whose previous rendering I’d criticized as being far too harsh — is a little more muted here. Barely. It’s still not enough, and still gives too much depth to the tops of windows; as your eye approaches the top edge of a window, the titlebar curves away from you sharply, giving a strange sense of dimension. Why is it curved that abruptly? How thick are these windows anyway? The contrast between the highlight color and the primary color of the titlebar ought to be reduced, and the midsection of the gradient ought to be lowered by several pixels.

    In order to reduce the sense that there is too much room between the text of the menubar and the text of the titlebar, a subtle “groove” has been added between them. Visually it’s a nice touch, but it makes less obvious the fact that windows can now be dragged using the empty space to the right of the menubar text.

    Sections of an menu are now separated by a similar groove, rather than a muddy line with graduated ends. Also a very welcome improvement.

    Selected menubar items have a slight highlight and rounded corners at the top, which creates a nice visual parallel with the rounded corners of tabs. Strangely, however, selected menu items in GNOME Panel have a dark border, but no background color. This is an inconsistency that needs to be addressed.


    One thing I’m thrilled to see here is an increased use of orange, although I’ve seen several complaints about it. It can be argued that it’s too dark, but particularly in terms of highlighting menu items and selected objects, it’s a vast improvement over the muddy beige color that was previously used. It looks tremendous in Nautilus and on highlighted text, and really makes the desktop come alive. I’m really pleased with it.

    The window chrome is now gray rather than beige. Actually, to be precise, it’s not strictly gray — it has a saturation value of 1. I’m pleased to discover that Canonical recognizes that there is a difference between a saturation value of 1 and a saturation value of 0, and that not all grays are the same. The hue on this chrome is 30, which is an orange very much unlike Ubuntu Orange, and I’m curious about them making that choice. I’m sure it’s a hard decision for them to move from beige chrome to gray chrome; I’m sure it feels a bit like “giving up,” since both Windows and Mac OS use gray in their chrome. But eventually you have to accept that some things are popular because they are just superior. And I don’t doubt that that very, very slight saturation subconsciously conveys a warmth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I wonder how a saturation value of 2 or 3 would look, although I know from experience that even that slight of a change can make a design crumble to the ground.

    The font color has been lightened up, reducing saturation; this is visible throughout the desktop and is almost universally bad. Dark text on white needs to be darker, and light text on gray needs to be lighter. It will increase feelings of “precision” that they are obviously going for, and distance the theme from the “muddiness” of the first incarnations of Radiance and Ambiance.

    That Bloody Wallpaper

    One humorous thing I noticed in the screenshots provided by Canonical is this new wallpaper they seem to be working on, visible in the Appearance window:

    It’s much like the old one except that they’ve made the orange blur more pronounced, and added another one! This wallpaper is a tragedy and it kills me to think that there are people trying to “improve” it. Let’s move on already, guys.

    Outlook Positive

    In short, it’s a relief. I’d hate to give these guys an excuse to slow their improvements, but for the most part one can only compliment the team on the work they’ve done, especially after the unmitigated disaster of their first attempt. Bravo. It’s far, far from perfect, but at least it isn’t glaringly, maddeningly poor. I don’t expect it to fulfill all my wishes by the time Maverick hits, but it gives me a lot of hope for 11.04 and beyond.