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The Windows XP color scheme and Claude Monet

First a quick test. What is the "default" action when you hit the enter key on your keyboard while this dialog is displayed:

Windows 98 shutdown dialog

And what is the "default" action of the dialog below?

Windows XP shutdown dialog

I don't know about you but it seems to me that the Windows 98 shutdown dialog is much easier to understand. Shutdown in the 98 dialog, with its little black blob and its dotted rectangle, is obviously what will happen if I hit the enter key on my keyboard.

But with XP I have not got a clue! I think that Standby is brighter than Shutdown, but I am not sure. Or maybe it is that grey Cancel button? Some, well, idiot, designer got carried away with shading and zillions of colors and 3d effects and decided to (literally) blind us with his/her color sense. The only problem is that for the average user it is color nonsense!.

With Windows XP Microsoft has given us more colors and less information. Fluff has won! The triumph of form over content. It does not matter if it works, just as long as it is attractive!

The designer has not even given us a clue with a little rectangle around the default button, which would have helped us:

Could be a better solution

Why is it hard to understand which is the default? Because we humans, even non color blind ones, have big problems distinguishing the "brightness" of different colors. It is easy to see the "brightness" difference between a dark red and a medium red. But it is hard to see the brightness difference between a dark red and a medium green.

This may be because we have two different distinct systems in our eye-brain biology. Although we seem to see a single image the brightness information (grey scale images) and color information are treated separately.

Where does Claude Monet come into this? Well, either by chance or design, his famous "Impression Sunrise" (1872) takes advantage of this limitation in our visual system:

Look at the sun, it actually seems to glow out of the painting, almost shimmering. It is has undefined edges which seem to move as you look at them. One theory about why this happens is that the eye cannot decide about the actual brightness of the sun and where its edges are.

The pure grey-scale processing part of the brain is saying "there is nothing there", as you can see in this greyscale version of the above image:

The sun has gone! But the color part of the eye-brain visual system can see the sun:


Unfortunately our color processing is low resolution and so cannot give a definitive edge or position to the sun.

This effect is great for impressionist paintings, but hopeless for the design of easy to use computer interfaces. So please Microsoft, fire the designer of the XP Shutdown dialog, and make all buttons the same color if there is a default selection you want to tell the user about.

I have a suspicion as to why XP looks so different. Imagine that Microsoft had not changed the look from 98 to XP in so dramatic a manner. Would you have noticed any difference in using XP and 98 (or NT or 2000)? Under the hood has anything changed? And if it has changed, is it for the better?

Other articles

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Sepia Vignette Effect


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