These guidelines are designed to help developers and designers create a beautifully consistent experience on the elementary OS desktop. They were written for interface designers, graphic artists and software developers who will be working on elementary OS. They will not only define specific design elements and principles, but will also instill a philosophy that will help you decide when it is appropriate to deviate from the Guidelines. Adhering to the suggestions contained here will provide many benefits:
To help you achieve these goals, these guidelines will cover basic interface elements, how to use them and put them together effectively, and how to make your application integrate well with the desktop. The most important thing to remember is that following these guidelines will make it easier to design a new application, not harder.
However, keep in mind that this is a guideline, not a rulebook. New, amazing interaction paradigms appear every day and more are waiting to be discovered. This is a living document that can and will be changed.
For sections that have not yet been written, please refer to The GNOME HIG
The elementary OS HIG isn't just about a set of concrete rules; it's meant to be flexible and extensible. As such, this very first portion of the guideline is all about the guiding philosophy we employ. For a quick crash course, we like "The User is Drunk":
Before we get into all the things that make up elementary OS apps, there is a clarification that needs to be made. We need to understand what exactly design is about, but more importantly we want to smash two major myths:
Design is not something you add on after you've completed a product. Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly designing anything you build. It is an intrinsic part of creating something. Design is not just what something looks like. It's not just the colors and fonts. Design is how it works. When you decide to add a button that does a thing, that is design. You made a decision to add a button with an icon or a label and where that button went and the size and color of that button. Decisions are designs.
Always work to make your app instantly understandable. The main function of your app should be immediately apparent. You can do this in a number of ways, but one of the best ways is by sticking to a principal of concision.
It's often very tempting to continue adding more and more features into your application. However, it is important to recognize that every new feature has a price. Specifically, every time you add a new feature:
Build small, modular apps that communicate well. elementary OS apps avoid feature overlap and make their functions available to other apps either through Contractor or over D-Bus. This both saves you time as a developer (by other apps making their functions available to you), and is a courteous gesture towards other developers (by making your app's functions available to them).
If possible, completely avoid presenting any settings or configuration in your app. Providing settings is usually an easy way out of making design decisions about an app's behavior. But just like with problems of feature bloat, settings mean more code, more bugs, more testing, more documentation, and more complexity.
Design with sane defaults in mind. elementary OS apps put strong emphasis on the out of the box experience. If your app has to be configured before a user is comfortable using it, they may not take the time to configure it at all and simply use another app instead.
Get as much information automatically as possible. Instead of asking a user for their name or their location, ask the system for this information. This cuts down on the amount of things a user has to do and makes your app look intelligent and integrated.
Ask yourself if the configuration option you are adding is really necessary or makes sense to a user. Don't ever ask users to make engineering or design decisions.
Keep things contextual. Instead of tucking away preferences in a configuration dialog, think about displaying them in context with the objects they affect (much like how shuffle and repeat options appear near your music library).
If your app needs to be configured before it can be used (like a mail client), present this configuration inside the main window much like a Welcome Screen. Once again, make sure this is really necessary set-up. Adding unnecessary configuration screens stops users from doing what they wanted to do when they opened your app in the first place.
Most users don't want to read through help docs before they can use your app. Instead, they expect that your app will be intuitive and simple for them to understand without assistance.
Avoid technical jargon and assume little-to-no technical knowledge. This lets your app be "self-documenting."
Provide non-technical explanations instead of cryptic error messages. If something goes wrong, a simplified explanation of what happened and how to fix it should be presented.
For more information, see Writing Style.
Visible design is a large part of the user experience, but so is the user's workflow, or how they interact with an app. In this section, we cover a few important steps of a typical workflow:
First-Launch Experience: What the user sees the first time they use your app.
Normal Launch: What happens when opening your app on a day-to-day basis.
Closing: What happens when closing your app.
When a user first launches an app, they should be able to get down to business as quickly as possible. If configuration is not absolutely required for the first use, they should not be required to configure anything. If configuration is required, they should be presented with a clean and simple welcome screen within the app. Avoid separate configuration dialogs when launching.
Your app's first launch is the user's first impression of your app; it's a chance to really show off its design and speed. If your app has to configure things in the background before visibly launching, it gives the user the impression that the app is slow or will take a long time to start up. Instead, focus on making the application window appear fast and ready to be used, then do any background tasks behind the scenes. If the background task is blocking (e.g. the user is unable to perform certain tasks until it's complete), show some type of indication that a background process is happening and make the blocked user interface items insensitive (see: Widget Concepts).
If there is no content to show the user, provide actions they can act upon by using a simple welcome screen. Let them open a document, add an account, import a CD, or whatever makes sense in the context of the app.
If a user explicitly "resets" the app (ex. by deleting all songs in a music library or removing all mail accounts in a mail client), it should return to its first-launch state.
When a user launches an app, they're performing an explicit action and expecting a fast, oftentimes immediate response. You should focus on three key areas for app launching: speed, obviousness of what to do next, and state.
As has been said before, speed, especially when launching an app, is very important. There should be as little delay as possible in between the time a user decides to launch an app and the instant they can begin using it. If your app requires a splash screen, you're doing it wrong.
When a user launches your app, they should know exactly what to do next. This is achieved by following the other interface guidelines (ensuring your app is consistent with other apps) and by offering up explicit actions from the get go. If the app typically displays "items," such as songs or emails, let the user get at those items by displaying them when the app opens. If there are no previously-opened items, you should offer to open or create a new item (such as a document) by using a welcome screen.
If the user has previously used your app, it's typically best to restore the state of the app when opening it again. This means the app comes up to right where the user left off so they can pick up their work again. For a music player, this means opening up with the view where the user left it and the song paused where the user closed the app. For a document editor, this would mean opening up with the same document scrolled to the same spot with the cursor in the same spot on the page.
Sometimes a user will perform an action which could possibly be destructive or traditionally irreversible. Rather than present the user with a warning, apps should let the user undo the action for an appropriate amount of time. Some prime examples of when this behavior is useful are:
Closing an app. Rather than warning the user, automatically save their work and the app's state so they can return exactly where they left off. See Closing.
Deleting an item. Instead of asking the user if they are sure, make the item "disappear" from the app, but provide an easy and intuitive way to undo the delete.
Sending an email. Rather than asking the user if they want to send an email, let them undo or edit the message a short time after "sending."
This behavior should only as a last resort be implemented by providing a buffer time between when the app shows the user what happened and actually performing the action. To keep the experience responsive, the app should always look as if it performed the action as soon as the user initiates it.
This behavior strikes the best balance of keeping out of the user's way while making sure they don't do something unintended. It's important to keep the undo action unobtrusive yet simple and intuitive; a common way of doing so is by using an info bar, though other methods may also be appropriate.
See also: Never Use a Warning When you Mean Undo by Aza Raskin
Users should feel confident when using elementary OS; they should know that everything they see is saved and up to date.
Apps in elementary OS should operate around an always-saved state. This means that changes the user makes are instantly applied and visible and that making the user manually save things is a legacy or specialized behavior.
For example, a Song Info dialog should update the track information instantly without a user having to press a save button, user preferences should be applied as soon as the user manipulates the relevant widget, and closing an app should mean that reopening it will return to where the user left off.
When a user closes an app, it's typically because they're done using it for now and they want to get it out of the way.
Apps should save their current state when closed so they can be reopened right to where the user left off. Ideally closing and reopening an app should be indistinguishable from the traditional concept of minimizing and unminimizing an app; that is, all elements should be saved including open documents, scroll position, undo history, etc.
If it makes sense for an app to complete background tasks after the window is closed, the tasks should be completed soon after the window is closed. If the app performs repeat background tasks (such as a mail client), the background tasks should be handled by a separate daemon that does not rely on the app itself being open.
It is not desirable for an app window to simply minimize rather than close when the user attempts to close it. Instead, the app window should be "hidden". If it makes sense to continue a process in the background (such as downloading/transferring, playing music, or executing a terminal command) the app back-end should continue with the task and close when the task is finished. If it's not immediately apparent that the process has completed (as with the file download/transfer or terminal command), the app may show a notification informing the user that the process has completed. If it is apparent, as with the music, no notification is necessary.
If the user re-opens the app while the background process is still executing, the app should be exactly where it would be if the window had been open the whole time. For example, the terminal should show any terminal output, the music player should be on the same page it was when closed, and the browser should come back to the page it was on previously. For more details, see the discussion of app state on a Normal Launch.
See also: That's It, We're Quitting by Matthew Paul Thomas
An important advantage that developers have when choosing the elementary OS platform is the ability to seamlessly integrate their application with the default desktop. Outlined below are the several ways in which you can make your application feel beyond native in elementary OS. This section will cover things like:
Creating an App Launcher. The primary method of discovering and using your app will be through an app launcher found in the Applications Menu or in the dock. This section details how to create these launchers.
MIME handling. If your application can open and save files, place entries for those file types in the application database and the document type (MIME) database. This lets the file manager and other applications automatically launch your application when they encounter files your application can handle.
Contractor. elementary OS provides Contractor as an easy way for applications to share files with each other. This will make your application more useful and extend its functionality without adding hundreds of lines of code.
Using System Indicators. elementary OS uses indicators in the panel to provide persistent system-wide information. This section discusses not only how to use that area, but when it is or isn't appropriate to use it.
Integrating with the Dock. elementary OS includes a great dock that supports the Unity Launcher API. This lets your application provide notification badges, progress indicators, and more.
The primary method of discovering and using your app will be through an app launcher found in the Applications Menu or in the dock. In order to provide these launchers you must install an appropriate .desktop file with your app. This includes giving your launcher an appropriate name, placing it in the correct category, assigning it an icon, etc.
.desktop files follow the freedesktop.org Desktop Entry Specification. They should be installed in
The contents of .desktop files should follow this formula:
Name is a(n) GenericName that lets you Comment.
Name=Eddy GenericName=Package Installer Comment=Install Debian packages Categories=System;PackageManager; Keywords=Package;Apt;Dpkg;Install;
You should not include descriptive words in your app's
Name. For example, an address book app might be called "Dexter," not "Dexter Address Book." A web browser might be called "Midori," but not "Midori Web Browser." Instead, use the
GenericName attribute of your app's .desktop file for a generic name, and the
Comment attribute for a longer descriptive phrase.
If your app is easily categorized or described with a generic name, you should use that for the GenericName attribute in your app's .desktop file. If you can say, "My app is a(n) ____," then whatever fits in that blank could be the generic name. For example, Quilter is a markdown editor, so its generic name is "Markdown Editor".
You should not include articles (the, a, an) or the words "program," "app," or "application" in your app's generic name.
The generic name should be in title case and may be used around the system to better describe or categorize your app:
The system uses an app's Comment attribute (found in the .desktop file) to succinctly inform a user what can be done with the app. It should be a short sentence or phrase beginning with a verb and containing the primary nouns that your app deals with. For example, the following are appropriate comments:
An app's comment should be in sentence case, not include terminal punctuation (periods, exclamation points, or question marks), and should be as short as possible while describing the primary use case of the app:
Comment=Listen to music
The following categories may be used to aid with searching or browsing for your app. Keep in mind that you can add more than one and you should add all that apply:
Categories should be separated by and terminated with a semicolon:
You may also include keywords in your launcher to help users find your app via search. These follow the "Keywords" key in your .desktop file. For example, a web browser might include "Internet" as a keyword even though it's not in the app's name, generic name, or description. As a result, a user searching for "Internet" will find the app. Here are some more examples:
Keywords should be single words (in title case) separated by and terminated with a semicolon:
See also: Desktop Entry Specification from FreeDesktop.org
Contractor is a service and a protocol for exposing services easily between apps. It lets apps interact with other apps and services without hardcoded support for them. You simply add Contractor support, and then any service registered with Contractor is now available for your app to use. Your app can integrate with Contractor in two different ways:
Contractor results are typically presented to users in menu form. Keep the following in mind when presenting Contractor results:
Integrate your app with the dock to communicate its status to the user at a glance.
Make progress bars unambiguous by referring to a single, specific task. For example, use progress bars to indicate the status of lengthy processes like file transfers and encoding. Do not use progress bars to compound the progress of different types of action.
A badge shows a count of actionable items managed by your app. Its purpose is to inform the user that there are items that require user attention or action without being obtrusive. This is a passive notification. A badge should not show totals or rarely changing counters. If the badge is not easily dismissed when the user views your app, it is likely that this is not a good use of a badge.
Indicators are small icons that live on the top panel. They give users a place to glance for quick information about the state of the system. Selecting an icon opens a small contextual menu with related actions available to the user, including a way to get the the full related system settings.
Indicators are designed for the system; they display information that is relevant to or affects the general usage of the device. Given that users will probably install many third-party apps, we must be careful about the number of indicators we show and how they behave. Keep in mind that only a very small set of applications need or benefit from an indicator.
Avoid adding an indicator if:
It will only appear while your app's main window is open. LibUnity already provides a great API for showing application statuses on your app's icon in the dock. Only use an indicator if it will show while your app's main window is closed.
You want a persistent/smaller launcher. Launchers are already stored in the dock in a way that gives the user control over persistence and size. The indicator area should never be used for an app launcher. If you want to add special actions to your launcher, Quicklists should be used, not an indicator.
Your app is for IM, IRC, e-mail, news-reading, or music playback. Instead, integrate the application with the dock, notifications, or the existing sound menu.
You want to show the user your app is running Users expect that apps will run in the background when it makes sense. To inform the user of events while your app is running in the background, use notifications.
Notifications play a sound and are displayed as bubbles just below the system indicators. They briefly appear on screen where they can be selected to open the relevant app or manually dismissed by hitting the X icon. After a short time, they automatically slide away. Missed notifications can be seen in and cleared from the Notification Center indicator.
Notifications play a system sound by default, but app developers are able to set an appropriate app-specific sound for users to be able to more quickly recognize the source of the notification. Be sure to use the notifications API via LibNotify to set the sound so that it respects user settings and does not play a duplicate sound.
By default, a notification will include the icon of the app that sent it. For certain apps, it might make sense to display a different relevant image along with a notification, like a user avatar if it's a communication app or album artwork if it's a music app.
Keep in mind that users are in ultimate control over notifications and whether or not they appear. Being overly aggressive with your notificiations is a quick way to get the user to turn them off entirely or even uninstall your app.
Users can enable Do Not Disturb mode from Notification Center or System Settings. Do Not Disturb blocks all notification bubbles and sounds until it is manually turned back off.
Notification bubbles, sounds, and appearance in Notification Center can each be toggled on or off on a per-app basis from the system notifications settings. Instead of including a global toggle for all notifications in your app, direct the user to the System Settings using a settings URL to open the Notifications page directly.
Windows form the foundation of your app. They provide a canvas with basic, built-in actions such as "closing" and "resizing". Although users may see windows as being all the same, elementary OS has several distinct window types. It's important to understand the types of windows available to you, window behavior in general, and behavior that is specific to a certain window type. This section will cover the different types of windows available in elementary OS. Although each type of window is a bit different, think of them all as a subclass of a window. Unless otherwise stated, they all behave as an average window.
When dealing with window titles, consider that their main use is in distinguishing one window from another. A good window title will provide a description that helps a user make a selection. Keep that in mind as you consider the following:
Even if your app uses a headerbar, be sure to set the window's title; it can be shown in the window switcher and elsewhere in the OS.
Primary text providing basic information and a suggestion
Secondary text providing further details. Also includes information that explains any unobvious consequences of actions.
An alert contains both primary and secondary text.
The primary text contains a brief summary of the situation and offer a suggested action. This text should use the CSS class
The secondary text provides a more detailed description of the situation and describes any possible side effects of the available actions. It's important to note that a user should only need the primary text to make a decision and should only need to refer to the secondary text for clarification. This text should be placed one text line height beneath the primary text using the default font size and weight.
Make both the primary and secondary text selectable. This makes it easy for the user to copy and paste the text to another window, such as an email message.
When presenting a dialog to a user, always use explicit action names like "Save..." or "Shut Down". Consider how "OK" lets users proceed without understanding the action they are authorizing. Not all users will read the question or information presented to them in a dialog. Using specific action names will make it harder for a user to select an unintended action and may even encourage them to read the presented information before making a selection.
Preference dialogs should be made Transient, but not Modal. When a user makes a change in a preference dialog, the change should be immediately visible in the UI. If the dialog is modal, the user may be blocked from seeing (and especially from interacting with) the change. This means they will have to close the dialog, evaluate the change, then possibly re-open the dialog. By making the dialog transient, we keep the dialog on top for easy access, but we also let the user evaluate and possibly revert the change without having to close and re-open the preference dialog.
Popovers are like a contextual dialog. They display transient content directly related to something that was clicked on and close when clicked out of, like menus.
A popover should be used when a user wants to perform a quick action without getting out of the main UI. Some examples of where a popover could be used are adding a contact from an email, adding a bookmark in a browser, or displaying downloads or file transfers.
Popovers should not be used when displaying only a simple list of items; instead, use a menu. Likewise, don't use a popover if the user would spend more than a few seconds in it; instead, use a dialog. Remember that popovers are contextual and should directly relate to the UI element from which they spawn.
A Toolbar is useful for providing users with quick access to an app's most used features. Besides Buttons, a Toolbar is one of the most frequently used UI elements. It may seem like a simple container, but it is important to remain consistent in its use and organization.
Toolbar items should be organized with the most significant objects on the left and the least significant on the right. If you have many toolbar items it may be appropriate to divide them into groups with space in between each group. Keep in mind that when viewed with RTL languages, your toolbar layout will be flipped.
elementary OS uses consistent user interface (UI) elements to bring a unified and predictable experience to users, no matter what app they're using. When used properly, this ensures a small (or nonexistent) learning curve for your app.
Before we get into all the widgets available in elementary OS, we need to cover some basic concepts that apply to all widgets. Employing these concepts correctly will create a more seamless experience for your users and help you avoid sifting through bug reports!
A very common mistake for developers to make is creating controls that seemingly do nothing. Keep in mind that we want to present an environment where users feel comfortable exploring. A curious user will interact with a control expecting there to be some immediate reaction. When a control seemingly does nothing, this creates confusion and can be scary (Think, "uh-oh I don't know what happened!"). In some cases, controls that do nothing are simply clutter and add unnecessary complexity to your UI.
Consider the "clear" button present in search fields. This button only appears when it is relevant and needed. Clicking this button when the field is already clear essentially does nothing.
Sometimes it doesn't make sense for a user to interact with a widget until some pre-requisite is fulfilled. For example, It doesn't make sense to let a user click a browser's "Forward" button unless there is forward history available. In this case, you should make the "Forward" button insensitive or a user may click it, expecting a result, and be confused when nothing happens.
It's usually better to make a widget insensitive than to hide it altogether. Making a widget insensitive informs the user that the functionality is available, but only after a certain condition is met. Hiding the widget gives the impression that the functionality is not available at all or can leave a user wondering why a feature has suddenly "disappeared".
When a widget only makes sense in a certain context (not as an indicator of an action to be performed) sometimes it does make more sense to hide it. Take hardware requirements for example: It may not make sense to show multi-display options if the system only has a single display. Making multi-display options insensitive is not really a helpful hint on this system. Another exemption to this rule is a widget that a user will only look for in context, like the clear button example above. Finally, Keep in mind that insensitive items will still be recognized by screen readers and other assistive tech, while hidden widgets will not.
See also: Form Label Proximity: Right Aligned is Easier to Scan by UX Movement
Infobars provide contextual information and actions to the user with varying levels of severity.
It is important to determine the severity or type of infobar to use. There are four types of infobars available:
The Welcome Screen is a friendly way to help users get started with your app.
Typically a Welcome Screen is used for apps like Noise or Scratch where you have to import or create objects in a library before you can interact with them. This provides your users with a clear path to getting started and points out any immediate steps they must take before your app becomes useful.
If your app lets users clear its library, make sure that it returns to the Welcome Screen instead of an empty list.
The Welcome Screen consists of two sets of labels:
Grouped with each action is an icon that helps to quickly visualize it. Most of the time these will be Action icons, but you can use Places icons when importing or setting a location and even Apps icons if you must open a configuration utility.
A source list may be used as a high-level form of navigation. Source lists are useful for showing different locations, bookmarks, or categories within your app.
A source list may be separated into different collapsible sections, each with its own heading. For example, a file manager might have a section for bookmarked locations, a section for storage devices attached to the computer, and a section for network locations. These sections help group related items in the source list and lets the user hide away sections they might not use.
Avoid nesting expandable sections within a source list if possible; if you find yourself wanting to do this, you may need to rethink the sections.
Hierarchy is important with source lists, both within the widget itself and within the broader scope of your app.
Sections in the source list should be sorted from most important at the top to least important at the bottom. If you're having a hard time deciding the relative importance of each section, think about which section a user is likely to use more often. Sorting the sections this way ensures that the most important items are always visible, even if the source list is too short to fit all of the items, though of course items at the bottom will still be accessible via scrolling.
A source list goes at the left side of a window (or right side for right-to-left languages). Because the user reads in this direction, the sidebar is reinforced as being before (and therefore at a higher level than) the app's contents.
Buttons are an incredibly important widget to understand since your app will undoubtedly contain them.
Tool Buttons are almost always icon-only and do not provide a button border. They should not be accompanied by a label.
All Tool Buttons should have tooltips, since they do not contain a label. This assists users with disabilities as well as giving a translation for an unrecognized icon. Tooltips should be done in Sentence Case.
Like text button labels, a tooltip should clearly describe what will happen when the button is pressed.
Text Button labels should be done in Title Case.
Like menu items, Text Button labels should consist of an Action or a Location but not a status. Make sure that a button's label clearly describes what will happen when it is pressed.
"Remove Account", "Transfer to Jim's Laptop", and "Import 20 Songs" are good labels.
"OK", "Get more storage!", and "Low Battery" are not good button labels. The "Get more storage!" label has incorrect capitalization and unnecessary punctuation. The other two labels do not indicate what will happen as a result of clicking the button.
Since Text buttons have a clear and explicit label, it's usually unnecessary to give them a tooltip.
Apps that support the searching or filtering of content should include a search field on the right side of the app's toolbar. This gives users a predictable place to see whether or not an app supports searching, and a consistent location from which to search. Gtk+ provides a convenient complex widget for this purpose called Gtk.SearchEntry.
Search is for filtering the contents of a library, i.e. Music or Videos, to the matching items. Search is typically initiated when typing anywhere in a library view.
Find is for highlighting matching instances of a string, i.e. in a text editor, web page, or Terminal. It is triggered by a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+F) or with a search icon. The find bar appears in a revealer below the headerbar with relevant actions such as find next, find previous, highlight all, etc. The revealer may also contain other relevant actions such as replace or go to line.
If it is possible to include search functionality within your app, it is best to do so. Any list or representation of multiple pieces of data should be searchable using a search field that follows these rules:
Search fields should contain hint text that describes what will be search. You can set this using the entry property "placeholder_text".
Most search fields should use the format "Search OBJECTS" where OBJECTS is something to be searched, like Contacts, Accounts, etc.
If the search field interacts with a search service, the hint text should be the name of that service such as "Google" or "Yahoo!"
Selection controls present a way for users to select or enable options. There are several types of selection controls available in elementary OS:
Use checkboxes when users are making a selection of items. If you have a single option, avoid using a checkbox and use a switch instead.
Make sure that users can toggle the state of the checkbox by clicking on the label associated with the checkbox.
Labels associated with checkboxes should usually be nouns or nounal phrases.
Use a combobox (also called a dropdown) when:
Use linked buttons (also called a mode button) when:
Linked buttons can be used to select multiple related options like "Bold", "Italic", and "Underline", or they can be used to select a single mutually exclusive option like Grid, List, or Column view.
Linked buttons should never contain colored icons. Only 16px symbolic icons OR text. Do not mix icons and text.
Use radio buttons when:
Use a switch when users are toggling certain features or behaviors "on" or "off".
Don't use switches to select related items as part of a list, instead use a checkbox. Think of switches as acting on independent services and checkboxes as including objects in a list. This is an important distinction to make.
When possible, directly call out the service you are acting on. Do not use words that describe the state that the widget is describing like "Enable Multitouch", "Use Multitouch", or "Disable Multitouch". This can create a confusing situation logically. Instead, simply use the noun and write "Multitouch".
See also: 3 Ways to Make Checkboxes, Radio Buttons Easier to Click by UX Movement
Notebooks are a type of widget that lets apps show one of multiple pages (also colloquially referenced as "tab bars").
A Static Notebook is a small set of unchanging tabs, commonly seen in preferences or settings screens. The tabs appear as linked buttons centered at the top of the content area. A Static Notebook should typically contain two to five tabs.
A Dynamic Notebook is a way for an app to provide user-manageable tabbing functionality, commonly seen in web browsers. The tabs appear attached to the toolbar on their own tab bar above the relevant content. Tabs are able to be rearranged and closed, and a "new tab" button is at the start of the notebook widget.
Iconography is a key part of elementary OS. Icons make up the majority of the UI that your user will be actively engaging with; they're what bring the system to life and cater to the powerful recognition engine of the human brain.
Your icon should have a distinctive shape/silhouette to improve its recognition. This shape should not be too complicated, but the icon should not always be a rounded rectangle.
For example, if your icon's metaphor lends itself well to a unique shape, use that shape for the overall icon shape instead of placing that shape onto a generic rectangle, square, or circle.
|Bad (unnecessary base shape)||Better (unique shape)|
If you're creating an icon for a hardware device or a file type (such as those for MimeType or Device icons), its shape is typically a visual representation of its real-world counterparts. For example, the icon for a camera is a stylized camera.
Action icons are used to represent common user actions, such as "delete", "play", or "save". These icons are mostly found in app toolbars, but can be found throughout the OS.
If your app makes use one of these common actions, reference its corresponding icon instead of creating your own. This ensures a consistent user experience and aids in user recognition of common functions.
If your app has a unique action, you may need to create your own. When doing this, try to follow the look and feel of existing action icons, and include it along with your app.
elementary OS uses six main icon sizes throughout the OS and it's best to include all six as part of your application.
Design each icon for the size it's meant to be viewed at. In other words, do not design one icon and resize it to fill the remaining sizes, the best result is when each icon is designed individually. For more information about this practice (called "pixel-fitting") and its importance, we recommend reading Dustin Curtis' article, Pixel-fitting.
Color, don't be afraid to use it! Many of the elementary OS icons use vibrant colors; it's best to reserve muted tones and grays for boring system icons.
Colors do have their connotations, so be cognizant of this when picking them. For instance: red is usually associated with error or "danger" and orange with warnings. But you can use these color connotations to help convey your icon's meaning, such as green for "go". We use the following palette:
Symbolic icons are common system icons, that symbolize files, devices, or directories and are also used to represent common actions like cut, copy, and save.
Each symbolic icon is a reduced form of its full-color counter part. This minimal design ensures readability and clarity even at small sizes.
The use of full-color and symbolic icons is not interchangeable, both have appropriate uses.
Full color icons are best used for:
Symbolic icons are best used:
There are three aspects to note when designing an elementary OS icon:
Keeping these lines in mind while designing, means you can place elements along them so icons appear more consistent when put together. For example, notice how some elements in both the Terminal and Videos icon above relate to the mean line.
If you're designing a square-shaped icon, like the one for Terminal seen above, then consider using these common measurements (in pixels) for each icon.
|Canvas Size||Base Line||x-Height||Mean Line Height|
However there are exceptions. Many icons (especially mimetype icons) have ascending and descending elements, which are those elements that extend beyond the base line and x-height line (shown here in orange.)
Rounder components will generally require some overshoot, to compensate for the optical illusion that makes them look smaller than their rectangular counterparts.
All elementary OS icons have a thin outline (stroke) to improve their contrast. The width of this stroke is one pixel for all icons, at every size. The color of the outline is a darker variant (30% darker) of the primary color of the icon. For instance, in the calendar icon below, the green header has a stroke of a darker green.
To further improve contrast, strokes are also semi-transparent. This ensures that icons appear sharp against a variety of backgrounds. Also, if the element is near-white, this stroke acts as a border and contains, rather than overlaps, its corresponding element. See the above icon for an example of this.
If you picture an icon sitting on a shelf, facing you, with a light source above it, you may see a small fuzzy shadow near the bottom. Also, since the edges of an object tends to reflect more light due to your position relative to it and to the light source, they will have a highlight. Both these effects are something elementary OS icons emulate in their design to lend them a degree of realism.
To apply the edge highlight effect to your icon, draw a subtle, 1 pixel, inner stroke as a highlight. This outline is slightly brighter at the top and the bottom than it is at the edges.
To draw the shadow, you'll start by drawing a rectangle. Then fill it with a linear gradient that is perpendicular to the bottom margin of the icon. The gradient has three stops, the first and last of which have zero opacity. Then this entire shape is set to 60% opacity.
Next create two smaller rectangles to "bookend" the larger. Fill each with a gradient identical to the first, but make it radial instead. Center the radial gradient in the middle of a short edge with each stop directly out to the nearest edge—see below for an example. Both these rectangles are also set to 60% opacity.
If your icon has a pictogram, such as the play triangle in the icon below, you can give it a drop shadow to make appear extruded from the background of the icon.
To do this, first duplicate the pictogram, fill it with solid black and set it to 15% opacity. Next, shift it 1 pixel down and place it below the pictogram. Create a copy of this shadow and give it a 1 pixel stroke (also black) and adjust this element to 7% opacity.
Alternatively, you can also use a highlight and shadow to make the pictogram appear inset into the background.
|Bad (flat pictogram)||Better (extruded pictogram)||Better (inset pictogram)|
You are free to add gloss (extra highlights) to your icon but this is only a good idea if you're emulating a surface that is more-reflective in real life (such as plastic, glass, etc.) For instance, a sheet of paper is not glossy therefore a icon emulating paper would not be either.
Below are some "do and don't" examples to consider when creating icons for your app.
Your icon should not be overly complicated. Keep in mind that since there are smaller sizes, the elements that make up your icon should be distinguishable when at those sizes.
Your icon should make use of transparent elements, and should not simply be full-frame images. Where you can, distinguish your icon with subtle yet appealing visuals.
Don't make a thin icon. Your icon's weight should be comparable to that of other icons. An overly thin icon won't stand out well on many backgrounds.
If you would like to give your icon a tilted perspective, it should tilt backward (not forward).
Avoid simply slapping an element onto a base shape; use a unique outline to make your icon more distinct.
Although elementary OS primarily uses graphics as a means of interaction, text is also widely used for things like button labels, tooltips, menu items, dialog messages, and more. Using text consistently and clearly both in terminology and format is an extremely important part of designing your app and helps add to the overall cohesiveness of the elementary OS platform.
Use the following rules to keep your text understandable and consistent:
Don't give the user a bunch of text to read; a lengthy sentence can appear daunting and may discourage users from actually reading your messaging. Instead, provide the user with short and concise text.
Assume the user is intelligent, but not technical. Avoid long, uncommon words and focus on using common, simple verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Never use technical jargon.
Put the most important information at the beginning of your text. If the user stops reading, they'll still have what they need in mind.
Repetition can be annoying and adds unnecessary length to your messaging.
Visual hierarchy aids users in reading and comprehending your text as well as knowing what is most important. Use headings and other text styles appropriately.
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While much of elementary OS is developed in English, there are many users who do not know English or prefer their native language. While putting text into your app, keep the following in mind:
All textual user interface items, including labels, buttons, and menus, should use one of two capitalization styles: sentence case or title case.
Sentence case means you capitalize like in a standard sentence or phrase.
Only the first letter of the phrase and the first letter of proper nouns are capitalized. Used for labels and descriptive text.
Title case means you capitalize like a book or article title. In elementary OS, we follow the AP Style.
Used for titles, buttons, menus, and most other widgets.
Proper nouns should always be capitalized properly; this means that, for example, Google should always be shown as "Google," and MPEG should always be shown as "MPEG." One major exception is "elementary." It should follow the brand guidelines and always appear lowercase, even at the start of a sentence. If you're unsure how a certain pronoun should be officially capitalized, refer to the documentation of the pronoun in question.
Keep in mind these are the rules elementary OS follows for English; capitalization for other languages should follow the conventions of those languages.
Proper typography is important throughout elementary OS. Not just for consistency within the OS, but for following proper convention and presenting ourselves as a serious, professional platform.
\u2026in your code.
\u201Din your code.
\u2019in your code.
\u00F7in your code.
\u0169in your code.
\u2010 in code. Used for:
\u2013 in code. Used for:
\u2014 in code. Used for:
If in doubt, refer to Butterwick's Practical Typography.
These rules apply to the English language; other languages may have their own conventions which should be followed by translators.
The ellipsis character (…) is used in the interface for two primary reasons: informing the user of an additional required information and letting the user know text has been shortened.
An ellipsis should be used to let a user know that more information or a further action is required before their action can be performed. Usually this means that the user should expect a new interface element to appear such as a new window, dialog, toolbar, etc in which they must enter more information or make a selection before completing the intended action. This is an important distinction because a user should typically expect an instant action from buttons and menu items while this prepares them for an alternate behavior. More specifically, an ellipsis should be used when the associated action:
Ellipses should be used when shortening text that cannot fit in any specific place. For example, if a playlist's name is longer than the space available in the sidebar, truncate it and use an ellipsis to signify its truncation. There are two ways to use an ellipsis when shortening text:
If you're unsure, it's best to use middle truncation as it keeps both the beginning and end of the string in tact. It's also important that you do not ship your app with any truncated text; truncation should only be the result of a user action such as resizing a sidebar or entering custom text.
Be sure to use the actual ellipsis character (…) rather than three consecutive period (.) characters.
Menu items should have names that are either actions or locations, never descriptions. Make sure menu items are concise, but also fully describe the action that will be performed when they are clicked.
"Find in Page..." is acceptable as it clearly describes the action that will be performed when the item is clicked. "Software Up to Date" is not acceptable. What happens if I click this item? Where will it take me? What will it do? The outcome is uncertain.