KDE Plasma 5: A New Awareness of Design

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 16, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The release of KDE Plasma 5 is mostly a technical event. However, one fact that is being mostly ignored is that Plasma 5 is the first release in which the KDE Visual Design Group has been at work, attempting to improve Plasma visually. Which raises the question: how successful is this effort?

The Visual Design Group is overdue in KDE. Over the last fifteen years, the KDE desktop has offered everything in default themes from a blocky, plastic theme that resembles plastic children's toys to a metallic modern minimalism, but has never approached design systematically. Unlike GNOME, KDE has never encouraged consistent design principles, with the result that some utilities, such as the System Settings, have taken several years to become well-organized. As the home page for the group admits, "visually, we were lacking."

At the same time, many free software circles view attention to design with some suspicion. Not only is "eye-candy" a common term of contempt, but design teams for GNOME and Unity in recent years have left a reputation for arbitrary decisions and obsessing over minor details combined with a contempt for user opinion and a reduction in work-flow options. Hearing of the Visual Design Group, many users' first reactions are likely to be to wonder if we are about to see more of the same in KDE.

Geometric Minimalism
On the whole, I'm pleased to say, the apprehensions seem misplaced.  Open Kate or Dolphin, and the first thing you might notice is that Plasma has suddenly discovered consistent spacing and the use of white space. Some widgets, too, have been simplified -- for instance, the scroll bars have been reduced to a single line of color without any arrows. These small improvements alone make a surprising difference in the look and feel.

Overall, the default appearance of Plasma 5 might be described as geometric minimalism.

You can see this design philosophy as soon as you boot up in the default wallpaper of interlocking triangles. Visually, it is far as possible from the abstract waves that have characterized KDE's recent releases, yet, at the same time, the way that the shapes on the desktop change to diamonds and pyramids depending on how you focus signals that the design is more complex than it first appears.

Much the same can be said about Oxygen, the new default font. A modern geometric font, Oxygen features fully rounded bowls on letters like "b" and "q," and a minimum of curves, a combination that works especially well in the monospaced typeface. Careless observers may be tempted to dismiss Oxygen as too simple to be interesting, but it is a versatile alternative to the much more common humanistic free fonts used in other desktop environments.

The icons, too, aim for simplicity. They are little more than outlines and monochomatic, contrasting sharply with the colored, three-dimensional icons found in recent KDE Software Compilations. For example, where the Find icon in the Dolphin file manager was once a pair of binoculars, it has become a circle with a handle, evidently representing a magnifying glass. Similarly, in Kate, the Previous Document icon in the toolbar has been reduced to the text surrounded by angle brackets.

Whether these stick figures are any more or less functional than any alternatives is debatable, especially when they seem to rely heavily on arrows pointing in obscure directions. And why, exactly, are applications represented on the menu by what appears to be a classical temple? However, the point is that they represent an attention to interface consistency that has traditionally been rare in KDE.

The First Glimpse of Many
Plasma 5 is like Plasma 4.0 in that some options are missing, making it hard to know what is a design choice and what is an unimplemented feature. For example, is the inability to change a desktop icon an attempt to simplify, or simply a feature that the developers have put off until the next release? The experience of GNOME and Unity makes me worry that the developers are limiting user options for the sake of a supposed design principle, even though common sense suggests that they will add the ability to change icons eventually.

However, such uncertainties do not prevent a verdict on KDE's new attention to design. In general, they are modest enhancements, doing what design is supposed to do -- quietly enhancing the utilities and desktop environment without calling more attention to themselves than the functionality. Undoubtedly, not every user will prefer the defaults set by the Visual Design Group, but very few should violently object to them, either.

Unexpectedly enough, after both GNOME and Unity showed signs of becoming compulsive about design at the expense of functionality, KDE -- of all the unexpected projects -- appears to be the first to get the relationship between design and functionality approximately right.

KDE Plasma 5 is worth applauding for several elements, such as its improved menu and desktop search. However, in the end, its design may prove at least as important. With any luck, it is the first signs of what we are going to be seeing for the next few releases.

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