Eye Nutrition

A few years ago, I got a Mac. It started when I read about Apple jettisoning their entire operating system core and starting over with the UNIX-based NeXT operating system. Every day after work, I stopped by CompUSA and just explored all the OS X systems there. This all happened in late 2002 and, at the time, there was just nothing that looked anything like OS X… it was just incredibly gorgeous. When Apple announced Jaguar, I decided to jump on the train and buy an iBook. It was relatively inexpensive, and a good way to step into the world of OS X.
Today I am using Vista, Ubuntu, and deeply exploring the depths of WPF, and the unique shine of OS X doesn’t seem as unique anymore. Now that everyone has pretty well jumped on the “eye candy” bandwagon, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and observing how much many of them are missing the point.
The thing that Apple did so well with OS X aesthetically was to use the full power of the hardware and software to create a beautiful and usable system. There are many subtle hints in OS X that employ alpha channels, stencils, and color to great effect, but I don’t call it eye candy. In most cases, it’s eye nutrition. For example, look at the search of the System Preferences in Tiger. Immediately it not only lists the relevant results, but through visual design, you get even more immediate feedback on where you might be most interested to look.

OS X showing some eye nutrition in a System Preferences search
OS X showing some eye nutrition in a System Preferences search

The use of an alpha channel in this way really helps improve the usability, and communicates with the user. Of course, the typical use of an alpha channel in most systems is to make semi-transparent, difficult to read windows.
OS X also uses the alpha channel to display a shadow under each window. The top-most window has the deepest shadow and provides an instant visual cue to the user about the arrangement of the windows on the screen.
None of this is to say that OS X doesn’t have eye candy as well, but it’s a lot sweeter when there’s nutrition to go with it.