Ubuntu and the Challenge of Design

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 06, 2010

It’s October, and that means it’s time for a new Ubuntu release. This year, it’s the big 10.10, the Maverick Meerkat, and on the surface, it’s a beautiful piece of work. The new default theme is sublime, muted, a pleasure on the eyes, and the new Canonical designed font, also named “Ubuntu” is likewise beautiful. In most respects, it seems that Ubuntu is making good on the promise of Mark Shuttleworth to raise the bar for desktop Linux from simply stable and usable to art.

Shuttleworth has the right idea, but to truly accomplish his task, he’s going to have to convince the rest of the open source community of something Steve Jobs said about the iPod in 2003:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Shuttleworth seems to understands this, and has said as much on his blog:

We’ll make the N release the best-dressed ever. But classy covers don’t equate to good reads – we want style and substance to meet and get along famously. Once Maverick is out the door we’ll be turning our attention to making the most of the amazing capabilities of modern graphics hardware, both for outer beauty and for inner efficiency. There’s a lot more to GL than glitz and glamour, though we won’t say no to either.

The “N release” he’s referring to is the “Natty Narwhal”, Ubuntu 11.04. I admire Shuttleworth’s stated goals for Ubuntu, but Canonical faces the same design and usability challenges inherent in all Linux distributions. Canonical doesn’t “create” Ubuntu as much as “curate” it. That is, they select the best open source software available and package it up for download, with a few of their own tweaks put into it. That’s the job of the Linux distribution. The problem is that while their focus on design is admirable, it’s coming in at the end of the game, not at the beginning. Since they can’t manage the entire development process for the applications that come bundled with Ubuntu, they can’t instill the design principles and care for the user experience at the very core where it’s needed.

In the end, designing Ubuntu comes down to just another theme, what desktop environments have been doing for years.

Not that themes are not important, they absolutely are. The theme of Ubuntu is what the everyday user is going to see, it’s their first impression of what could be their first open source desktop environment, and we obviously want it to be a good one. What Canonical is doing with Ubuntu’s default theme is important, but it is really just a first step. They face the daunting task of designing from the outside in, and not from the inside out. Canonical is tackling an elephant, and are to be applauded for their effort. My sincere hope is that this new focus on design and usability becomes infectious and spreads to the entire open source community.