Sam's Blog

Addressing Icons Themes (Again)

Posted on 18 Jan 2019 updated 29 Jan 2019
Note: it should go without saying that these are my own opinions.

I wrote some time ago on how platforms have a responsibility to respect the identity of applications, but now there’s some rumblings that Ubuntu’s community-built Yaru icon set (which is a derivative of the Suru icon set I maintain) intends to ignore this and infringe upon applications’ brands by modifying their icons:

WYD Yaru

(I'm not sure Mozilla or Google would be happy with this—not to mention some of the FOSS apps here—as these are high-profile, protected brands.)

Platforms & Identity

The main reason cited for doing this is to fix “visual fragmentation” but this mismatch is not solved by top-down modifications and the platform exerting itself over applications on it. How it’s fixed, is by creating a compelling story, workflow, and process for developers to opt into and join the platform style, or even reach out to them.

Ubuntu is claiming to have such an application platform in Snap, yet the default desktop icon set will be modifying the icons of applications distributed via it. 🤔

Given that the Suru-style is not an official part of the Ubuntu developer story anymore, how applications present themselves is now up to them should they choose to publish with Snap. But instead, a community-led team have decided to step in and make a platform-wide decision just because they think “it’s ugly” to have mixed-style icons.

Now, some of application developers, some of whom have reached out to me (Haguichi comes to mind), are opting to make Suru-style icons because they want their apps to fit in with Ubuntu—this is how it’s done!

What the Yaru team seems to lack is patience for developers to do it themselves and the willingless to let developers make up their own minds on whether or not to fit in with Ubuntu.

Disavowing Yaru

From the get-go, my advice and recommendations (as an icon design professional) to the Yaru team on how best to proceed with creating an appropriate platform icon set (and not one for the theming/modding community, which is a huge difference, by the way) was largely ignored or overtaken by “community input” and non-experts in the blogosphere.

In my view, design-by-community is as bad as design-by-committee (as it yields poor results and bad decisions) and I prefer to have no part of it. I hate to do this, but I’m compelled to disavow the Yaru icon project personally and I do not endorse decisions or changes made by it to Suru. Furthermore, I will no longer aid in its development as a maintainer of the upstream Suru project—they can carry on without me (as they have been doing anyway as a fork).

A Future with GNOME

Ubuntu is a serious project and in my opinion this whole community-themes-the-desktop endeavour is non-serious, with decisions that affect the entire app developer base willy-nilly and unmanagable long-term, as there are upstream design and platform changes that may affect themes—though I get how it was an olive branch to the community for axing Unity.

The best course of action, in my view, is to drop any pretense of a unique visual identity for the Ubuntu desktop (just as Unity was dropped and GNOME was adopted) and work together with GNOME on making the desktop experience better and eliminate overlapping or contradictory efforts. (We are open to input, despite public preceptions)

For instance, the entire point of the GNOME icon refresh initiative is to address visual mismatches between third-party app icons and GNOME icons and we been have reaching out to developers to see about updating their icons to new design—this is the appropriate approach for a platform visual overhaul, by the way—which could always use more help on.

Now I don’t see this ever happening, but I have hopes that someday Ubuntu will fully embrace GNOME and promote it as its desktop solution—especially given the desktop is out of the scope of the Ubuntu business these days .

I hope. 😅

A Mea Culpa

So writing a post on something that frustrates you is not something I recommend, and I have to apologize for my own lack of clarity.

I have to say I have no criticisms of the Yaru project itself as a community endeavour, but there are a whole host of things that I think need considering for an icon set at the platform level, like the responsibilty towards application developers, that I feel were not or have not being taken into consideration as a “official” Ubuntu thing.

I am also definitely not suggesting that Ubuntu folks aren’t pulling their weight on developing and contributing to the GNOME desktop.

When I was reached out to about using the Suru icons a default icon set for Ubuntu, mainly to kind-of replace the aging Humanity icon set, it made sense as it was originally the default icon style of Unity8 and I had put the work in to keep it alive somewhat for the community, but on the FreeDesktop there is a set of presumptions on the scope of an icon set. With that scope in mind, I set a hard line for what the Suru icon set ought to be as it would not be a community icon theme (like some of the other sets I have designed) but a platform default, but I got some pushback hence the fork Yaru.

Under GNOME, or any other FreeDesktop environment, a default icon set is limited in scope to where third-party applications provide their own icons. The idea there is that across all the FreeDesktop desktop enviroments, (from LXDE to KDE) app icons are consistent, be they apps made for GNOME or for KDE or cross-platform and historically most of “major” Linux distributions abided by this with their default icon sets.

It is my view that it would be inappropriate for a distro to impact how developers intend or expect their app icon to look across the FreeDesktop platform (not exclusively GNOME), by shipping a wide-ranging themes, or extending a default icon set into the realm of third party app icons. Take, the old Humanity icon set on Ubuntu, it wasn’t shipping icons for Firefox or Inkscape for example, or modifying them.

“You make themes, why all the fuss?” you mak ask, I draw the line between platforms and the community, if a user downloads an icon set to use, I consider that them modifying their own system—they’re not making decisions for anyone but themselves— whereas a distro/platform making that decision, would impact all applications across all desktops on their platform.

While my disavowal of the Yaru project is harsh—call it a protest—I still applaud the work of the Yaru folks, but it is my opinion that Ubuntu ought to work with GNOME on a common goal* in this area (though even better would 100% convergence with GNOME goals on the desktop). 😉

*(This goes for other GNOME distros too, but Ubuntu is grown up so it’s a bigger target.)

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