February 25, 2013 Appearance Preference Pane

Quick, click on the Apple Menu. Then select System Preferences. Now find Appearance all the way in the top-left corner. Click it once, and tell me what you see. Is your Appearance set to to the default Aqua Blue, or do you prefer the more subdued Graphite? What Highlight color have your chose? Is it Graphite, Silver, Blue, Gold, Red, Orange, Green, Purple, or something in between? When you click in the scroll bar where do you go? How many recent items are you showing in your Apple menu, and at what point size does your Mac turn off font smoothing? For over ten years the Appearance Preference Pane has asked these questions and more. But it hasn’t always been this way, and the Appearance Preference Pane wasn’t always called Appearance.

The Mac has always kept up appearances, and given users a way to customize the look and feel of their computers. Beginning with the first Mac, and System Software 1.0, the desktop pattern could be edited one pixel at a time using Susan Kare’s carefully designed Control Panel. Designs were limited to only two colors, black & white, and it was a lot harder than it looked to come up with an appealing pattern.1

Starting in System Software 7.0 the possibilities of the desktop pattern were expanded for Macs that supported color. The desktop pattern could now include up to eight individual including green, blue, cyan, pink, red, yellow, and two shades of grey. Constructing appealing desktop patterns was now even more difficult, but the pixel by pixel desktop pattern editor wouldn’t last long. For the first time users were given the option to specify their own highlight color, and select a accent color for windows. This is where the modern Appearance Preference Pane was born.

As System 7 matured so did the visual customization capabilities of the Mac. For the first time users could pick the font the Finder used to display list items, and the size of the icons accompanying each entry. The option to keep icons snapped to grid was born, and folder labels with their choice of color made an appearance. The Appearance Control panel was broken into three views by System 7.5.3, one for color, one for folder views, and one for the desktop pattern which was no longer restricted to a palette of colors.

Mac OS 8 extended the appearance capabilities of the Macintosh desktop experience by offering users a choice of more developed accent colors, system fonts, and for the first time the ability to set a full screen desktop picture. Mac 8.5 brought customizable themes that could dramatically change the Macintosh’s look. While Mac OS 9 unified the controls for themes, colors, fonts, desktops, sounds and options under a single appearance control panel. Without hacks, the Mac’s look and feel would never bee this customizable again.

As the Macintosh Desktop made the transition to Mac OS X much of the appearance options long time Mac users had taken for granted started to disappear. Gone were the themes, system sounds, and the ability to change the system font. Lucinda Grande became the primary System font in all versions of Mac OS X. Setting the Desktop picture was moved to it’s own preference pane, and the Appearance Preference Pane was renamed General until the release of Mac OS X 10.3. At fist Aqua Blue, with its traffic light colored controls, was the only available accent color, but Graphite was added with the Public Beta to appease the demands of color concious graphic designers looking to eliminate distraction. In the two years between the release of Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, the Macintosh operating system evolved from one of the most visually customizable operating systems, to one of the least.

Today, after the release of nine major versions of Mac OS X, the Appearance Preference Pane is one of the least changed features in the modern Macintosh operating system. Still, that doesn’t keep you from adjusting the options it provides. So what are you, a Blue or a Graphite? A silver, gold, green, orange, or something else? I am a Graphite/Orange myself, but I would be interested in hearing what color combination you use, and why you use it? One more thing, does anyone still use the recent items in the Apple menu anymore?

  1. Bill Atkinson was so concerned about a potentially ugly desktop pattern marring the appearance of MacPaint that “he made MacPaint allocate a window that was the size of the screen when it started up, and filled it with the standard 50% gray pattern, making his own desktop covering up the real one, thus protecting the poor users from their rash aesthetic blunders, at least within the friendly confines of MacPaint.” In doing so he created the first full-screen desktop Mac app, and a default background that was a predecessor to dark linen.