Visual Studio 11 Design Changes – What, Really?

The Visual Studio Team has blogged about the “broad reaching experience improvements” in Visual Studio and the comments section is exploding.

The topics that generate the most negative reactions are:

1. Reduction of colors of the “chrome” of the UI

Many people find it “depressing” while I kind of like it. I think that, together with a reduced amount of lines, this is a good step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, at some point this quest for reducing distractions went overboard, which leads me to the second point:

2. Removal of any colors from all icons

This is a major problem in my opinion, and judging from the comments I don’t seem to be the only one to have a problem with that.

When reading in the original blog post (quote) …

While we understand that opinions on this new style of iconography may vary, an icon recognition study conducted with 76 participants, 40 existing and 36 new VS users, showed no negative effect in icon recognition rates for either group due to the glyph style transition.

… I’m having a hard time believing the tests did measure the right thing in a realistic scenario.

Up to Visual Studio 2010, there are two kinds of icons:

  • Icons I find/recognize even in the corner of my eye, without staring directly at it. I can quickly glance at the toolbar and find “that mostly green thingy” or understand that “this one’s about creating something new, I recognize the yellow flash in the upper left corner
  • Icons that try really hard to convey some concept but fail because there are simple too few pixels.

The icons in the new UI now

  • Take away one important information that really helped the icons in the first group, and
  • make it even harder for the icons of the second group

I’m already using a tool with almost monochromatic icons: Expression Blend. And while there are other reasons why I haven’t used it as much in the past as I should have, one thing I notice over and over again is that I have too look much harder to find a specific icon.


This is ugly, plain ugly. In the example screenshot, the title of the Solution Explorer window at first sight looks like a dark grey rectangle. That’s what your eye does when scanning something like “SOLUTION EXPLORER”.

In addition to this, ALL CAPS texts is wider, thus taking valuable screen space.

Final thoughts

I’m really excited about the upcoming Visual Studio and it’s features, but I’m not convinced by the presentation as of now.

It’s a fact that users quickly scan UIs for interesting bits instead of carefully reading texts and deciphering complex icons. Is the idea behind the new UI to force users to slow down by removing clues (the shape of text in the tool window titles being reduced to one or more large rectangles, icons being mostly a rectangle with some “dirt” in one of the corners)? I hope not.

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