Finder: How to tell what’s in the background and what’s in the foreground

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 18th, 2005 • 4:59 am

Apart from the addition of the Spotlight-related features, the Finder has barely changed in Mac OS X 10.4, and that’s a major disappointment, because there are so many things that could be improved, from the performance to the user interface.

One thing that hasn’t changed at all, for example, is the way the Desktop works in relation to other windows. As far as I can tell, in the Finder the Desktop is just another “window”. If you use the keyboard shortcut to cycle through all currently open windows in the Finder, you will go through all your currently open windows, and then eventually you’ll hit a stage in the cycle where all the currently open Finder windows are in the background, and nothing appears to be in the foreground.

And that’s when the Desktop is in the foreground.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly it. The only way you can tell that the Desktop (and all the icons in it) is in the foreground is by default, by the visual appearance of other Finder windows, which are all visibly in the background. But there is nothing in the Desktop itself that indicates visually that it’s in the foreground.

I should qualify this. There is actually a visual clue — but only if you have selected something on the Desktop. When an icon on the Desktop is selected, Mac OS X draws a square around its icon with a fuzzy pale grey outline and a dark background, and displays a solid colour background with round corners behind the text of the icon’s label:

Selected icon on Desktop

If the icon stays selected, but you switch to another Finder window (or to another application), then the only thing that changes is the colour of the solid background behind the icon’s label text, which becomes grey (as well as the colour of the text itself, which becomes dark grey):

Selected icon on Desktop in background

That’s it. That’s the only visual clue — the change in the colour of the icon label’s text — that tells you whether the Desktop is in the foreground or not. And I am afraid it simply is not enough.

For other Finder windows, you have a number of additional clues: the three buttons in the top-left corner, which lose their colours, the change in the depth of the window’s drop shadow, the change in the visual aspect of the scroll bars when they are visible, and, in the case of non-metal Finder windows, the change in the visual appearance of the window’s title bar. That’s in addition to the visual changes that affect the selection, when something in the window is selected.

For the Desktop, the change in the selection colour is the only change. What’s particularly misleading is that the dark square with the pale grey outline that appears behind the icon when it’s selected does not change at all. Regardless of whether the Desktop is in the foreground or not, the square stays the same.

It’s not good enough. When working relatively fast with a number of windows open, it’s far too easy to get the impression that the selected icon on the Desktop is in the foreground when it’s not. And if you try to do command-Delete to trash the Desktop icon in question, thinking that it’s selected, you might end up trashing something else altogether, i.e. something that’s currently selected in another Finder window, the one that happens to be in the foreground.

This problem is not helped at all by the pervasive use of brushed-metal windows in the Finder. Because a brushed-metal window looks pretty much the same in the background as it does in the foreground, especially when your eyes are focused on another part of the screen and you only see the window indirectly, it’s far too easy to think that that window is in the background when it’s actually in the foreground. Combine this with the fact that there is so little difference in the Desktop itself depending on whether it’s in the foreground or in the background, and you have a good recipe for file trashing accidents.

Fortunately, file trashing is undoable. But it’s no excuse.

I might seem to contradict myself here. On the one hand, I say that Finder windows have a number of visual cues that indicate whether they are in the foreground or in the background. And on the other hand I say that brushed-metal windows look the same whether they are in the foreground or in the background.

But it’s not really a contradiction. While Finder windows have more visual cues regarding their foreground/background status than the Desktop itself does, they still don’t have enough of them — and it can be a problem when your eyes are not focused on the window in question.

I, for one, really hope that Apple will soon ditch the brushed-metal scheme for Finder windows and instead use the new window scheme used for System Preferences and for Mail in Tiger. As I said a while ago, one of the key benefits of this new scheme is that it preserves the “better dragability” aspect of the brushed-metal scheme but also provides better contrast between foreground and background windows, with an extended title bar that encompasses the toolbar and that changes its visual appearance in its entirety depending on the status of the window.

While this wouldn’t solve the problem of the lack of visual distinction between foreground and background status for the Desktop itself, it would help by making other Finder windows more visibly in the background when the Desktop is in the foreground.

2 Responses to “Finder: How to tell what’s in the background and what’s in the foreground”

  1. LoonyPandora says:

    I agree it is a little confusing – I’ve accidentally deleted a few files by mistake before, because of the confusion you describe.

    I doubt the Finder will get the unified toolbar look anytime soon (even though it sounds like a great idea) – simple reason is that it’s a Carbon app, and Carbon apps don’t have the ability to have the unified toolbar. Apple won’t switch the Finder to Cocoa, as it shows developers that Carbon is a valid development environment (“eating their own dog-food” – as the saying goes) – at least, that’s the reasoning I’ve heard.

    I would much prefer that they change brushed metal itself so that it looked better n the background (lighter shade of grey, perhaps) – this way other apps who use this theme can also benefit from more visual cues.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, maybe will make the “unified toolbar” scheme available to Carbon applications before they turn the Finder into a Cocoa application :).

    If I am not mistaken, iTunes is still a Carbon application too — so they could keep that one as the poster child and redo Finder in Cocoa. One can always dream! :)

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