Office Themes: Getting Documents To Sing One (Beautiful) Song

Today I present the first of what I hope are many guest articles on Office
user interface issues written by other folks from the product team. This first
series of articles describes the new themes capabilities of Office
12 and how they integrate with the user interface. Look for new articles every Wednesday.

Today's Guest Writer: Howard Cooperstein

is a Lead Program Manager in the PowerPoint and OfficeArt

My name is Howard Cooperstein my work has been primarily on OfficeArt, the drawing and graphics
features shared across Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher and FrontPage. I was
also the User Interface lead for PowerPoint 2002. For Office 12 I am the lead
for the Office Themes team.

A big part of the Office 12 user interface story is how fast you can create a
great looking document. This is the first in a series of articles explaining
how we fill up Office 12’s galleries with great looking choices.

Office 12 dramatically improves the aesthetic quality of formatting and this
becomes really clear when you look at documents created with previous versions.
In our research we looked at a lot of customer documents and for the most part
they are professional looking but quite plain, relying on the default styles for
text, tables and graphics. Obviously, PowerPoint with its Design Templates has
the most colorful and graphically rich documents. But, even so, the tables,
charts and diagrams on those slides usually aren’t as polished as background on
which they sit.

Let’s look a little closer at what exactly is going awry with
formatting. As mentioned above default styles are most often used and these
styles are far less than compelling. For example, take the default table and
chart styles (pullease!)

Individually, each has serious visual design issues. Taken together there’s
the additional issue that they don’t match each other in type face, colors, or
shading style. Office 2003 has some limited capabilities in Word and PowerPoint
to tie content styling together, but for the most part each piece of content is
singing its own style tune. It’s easy to see how documents frequently end up a
cacophony of styles.

Default issues aside, Office 2003 can make a great looking document if you
know all the right features to use, in the right ways. We came across some
stunning examples in Word and PowerPoint, in particular. Why do the vast
majority of users fail to create documents like this? Fundamentally it’s because
1) very few users are skilled in graphic design and 2) the existing user
interface fails to account for fact #1. Hey, we can’t all go to design school!
Our tools should let us focus on our work and make many of these design
decisions for us. Office 12’s galleries which insert pre-styled content and
apply multiple formatting settings in a single click are well poised to address
the UI issue, but you still need a way to put that visual design sense into the

Enter Office Themes. While similar in name to an existing feature in Word,
Office Themes are an entirely new way to specify the colors, fonts and graphic
effects to be used in a single document.

The Office 12 Ribbon uses this design description to provide galleries of
Quick Styles that always match the Theme of your document. The Themes and the
Quick Styles are created by visual designers. The natural result: people create
documents that sing one (beautiful) song.

In Office 12, Word, PowerPoint and Excel all support the new Theme
architecture. They all read the same theme file format. Not only will the
styling of content match within a document but you can make documents,
presentations and spreadsheets that match each other. And all of your content is
dynamically linked to the theme; change your theme and your entire document will
transform its colors, fonts and graphic effects to match it.

In upcoming posts I’ll cover more details about the remarkably compact design
magic inside each Office Theme file and discuss the design goals behind the
Themes and Quick Styles user interfaces.

Comments (30)

  1. Short and sweet: ‘Bout Time!

    I’ve been complaining about this in Office for years.  Thanks for finally figuring out a way to simplify styling on a “master” level, outside of an individual document, without having to hold one foot behind your head while uttering mantras of worship to the god of Office and guessing which “style” attribute to modify. j/k.  But the truth has been that modifying the default styling on Office documents has always been a very difficult tedious process.  I’m glad to see it is changing.

  2. Felix says:

    Dude: apostrophes!

  3. PatriotB says:

    So, do these themes trickle down to embedded OLE objects (i.e. an embedded Excel chart inside of a Word document)?

  4. Great!  My first question is probably fairly obvious:  can corporations (or indeed anyone) create their own themes thereby giving their employees the power to produce corporate documents with a consistent look and feel even when not based on a template file?  Probably so, but jut thought I’d ask.

  5. Abigail says:

    I think there must have been an issue when Jensen copied in the post, because I can’t imagine that Howard just refused to type any apostrophes at all. 🙂

  6. William Gallagher says:

    Really sorry to say this, I’d have let it go but for how the topic is about the design of documents and communication, but there are a lot of typoes and unclear grammar in this one.

    I don’t mean to offend David but what he says is very interesting, it just takes some work sometimes to see what he means.


  7. Brian says:

    I think this is a start, but my primary complaint around themes is that a) they often aren’t very good (Publisher has had themes for awhile, but no designer would use them) and b) even if they are good at the time a product ships, there isn’t an easy way to keep them up to date (XP themes looked cool when XP launched, but are pretty dated now).

    Mr. Gallagher, if you are going to complain about typoes(sic) and grammar, spell typos correctly and learn how to correctly construct a sentence.

  8. jensenh says:

    Hey guys, Jensen here.

    Howard does know how to type apostrophes. 🙂

    Unfortunately one of the tools I use to post stripped them during the publishing due to an error on my part.

    I’ve restored them to the article.

  9. Frank says:

    I am very happy to hear about the theming support. As someone who struggles to keep all their corporate documentation in one "theme", it would seem that this will make my job a lot simpler.

    I only have to finally remark that of the 9 built-in themes of Beta 1 of Word, only one has a serifed typeface for the copy. It’s a new world I’m told. 🙂

  10. loki says:

    Great post! Howard, can you revive the PowerPoint’s blog, please?

  11. mark hoff says:

    I’m sure the new themes are very nice, but I don’t agree with your general analysis. Sure, most people aren’t excellent designers, but the’re not _that_ bad. Working with styles in Word is a hassle, regardless of if you’ve gone to design school or not.

    For example, why do I have to change the existing headline styles if I want to create my own header style? I should be able to mark any text and click a little check-box to inform Word that it’s a header.

    (And of course all WordPerfect users have already asked you why it not possible to Show All Codes on a selection to see what formating something really has)

  12. Peter May says:

    A good idea all right. My suggestion – simply referring to this feature as "Office Themes" will lead users to think that it is a way of changing the way the programs themselves look. You know, the scroll bar, mouse pointer and so on.

    A name like "Office Document Themes" would help to clarify the intent of the feature.

  13. loki says:

    Peter, you are confusing "themes" with "skins" 🙂

  14. HowardCo says:

    Thanks for the comments.  Some replies to your posts:

    – It’s always a risk that Theme-type content becomes stale.  Our new themes are more customizable than ever to keep them fresher longer.  New Themes will be available from Office online.

    – Corporations and users can customize and save their own themes into the gallery.

    – OLE: Charts are now edited/rendered using OfficeArt 2.0! They are very richly themed.  Existing OLE chart objects update their colors when theme changes in PPT only — a feature from previous releases.

    – Serif Fonts: there will be closer to 50% in our final Theme set.

    – "Office Document Themes" is the official long name for the feature.  They are stored on disk in a folder with that name.

    – Loki: Thanks for your interest in the PPT blog.  We’re already looking into reviving that. 🙂

  15. Jensen,

    Thanks for taking my comment about the guest column’s punctuation and grammar well: I truly agonised over whether to say anything because you’d gone to the trouble of organising this, he’d gone to all the trouble of writing it, and it was his first day in the blog.

    But as I said, the topic and this problem, I felt I had to say something. So I did it as quickly as I could and I’m relieved you took it well. I know that criticism even from a random total stranger can scrape at one, so I hope Howard was able to igmore me.

    While I have you for a moment, though, I obviously thought a lot about the blog and what it does. I knew I read it every day, I absolutely do look forward to it and I think it’s fantastic to have this line into the thinking behind the new Office. I’m a journalist and used to work in computing titles here in the UK – and, Brian, this is why I’ll ignore your American English spelling requirement – so I often covered Office and would have loved this blog back then.

    I’ve also realised with some surprise that I’ve no interest in Windows Vista: it just seems old hat to me already. True, I’ll be glad to have some features on my PCs that I’ve long relied on with my Mac, but I’m not reading any Vista blogs, if there are any. Yet I’m eating up Office information because it feels like you’re doing some genuinely, radically new here.

    I’m sure the new Office will be a huge success but that’s easy for me to say now, being able to see all this information and see the videos and the screenshots. It must have been a brave soul who first suggested revamping everything.

    So I’m sorry my first comment on here was critical. I think the point was important, but that’s why I’m glad you addressed it so professionally.

    Now, I haven’t read today’s entry yet, I must do that right now.



  16. jensenh says:

    Thanks for the kind words, William, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog–it makes it worth all the work to have readers who care.

  17. colourama says:

    the theming implies a relationship between the colours in the graph and the colours in the table, though as implemented here there is none

    also the alternate row colouring in the table imply semantics, when there are none

    in short, the colours may be pleasing on the eye but they’re not pleasing on the brain – they actually make the data harder to interpret (unlike the "seasons" table in an earlier post which was a brilliant use of colour)

  18. Howard
    Cooperstein is a Lead Program Manager in the PowerPoint and OfficeArt
    Last week I gave…

  19. HowardCo says:

    colourama, excellent point! Yes, the table and the chart have a data relationship that can be better visualized by making the column colors match colors of the data bars.  (Note, the legend shows Series1-3, an error, should say East, West, North.)

    The chart and table styles aren’t automatically styled-linked this way, but, in Office 2007 you can far more easily accomplish this formatting: our new color picker has tints and shades built in. (See yesterday’s post, 2/22.)

    That said, XL’s awesome new data visualization tools can use scheme colors to both give you that "brilliant" use of color AND match your document.

    By any chance are you a fan of Edward Tufte’s work? He’d be happy to hear this discussion. 🙂

  20. colourama says:

    never heard of the guy but his work looks interesting so I will read up on him

  21. I returned to Microsoft  (after a 7 year hiatus) in late 2003 just as the Office 2007 effort was getting…

  22. Today’s post is the first of two parts covering a fairly large and important topic for PowerPoint: applying…

  23. If you don’t want to read this whole post, here’s  a quick demo of a document Theme being applied…