Why does icon text get a solid background if drop shadows are disabled?

A commenter asks why icon label have "those ugly color boxes" when there is a background image.

The answer: Because the alternative would be worse.

Imagine if there were no solid background between the text and the background image. You would end up with text against an unpredictable background, which doesn't help readability.

Take the default background for Windows XP: There are some places that are very light and other places that are very dark. No matter what color you pick for the icon text, it will look bad in one or the other place. If you decide to use white, then the text becomes unreadable in the clouds. If you decide to use black, then the text becomes unreadable in the shadows.

You lose either way.

The solution is to intercede a contrasting color to ensure that the text is readable. If your video card is powerful enough, the contrasting color is used only just around the strokes of text themselves, which lends a shadow-effect. If shadows are not enabled, then a solid block of contrast is used.

(And for those of you who say, "Use white in the dark places and black in the light places," what if there is a section of the wallpaper that has a dark area right next to a light area, and the text covers both?)

Comments (49)
  1. whiteninja says:

    But what if you went CHOAP CHOAP CHOAP and fiksed it? then will it work?

    you know it would be cool if you could right click on the icon then choose the icon text? (/me submits to kde quickly)

  2. Cooney says:

    Speaking of cool things – it’d be cool if, when explorer objects to a filename I choose on the inplace rename, it allowed me to fix the problem, rather than resetting the text completely. Not that it’s on-topic or anything.

  3. David Candy says:

    Why does having a Desktop Item, as I do, a dhtml page with THE DATE that doesn’t hide behind the taskbar, also turn it off. Likewise enabling Lock Desktop Items (even if there are none) also disables it.

    The Time Date thing started as a Active Desktop telephone messaging app that emailed a message to whoever. But I didn’t need that feature at home as I live on my own.

  4. Sean says:

    If you ask me this is just another example of Microsoft deciding what is "right for the user".

    <jedimindtrick>You do not want to change this option. The desktop looks just fine the way it is.</jedimindtrick>

    Why not give the user the option and then let them decide if it works or not. Your right, on some wallpapers it may look wrong/unreadable. But on others maybe not. Personally I like to keep all my icons lined up in a nice column along the right side of the screen. It would be easy enough for me to make sure I find an area of my background that contrasts well with the icon label.

    Bottom line is stop telling us what is best for us. Maybe we want it that way regardless of what you think is best. I mean does any one really need a label for the Word icon or the Netscape icon? I think I am familiar enough now to know whish is which even if I can’t read the label very well. On that note why can’t I jsut turn the labels off?

  5. antonme says:

    The answer: Because the alternative would be worse.

    Why isn’t there is an half-transparent background?

  6. Mike Dimmick says:

    If you want to set a different colour, use Control Panel > Display > Appearance tab > click Advanced, click the desktop area, and change the Color drop-down.

    I guess Cooney isn’t using XP or 2003. If you try to type a character not valid for a filename on XP, you get a bubble telling you you can’t use that character.

  7. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    I don’t think turning the labels off is something that, in practice, you’d actually want to do. Because I don’t know about you, but my desktop is littered with all kinds of crap, many of which have identical icons (e.g. folders, or Word documents). Without the labels, I wouldn’t know what half of them were.

    For the transparency thing, sure, it’s nice to give the user options, but at a certain point it’s better design to just make a choice for them. This is (just one area) where the open source crowd tends to fall down on UI design. They can’t decide how something should be, and don’t want to offend people who have contributed code by culling a feature, so they just punt on the problem by adding a checkbox, and then you wind up with the config dialog from hell that has about a thousand options for cosmetic pointless things that merely serve to confuse the user.

    Even in cases where you might think it’s still worth giving the user the choice, remember that you’re trading off time that could be spent on other things. Even the tiniest feature needs testing, and I’ve lost count of the number of times Microsoft gets flamed for "making cosmetic changes instead of fixing real issues".

  8. Jerry Pisk says:

    Tony, just because you wouldn’t do something doesn’t mean others wouldn’t wanna do it either. Microsoft makes these assumptions too much.

    Btw Windows API can XOR text, so it can be dark over light background and light over dark one. Of course this would mean giving the user a choice, which is not Microsoft style. They know better than their users.

  9. J. Edward Sanchez says:

    From what I’ve observed in Windows XP, when the "Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop" option is enabled, and there is a background image in use, the desktop icon text labels are hard-coded to white, and the "contrasting color" used for the "drop shadows" is always black.

    If "drop shadows" are not enabled, or if there is no background image, then the "solid block of contrast" used is actually just the desktop color, which simply shows through any background image. The text labels themselves are either black or white, depending roughly on the luminance of the desktop color.

    The "use white in the dark places and black in the light places" idea might work with complex background images if it were done on a per-pixel basis (rather than using a single color for any given text label); however, that might turn out to be slow, or ugly — or both. I like Windows XP’s "drop shadow" approach better anyway. Very slick.

  10. Cooney says:

    The "use white in the dark places and black in the light places" idea might work with complex background images if it were done on a per-pixel basis

    I thought that’s what the XOR drawing mode was for.

  11. If you’ve got the cycles, why not just xor the pixels of the label? Or use a color-cube and find a contrasting shade, skewed towards the user-selected color if it appears it’s going to be visually lost in the clutter?

  12. J. Edward Sanchez says:

    A simple XOR wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t always result in high contrast. For example, if you XOR white (0xFFFFFF) against medium gray (0x808080), you get an indistinguishable medium gray (0x7F7F7F), resulting in invisible text.

  13. Steve Perry says:

    I like the idea of having a transparency level setting for the background of the desktop icon and text. The way it would work is 0% transparent would show the desktop color as it does now. 100% would show the wallpaper image. I think most of the time using a white desktop color and setting transparency to 50% would look acceptable.

    Just a thought

  14. The "use white in the dark places and black

    > in the light places" idea might work with

    > complex background images if it were done on

    > a per-pixel basis (rather than using a

    > single color for any given text label);

    > however, that might turn out to be slow, or

    > ugly — or both. I like Windows XP’s "drop

    > shadow" approach better anyway. Very slick.

    The other reason why "use white in dark places and black in light places" won’t work is this:

    Look at the original Mac’s desktop. See that 50% black/white stipple pattern? Well, your text would become unreadable if the desktop was that.

    The drop-shadowing trick works in nearly all cases (it doesn’t work too great on a bright white background – but the text is still readable). It’s also what you see if you watch movie titles. They do this for a reason – it works well and gives predictable results, no matter what the background.

    As for other suggestions… XORing would only work if you used 0x808080 as your text color – which looks crappy if you ask me. It is also way too variable based on the background – people are used to reading solid text.

  15. Clinton wrote:

    > If you’ve got the cycles, why not just xor

    > the pixels of the label? Or use a color-cube

    > and find a contrasting shade, skewed towards

    > the user-selected color if it appears it’s

    > going to be visually lost in the clutter?

    The color cube works great until your text sits over the top of a random assortment of colors, making it impossible to pick a "contrasting shade". And per-pixel application of that algorithm would lead to steganography, not visible text.

  16. Jerry Pisk wrote:

    > Btw Windows API can XOR text, so it can be

    > dark over light background and light over

    > dark one. Of course this would mean giving

    > the user a choice, which is not Microsoft

    > style. They know better than their users.

    Tell ya what, Jerry… instead of bitching about it, why don’t you just get off your lardy ass and implement it – then post screenshots. Then, when you’re done testing it on a few backgrounds, how about you come back and retract your statement.

    XORed text looks like ASS on anything other than a solid color background. And if you are using a solid color background, you can just set your label color to the same as your desktop background color.

  17. Aarrgghh says:

    Why don’t they just make the text blink, and then turn bold/italic and become larger (thereby reorganizing the layout of the entire desktop) on mouse-over? Or you could simply enforce very large, bold, acid-green or bright red text on a black background with little twinkling stars. Web designers from one end of Geocities to the other have solved this problem already; why are they not being consulted?

    And it’s easy to deal with the XOR-fifty-percent-gray issue: Just forbid backgrounds of that color, or of colors approximating that color, or maybe just ones where there’s a patch of that color underneath an icon caption. It should be trivial to discard the wallpaper bitmap and make the background some reasonable neutral color (50% gray would be good) if the user moves an icon to someplace where the caption won’t be readable. The user may be confused by his wallpaper vanishing and reappearing arbitrarily, but that’s the user’s problem. He should know better.

    You could also just XOR the entire wallpaper, or only in that spot, or maybe just all the gray parts.

    And you could put a big red X or green check-mark next to the icon captions.

    I can’t for the life of me imagine why Microsoft hasn’t implemented any of these simple and obvious fixes.

  18. Aarrgghh says:

    Simon Cooke: What’s wrong with steganography? You could pitch it as a security feature: "Windows XP Brings Highly Advanced Encryption Technology to Your Desktop!"

  19. James says:

    I always wished Explorer would do a simple outline of the text. No alpha-blended drop-shadow, no ugly solid background, and it’s still readable.

    As for the XOR idea, no, that wouldn’t work. You do not want individual glyphs to be multi-colored, especially at small text sizes. It’s incredibly hard to read.

  20. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    Jerry, re-read my comments. I’m not against giving the user a choice per se, it’s just that there is a balance to be struck. Where do you draw the line? If you gave a configuration option for every possible design choice, then you’d end up with config dialogs with a blizzard of thousands of checkboxes – which then becomes a usability problem in itself.

    Remember, the art of design is the art of making choices.

    Also, remember my practical point. Every additional feature you add, even something as small as a checkbox in a dialog, is a feature that needs to be implemented, documented and tested. So you need to weigh that feature against every other feature you’d like to add. Not everything makes the cut. Again, it’s making a choice, and that’s what you have to do when you ship software.

  21. Cooney says:

    You could pitch it as a security feature: "Windows XP Brings Highly Advanced Encryption Technology to Your Desktop!"

    How about Windows XP Special High Integrity Technology Edition?

  22. asdf says:

    I just tried it in photoshop and I can’t see the problem if you do it like this: blit text at (+1,+1) in black, blit the black shadow at (0,0), blit the white text at (0,0). (Sort of how windows used to draw disabled text except white on top of black and with a shadow thrown in).

  23. Raymond Chen says:

    Um, isn’t that the drop shadow effect? This article is about what happens if drop shadows are disabled.

  24. Jane Snapes says:

    To everyone who is complaining that MS don’t give enough options:

    In most cases, with various degrees of pushing and shoving, you can override anything Windows does at the application level. If a customization feature is requested often enough, someone will find a way to do it.

    For example, I currently use a little utility called ButtonBoogie to let me re-order my taskbar buttons by drag and drop. This just hooks into explorer and intercepts messages to the tab control which represents the taskbar, then sends messages to it to re-order the "tabs". It’s a feature that most users don’t need, but you can get it if you want it.

    ButtonBoogie is a PC Magazine utility, incidentally. I got it from one of their cover CDs, but I think they’ll let you download it for a small fee.

  25. Jon Potter says:

    This comes down to another issue of "Windows knows best" and not giving the user the choice. Sure have drop shadows or a solid background as a default, but just give me the option to turn them off if I choose.

    You act like the user isn’t smart enough to realise that they might not be able to read the icon label over a background image. I’m sure most people could work this out – but if their background image doesn’t have this problem then why not let them turn this feature off?

  26. Aarrgghh says:

    Jon Potter: Because they’re too busy implementing the rotating-taskbar-buttons-with-scrolling-text feature, which was deemed more critical by a panel of objective experts. Also in Longhorn, you’ll be able to "shove" a window with the mouse and have it "fly" indefinitely around the screen, bouncing off the edges of the desktop and/or the other windows. You’ll be able to grab a second window with the mouse and essentially play Pong or Breakout, by whacking the moving window with the one you’ve grabbed. This is expected to provide an even greater productivity boost than XORing the icon captions against your anime tentacle pr0n wallpaper would have done.

  27. Steve Sheppard says:

    I detect some self esteem issues here with the people (Jerry) who seem to think everyone else thinks they are too stupid to make choices for themselves. I would like to remind them that contrary to what that little voice in their head says, most things in the universe are not directed at them or even actively ignoring their desires, they just don’t matter.

  28. Anonymous Coward says:

    Good to see that we can all have a reasonable, objective discussion about the critical issue that is how icons on top of a wallpaper look.

    Seriously, its hardly important stuff here. Who looks at Windows XP and says ‘I am not going to use this since I don’t like how the icons look when they are on top of wallpaper (apart from programmers – they don’t count).’

  29. Jon Potter says:

    No one does, but that’s not the point. There’s nothing wrong with choice. The computer is meant to be your slave, not the other way around.

  30. Gurka says:

    Welcome to the Nitpickers Society. Members apply.

  31. Matt says:

    If all the twits who argue that the user should be given the choice, including the choice to hide desktop item text or make it unreadable, really feel that strongly about it go write a utility or replacement to do it. Advertise your phone number at application startup though because I don’t want the support calls from all the students/corporate secretaries/Aunt Bettys who dig themselves a hole and can’t find their email anymore because they’ve hidden the text, and neither do MS Support.

    Frankly, well thought out view options cause enough trouble with "magically" disappearing toolbars and list columns. If you want the support calls for disappearing or illegible desktop item text, be my guest

  32. Jon Potter says:

    I hope you’re not that rude to Aunt Betty when she does call! :)

  33. Matt says:

    I’m normally much kinder to Aunt Betty, but can get upset with Aunts Winifred, Norma and Ethel after their third or fourth calls.

  34. Ian Hanschen says:

    You could use inversion for the text, but you’d need the bitmap data and it’d look like crap.

  35. Ian Hanschen says:

    hmm, and certain patterns would make the text really hard to read(using inversion). yuck.

  36. Centaur says:

    Who cares about the desktop icons and wallpapers, they’re covered with windows all the time anyway :)

    It’s kind of funny, though — to enable shadows, you have to have a wallpaper, and the wallpaper only shows up if you have no Desktop Items OR have not disabled images in Internet Explorer Options (misleadingly labeled Internet Options in Control Panel).

  37. Surge says:

    Err, it seems I’m the only one here that doesn’t keep anything on the desktop, no icons, no wallpaper, nothing…because I never see it. I run my apps maximized :)

    Could be also because of Total Commander, the perfect…well, shell I’d say (still missing a taskbar tho’ :), since I discovered it I never need to use that Explorer abomination thingie or drag & drop stuff all over my windows ;)

  38. Centaur – Total Commander does several things I hate:

    1. The default fonts are awful, and they ignore the Windows style guidelines.

    2. The fonts in the dialog are not always what you set in the font setup screen. (They default to the GDI Stock Font, which is great if you’re writing code for Windows 3.0).

    3. Folders have [] around the filenames. I can tell from the icon already that it is a folder, thanksmuch. You don’t need to put [] around it to let me know. I already figured it out. (There is, of course, as far as I can tell, no way of turning that off).

    It may have great functionality, but the UI is generally unpolished.

  39. Sean says:

    Tony Cox [MS] said:

    "…Because I don’t know about you, but my desktop is littered with all kinds of crap, many of which have identical icons (e.g. folders, or Word documents). Without the labels, I wouldn’t know what half of them were."

    Fine, thats how you do it. I keep my desktop sparten and clean. So what I suggest would work for me. I am not you, you are not me, thus my point in the first place.

    But I do agree about DBFH (Bruce McKinney coin that term?), so how about some power toy or additional Tweak UI options. Your right its tough to decide when you are just creating option overload for the average user but I am not an average user and sometimes the design decisions in MS products make me bonkers. I was thrilled when things like Tweak UI came out to offer the power user/guru types out there more control options.

    I don’t mean to rant but not turning off the labels just bugs me. Long ago I used to fudge it by setting the font to a really tiny size using "SmallFonts" but eventually I settled for icons off on the desktop and a desktop toolbar on the taskbar. And guess what? I don’t need the labels, especially when Windows pops up little helpful ballon tips if I forget what an icon is.

    You make a good argument, but I still don’t buy it! :~)


  40. <sarcasm>

    Wow, nice heated debate over such an important thing!</sarcasm>

    Really, if it was about big usability issues like why all the icons on the desktop gets rearranged every time you login, then the discussion would feel valuable. Now it seems it’s just about some people who want a neater/cleaner desktop.

    I agree with Tony Cox et al that too many options are bad! Have all you others already forgotten the Find Setup Wizard in WinHelp from Win95? That used to give me the shivers…

    Go read a good book on UI-design.

  41. Surge says:

    Simon Cooke –

    1) in Windows (and TC) I’m using Tahoma,8 everywhere, looks great

    2) ?!? never noticed that

    3) C:WINDOWSwincmd.ini [Configuration] DirBrackets=0 (I agree should be placed in the options dialog)

    I really can’t agree about the ui polishing, it looks extremely polished to me (maybe you used an older version?)…check this out (the icons are custom) http://dizzy.home.ro/tc.png

    And closer to the topic… does anybody know what’s the origin of the ‘icons on desktop’ concept? The desktop is usually covered by windows that need to be moved to find the icons underneath…more than 10-20 icons and it tends to get clutered because it lacks any hierarchy…if you change the screen resolution the icons get shuffled around…and of course the wallpaper/label/drop shadow problem discused here.

    The start button on taskbar/toolbar/start menu when right-clicking on desktop solutions seem perfect to me for icon management, then why let users place icons on the desktop? It seems a bit counterintuitive to me…of course some people seem to need some scratch space where everything gets saved/downloaded by default and where old junk tends to pile up, but that’s what my documents and the documents folder in the start menu are for, right?

  42. Tom Seddon says:

    Icons-on-desktop is pretty traditional. The Mac has had icons for whatever you would like since the year dot. Ye olde Windows and the Atari ST’s GEM put icons on the desktop for you. But they were always there.

    I think it’s supposed to act like a pending tray. You put stuff there that doesn’t deserve to be deleted, but that you’re not sure what to do with yet. It’s always visible, so you’re constantly reminded of all these yet-to-be-handled items.

    At least, that’s how I use it.

    Incidentally, I have read in a number of places — please forgive the vagueness! can find some references if necessary — that people in general do not like hierarchies. (Programmers, of course, like them enough to take up the slack and then some.) So perhaps the desktop’s very flatness is an advantage.

  43. Surge:

    I’m using version 6.03a.

    1) it defaults to MS Sans Serif Bold.

    2) Go to Config – Options – Color. Note the Windows 3.0-like font on the right hand side of the dialog. That’s the GDI stock font, and it should be what you specified in the Font dialog.

    3) Uck. No apps should put ini files in the Windows folder – if you must use an ini file in an app, it should go in the app’s folder, not the Windows folder.

    As for the origin of the icons on desktop concept, that comes directly from the original GUI at Xerox. Indirectly it comes from… erm… people leaving actual paper files in actual paper folders on their actual desktop. :-)

  44. Surge says:

    Simon Cooke:

    1) Maybe the author likes it…

    2) That’s an image, and the font is big and readable because, after all, it’s the color selection dialog. It would be nice indeed if it was the font I’m using, but this doesn’t bother me…

    3) I’m thinking of making a tool for all the hidden options :) try this:

    Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

    [HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREGhislerTotal Commander]




    Wish I could email you about this stuff, it doesn’t really go with this topic. Maybe there could be one about the two file manager styles, win explorer and tc/dn. After all,I know a lot of people that discovered tc and never looked back, but I never met anyone who went the other way, so it must be something to it :)

    Hmm, I thought the ‘actual paper files in actual paper folders on the desktop’ fits with the filesystem description. But if what Tom Seddon said about hierarchies is true (I actually do code for a living) then I’m the weird one…

  45. Norman Diamond says:

    I found it! I found how to disable that shadowing! If you right-click the Desktop and select Properties, and do some searching, you can find an option to remove shadowing from menus, but not to remove shadowing from icon labels on the desktop. You have to right-click something else and select its properties, and do some searching, and find an option to remove shadowing from icon labels on the desktop (and curiously ALSO find another option to remove shadowing from menus).

    Back to desktop properties, for icon labels I can select a font, but the dialog controls that sometimes allow selecting colors are greyed out. Why? Icon label fonts have foreground and background colors the same as fonts in any other application, and the pair of controls are already sitting there in the dialog box, so why aren’t they enabled?

    So I have ugly colors, but at least I can read my icon labels without squinting.

    Next question: After some random number of standby and resume operations, will the icon labels disappear again? This usually happened after some number of days, maybe 10 to 20 standby and resume operations. This could be fixed without rebooting, by maximizing a window and minimizing a window. When the desktop was repainted, the text came back. Text in the taskbar (button labels etc.) could usually be brought back by other games. So, was this due to a combination of randomness plus icon label shadows, or merely randomness? After some random length of time we might know…..

  46. Raymond Chen says:

    If you look at GetSysColor() you will see the answer to your question about icon text colors.

  47. Norman Diamond says:

    7/14/2004 5:51 PM Raymond Chen

    > If you look at GetSysColor() you will see

    > the answer to your question about icon text

    > colors.

    OK. The reason desktop properties don’t offer it is that GetSysColor() doesn’t offer it, the reason GetSysColor() doesn’t offer it is that desktop properties don’t offer it, the reason desktop properties don’t offer it is ……. and lots of computer programmers were Hofstadter fans before we ever heard of him.

    Got the answer to my other question today too. Resumed a machine from standby mode, it had the ugly colored backgrounds for icon labels, and the ugly colored backgrounds were solid, no text. Maximizing Windows Explorer and minimizing it again brought the text back in the icon labels. Didn’t bother bringing back the text in the taskbar’s task buttons yet.

  48. Raymond Chen says:

    No infinite loop. GetSysColors came first.

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