Why are the Windows 7 system notification icons colorless?


Mike wondered why the system notification icons went colorless in Windows 7 and why they went back to regular tooltips instead of the custom tooltips.

I don't know either, so I asked Larry Osterman, who was in charge of the Volume icon.

And he didn't know either. He was merely given new icons by the design team.

But that doesn't stop me from guessing. (Which is what I do most of the time here, I just don't explicitly say that I'm guessing.)

My guess is that the design team looked at the new Windows 7 taskbar and noticed that all the system-provided pieces were subdued and unobtrusive, with two exceptions: The Start button itself and the notification icons. The Start button kept its bright colors because, well, it's the Start button. But the notification icons? They are peripheral elements; why do they stand out on an otherwise neutral-looking taskbar? Isn't that just drawing the user's attention to something that doesn't deserve attention?

So boom, make them monochromatic to fit with the other taskbar elements. The clock is monochromatic. The Show Desktop button is monochromatic. The taskbar itself is monochromatic. Hooray, aesthetic unity is restored.

As for the return to standard tooltips, that's easy: The custom tooltip was a violation of the user interface guidelines.

The old Windows Vista custom tooltip did not provide any useful information beyond the standard tooltip, so you paid the cost of developing and maintaining a custom tooltip for very little benefit. In the volume tooltip's case, the developers were spending effort fixing little bugs here and there (for example, there were painting glitches under certain accessibility conditions), effort that was detracting from other work that could be done, and switching to the standard tooltip made all the problems go away.

Comments (41)
  1. Skyborne says:

    Because Ubuntu needed something more to copy.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hooray, aesthetic unity is restored

    …Until a bajillion gaudily-colored 3rd-party notification icons disturb the unity once again. Which already happens out-of-the-box in most pre-installed systems.

    But seriously, I like them. They even work well in Windows Classic mode (non-aero), which I use.

  3. Random User 249586 says:

    I do remember reading something about this previously, but I can't seem to find where right now. It pretty well confirmed the deduction: The idea was that icons that aren't actively notifying the user about something that requires user action, should use an unobtrusive color scheme. I thought it even referenced a Microsoft guidance document, but I'm not finding that, either.

  4. David Walker says:

    I agree that the monochrome notification icons are nice and clean.

    Talk about drawing the user's attention to something that doesn't deserve attention: I really, really wish that I could make the left and right-side window borders monochromatic.  There's a change in color about 1/3 of the way down on every active window.

    And, no matter how hard you try with window settings, the title bar has some diagonal color effects in it.  It looks like it has a faint wash of paint, or that something is showing through from behind — even though I have turned off transparency (personally, the transparency effect bothers me… it's not "simple" and "clean" enough despite the marketing.)  I hate the color shading in the title bar — give me true, solid colors.  I don't want to have to install something like WindowBlinds and make my own theme.

  5. Brian says:

    David: Use Windows Classic mode.

    I'm dismayed that the UI guidelines no longer recommends single use long running applications minimize to the notification area in Windows 7.  They suggest instead to use normal taskbar buttons because "a regular taskbar button takes little space".  This is true unless the user has the task bar buttons set to "Never Combine" in which case they take up a fairly large amount of space.

  6. David Walker says:

    Well, Windows Classic mode is just a bit too old-fashioned looking.  I do like the rounded corners, and Classic doesn't do that.  I just want solid color window borders and solid color title bars!  Why is that not available?  Oh well, I have other things to worry about.

  7. Shawn Keene says:

    I believe this is covered in the "Engineering Windows 7" blog under design principles of Windows 7.  I do remember it being because they wanted to get them to be less distracting, more like an overlay or HUD in your view.

  8. Raphael says:

    @xp.client

    With Steam, Bittorrent (for purely legitimate purposes, honestly!) and instant messengers, the network lights would be busy enough to not notice any malware-induced traffic. Hence they degenerated into meaningless blinkenlights and better stayed off.

  9. Cesar says:

    @xp.client: that is part of a global trend. For instance, some new laptops do not have hard disk access lights. Some new access points do not have front blinkenlights, and one in particular (from the same manufacturer as said laptops) has a front status light which does not blink on traffic by default (fortunately, this one can be changed in the configuration).

  10.  "In the volume tooltip's case, the developers were spending effort fixing little bugs here and there (for example, there were painting glitches under certain accessibility conditions), effort that was detracting from other work that could be done, and switching to the standard tooltip made all the problems go away."

    Now someone just needs to fix the Aero visual style so that standard tooltips blend their corners properly with what they're on top of. You get white dots in the four corners, outside of the tooltip's rounded borders, if the tooltip is over a dark background. The bottom-right corner almost always looks bad as the tooltip casts a shadow which means that corner is always over something dark.

    It's not the end of the world but it has been a slight irritation for years. I keep thinking it's my bug when I see it in my app, then realise (again, because I forget) that all the tooltips look like that, and the bug is (presumably) in the visual style.

  11. alegr1 says:

    For instance, some new laptops do not have hard disk access lights.

    Now, if somebody told the "Major laptop manufacturer" to stop using those bright eye-raping blue LEDs…

  12. alegr1 says:

    Now someone just needs to fix the Aero visual style so that standard tooltips blend their corners properly

    Windows annoyance #1: cosmetic UI bugs get NEVER FIXED. Don't hold your breath.

  13. nik says:

    Let me make my own guess….

    They are monochrome because similar icons on Mac (upper right corner) are monochrome. That is why.

  14. > I don't know either, so I asked Larry Osterman, who was in charge of the Volume icon.

    What?  So a specific person was in charge of one icon?  That's a waste of time!  That should be the job of the Shell team or someone else like that!

    @Skyborne

    That was in OS X earlier, so no.

    [Larry is "someone else like that," since he was responsible for the audio user interface. -Raymond]
  15. JamesNT says:

    @Kwpolska,

    Even if it was the job of someone on the shell team, it would still be the job of someone, just not Mr. Chen.

    @Dave,

    I don't think Raymond has time to read Larry's blog, much less commit to memory everything he says on it.  Most people in MS are assigned a job and they do that job.  They do not wander around asking others "are you in charge of that?" unless that need that person's help (e.g. their code has a bug in a function Mr. Chen is trying to call).

    JamesNT

  16. Nick says:

    I think it's also worth pointing out that the system icons don't completely sacrifice usability in favor of aesthetic unity.  The volume icon, for example, still has a red cross over it when muted, and the wireless networks icon gets a little gold star when there are networks available.  This makes a lot of sense, as the color stands out as meaning "Hey! Hey, listen! Hey!"

    Windows annoyance #1: cosmetic UI bugs get NEVER FIXED.

    Very unfortunately true.  Worse though, is that you can more or less extend that to be "Most (all?) shell UI bugs get WONTFIX'd".  The scrolling folder pane in Win7's Explorer is a great example.

    They are monochrome because similar icons on Mac (upper right corner) are monochrome.

    The ungodly ugliness of the Mac notification bar is just another thing I don't understand about the view that OSX is somehow a paragon of beauty and usability.  The entire freaking shell has about 5 colors in total: black, white, and 3 shades of gray. At least with Windows 7 you've got some nice color blending and hinting.

    Even better than making the system notification icons monochromatic was the way hidden icons are handled. It's so much better than the XP accordion-style and seems to handle the "icon infestation" problem very well.

  17. To be pedantic, the red cross (actually a red circle with a white "x") shows up when there are no active audio outputs (perhaps because the internal speaker is disabled and headphones are unplugged; perhaps because the audio service isn't running.)  The mute icon is a little different; it has the international "no" sign.

    blogs.msdn.com/…/spot-the-bug-outlook-block-sender-icon-solution.aspx

  18. Ralph says:

    Having used an ubuntu desktop for a while, I am annoyed that hovering over the volume icon and scrolling the wheel does not change the volume. Please copy this feature.

  19. Nick says:

    @Ralph

    Windows generally doesn't do focus-follows-mouse, but clicking the volume icon does allow the scrollwheel to change the volume.  You've already hovered the icon — an extra click isn't that much extra work.

  20. André says:

    It's interesting that not all icons went colorless – the "Safely remove hardware and eject media" icon (the one you click to eject USB devices, etc) and the Windows Update icon, for example, still have color :)

    I wonder what was the criteria to decide what should go colorless and what shouldn't – I don't see much difference between the "volume" and the "eject" icons (I only use them when I need to do something very specific) or the "Windows Update" and the "Solve PC issues" icons.

  21. Mark says:

    Windows Update should get your attention: "hey, your system is vulnerable to attackers, click here to fix it!"

  22. xp.client says:

    The colorless icons are an early incarnation of Metro. But they do look decent and clean. I also liked the rich tooltips with icons in Vista, looked very posh, but agree they *were* a violation of UI guidelines. The first time I saw them I tried clicking on the icon inside the tooltip. :)

    The elimination of the blinking network lights was a bad decision. They weren't *distracting* and weren't just there for no reason, they served to attract the attention of the user in case some app tried to access the internet behind the scenes. Back in the ancient days, the blinking lights continuously staying on even though nothing was downloading or being transferred was how I realized my Windows 2000 computer was part of a botnet (I was running without anti-malware). Lesson to learn: the tiny 16 x 16 is not necessarily distracting, it can be useful too. MS should think twice before removing it altogether and just disable it by default instead of taking out the functionality like Vista had network animation disabled by default.

  23. alegr1 says:

    "Useful applications were actually being forced out of memory just so that blinking never stopped. And, having read that and turned it off, I noticed battery life on my old XP laptop went up significantly!"

    It's not because the icon inherently bad. It's because the control path it was using was the worst ever (probably throuhg WMI), and probably because it was just programmed badly (ever saw a dozen copies of it after exiting hibernation?). And the applications were being forced out of memory because XP policy of code page retention/discard sucks bowling balls.

  24. Dave says:

    I don't think Larry was *just* in charge of the Volume icon, but if you read his blog there was an entry a few years ago about how he fixed the flicker bug in the volume mixer for Windows 7 — if you resied the window to the left it would flicker in Windows Vista.

  25. TC says:

    Windows annoyance #1: cosmetic UI bugs get NEVER FIXED

    Huh? FTA: "the developers were spending effort fixing little bugs here and there (for example, there were painting glitches under certain accessibility conditions)"

  26. Sean [MSFT] says:

    The reason we removed the blinking in Windows Vista was for battery life — in order to blink the lights accurately, the indicator would poll the network drivers once a second, which as a side effect, would prevent often prevent network devices from going into low power states. Coupled with the fact that with the advent of broadband, and apps that constantly used the network, the blinking was not really telling the user much anymore (it was designed for use with dialup networks).

    The primary change from Vista to Win7 was about changing the design of the icon from a pair of monitors to the current ones. Various notification balloons associated with the icon were also removed or pared down (though most of them were removed in Windows Vista as well).

  27. AndyCadley says:

    @Brian: I'm pretty sure the Windows guidelines never recommended minimizing to the notification area, it's just that later version *explictly* pointed out this was a terrible idea.

    @xp.client: From what I've read previously (and quite possibly on Raymond's blog) that tiny little blinking network status icon actually ended up being a massive memory and cpu hog as it pinned an awful lot of code in the "hot path" that really didn't need to be for the most part. Useful applications were actually being forced out of memory just so that blinking never stopped. And, having read that and turned it off, I noticed battery life on my old XP laptop went up significantly! It's amazing how sometimes, something that seems tiny and unassuming thing can actually turn out to be doing far more harm than good when you stick a profiler on it and consider the "real" cost.

  28. meh says:

    A lot of users probably didn't even know what the blinking lights in the icon meant anyways, and those that did could probably find some sort of Network Meter "desktop gadget" in Windows 7, or a Task Manager of some sort with a Networking tab :)

  29. chentiangemalc says:

    have to agree with others, blinking network icon is useless with advent of broadband, most PCs are constantly network connected now. i've noticed some laptops even removing the lights from the NIC on traffic…however that does annoy me as it removes a step from diagnotic process

  30. IM says:

    "Useful applications were actually being forced out of memory just so that blinking never stopped. And, having read that and turned it off, I noticed battery life on my old XP laptop went up significantly!"

    MS Lync is the worst offender, a RED/GREEN blinking icon when the network connection is gone.

  31. Skyborne says:

    The blinkenlights were also entirely pointless with VNC.  If traffic ever did stop, the "lights out" screen update would trigger them again.

  32. Quppa says:

    The tooltips for the network icon and the clock are a bit off – the corners blend differently to standard tooltips, and there's no fade-in/out animation.

    I'm holding out hope that Windows 8 will include 20×20, 24×24 and 32x32px versions of the notification area icons – the 16x16px icons really look awful when scaled up at 120/144/196 DPI.

  33. alegr1 says:

    @Sean [MSFT]

    "in order to blink the lights accurately, the indicator would poll the network drivers once a second, which as a side effect, would prevent often prevent network devices from going into low power states."

    Are you trying to tell me that NDIS is so stupid the simple act of sending OIDs to query the current link state and adapter statistics would have forced the hardware to D0? I'm pretty sure that NDIS.SYS knows when a miniport is in Dx, and can act accordingly for those queries.

  34. Brian says:

    @AndyCadley:  I'm not entirely sure when it was added, but it's there.  See "Minimized single-instance application": msdn.microsoft.com/…/aa511448.aspx

  35. "Very unfortunately true.  Worse though, is that you can more or less extend that to be "Most (all?) shell UI bugs get WONTFIX'd".  The scrolling folder pane in Win7's Explorer is a great example."

    I recall reading somewhere that they fixed that in Windows 8.  Of course, I'm sure Windows 8 will introduce a boatload of new bugs, what with the significant redesigns, new interfaces, etc. in that version.  It would be nice if they could release some service packs so that a version of the operating system can mature to a relatively bug-free state without any big annoyances like that.

    @Sean:

    "would prevent often prevent network devices from going into low power states. Coupled with the fact that with the advent of broadband, and apps that constantly used the network, the blinking was not really telling the user much anymore"

    While ideally the change was a good one, what's the practical point?  Is there really any practical benefit?  I can't imagine that going to a low power state is even possible in most cases, because there are so many apps now that assume always-on Internet and frequently do stuff for the dumbest reason.  And then, even if your computer is nice and clean, the other computers on the network are talkative – I would think the broadcast traffic out there would constantly wake the card up.

    The only practical reason I can think of would be if the blinking light code was preventing the driver from sleeping if the network cable was unplugged.  Or maybe if the time/cost of transitioning to/from low-power state is extremely low, such that the card can change states in a few microseconds (milliseconds?).  Given that a polling interval of 1 second prevented the transition, I doubt it – otherwise you wouldn't have noticed.

  36. Leif says:

    Because Ubuntu needed something more to copy.

    No… because everyone is copying iOS.  Actually, I guess it really started with the system menus in OS X (WiFi, volume, etc.).

    What makes Linux desktops original is that they are a copy of a copy.

  37. David Walker says:

    I like the blinken network lights; I installed the free program that you can find for Windows 7.  It uses WinPCAP to see all network traffic.  This is not a laptop, so I don't have battery life issues (although I should worry about global warming, I suppose).

  38. @André Only the system notification icons that always sit on the taskbar went colorless. Windows Update and USB devices icons are usually hidden, by default.

    I prefer to see Windows Update icon as soon as Windows detects new updates are available. Then I can install before the scheduled time and avoid undesirable automatic restart.

  39. David Walker says:

    @JamesNT:  It looks like Kwpolska thinks that a feature can be assigned to a "team" without any specific person being in charge of it.  Kinda like "they" in "that's what they say".

  40. Horst Kiehl says:

    David Walker: The "Basic" visual theme has solid-colored window borders but the same window shape as the Aero themes including the rounded upper corners. Alas, it seems to be fixed to that light blue.

    LeoDavidson: I have looked closely at some rounded tooltips' corners on a few computers, some with an Aero, some with a Basic visual theme (the Classic theme doesn't seem to have them), and none produced the white artifacts you describe. Maybe it's a problem with some display drivers.

    aylivex: You also could set Windows Update to "Download updates but let me choose whether to install them". In practice, that is "Download updates but let me choose when to install them and whether to install each" (i.e. not as "binary" as it might seem).

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