That Formerly Wicked Aqua Look

~ 05 October 2004 ~

The day I feared would come has finally drawn near.

After what can only be termed a lengthy span of denial, I now admit I’ve begun to grow weary of the ‘Aqua’ gel-like theme so prevalent in OSX,, and hundreds of third-party products.

As with all famed design trends, I knew it would happen. I expected it to. Almost five years later, I’ve pumped the well of gel nearly dry. Spoiled by supple curves, impeccable shadowing, and buttons whose appearance Steve Jobs once referred to as looking “so good you’ll want to lick them,” I long for OS eLeven and a visual renaissance akin to the one Aqua once delivered.

Despite my lament, however, I need only to log in to a Windows machine to be reminded of just how privileged this Mac aficionado (still) truly is. The unceasing scorn of ‘Blue XP’ seems all too well-deserved.

Aqua’s inevitable demise will likely present an opportunity to realign; an opportunity for Apple to assess the world of tomorrow and to take us there before anyone else. I predict a rebirth of flat. Cries of “Aqua vernacular is so 2000” will begin to flood the blogging airwaves. Interface designers around the globe — worn out from Aqua abuse — will shun drop-shadows, bevels, and gradients in favor of flat. Flat becomes the new black.

Foolish predictions? Probably. Though they serve to console the grief.

Nevertheless, perhaps my mourning is your rejoicing. I promised myself that when this day of weary arrived, I’d offer my Aqua-esque HashMedia icon as an educational download. That sacred day has arrived.

Aqua icon

Contained in the file below are two versions of the original HashMedia logo. I’ve removed the ‘h’ mark and replaced it with a ‘®’ symbol — not because the HashMedia mark is a registered trademark (it isn’t), but to serve as a reminder to be cautious how the artwork is used.

As for me and my sorrows, send not flowers. Amazon gift certs, however, are always appropriate.



Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.

1   Mike ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:17 AM

It’s about time someone stood up and said something. This look has been getting tired for some time.

I’ve always been too scared to comment for fear of being beaten to death with powerbooks.

2   Gabriel Mihalache ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:29 AM

Mike, powerbooks are too good for the likes of you, Apple-hater! Prepared to be stoned with rasberry iMacs! :-)

3   Gabriel Mihalache ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:32 AM

“Flat”? That’s just loco, man! Flat is *so* out… like the ’80s out!

The next UIs, from both Longhorn and future Macs will be 100% 3D via DirectX and/or OpenGL. So prepare to have your windows wiggle in the wind each time you get an alert :-)

4   Thomas ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:33 AM

I agree. The aqua look is quite limiting, because it’s hard to mix with other styles.

However, the next big thing I see happening is the industrial look, until people find out it’s boring and want to use color. Some will go in a softer, more futuristic style of design and others will attempt to remain organic, perhaps what you refer to as “flat”.

Also, with usabiliy gaining importance in the web world, some websites will become quite boring, which will force designers to invent new styles. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 3 years.

Just my 2 cents, I’m curious to know what others think.

5   Gordon ~ 05 October 2004 at 02:13 AM

You Mac people are a weird bunch. Here am I stuck on a PC and you are moaning about Aqua!! Honestly, there is not justice. Tell you what I’ll swap you for a month (aww go on).

Ohh and I’ll own up and say that my PC is Aqua-fied, but more often it’s a subtler, flater (!) more industrial look I favour. I never knew I was ahead of the times.

6   Martin ~ 05 October 2004 at 02:25 AM

Gabriel, I agree. 3D is definitely the future - not because it’s necessarily better, but because the technology is allowing people to move that way.

Why did the aqua look become so prevalent? Firstly because of Apple, but ALSO because it became easy to create gradients and dropshadows with the latest-greatest imaging software…

It’s always a case of “because we can”, isn’t it?


7   gb ~ 05 October 2004 at 02:40 AM

Cameron, this is exactly why I use ShapeShifter to change all the Aqua bits… i never could handle the stop light window buttons, so a change every now and then is nice.

8   jr ~ 05 October 2004 at 03:27 AM


You might be interested to know that AppleInsider reported here and here that the upcoming Tiger might sport a new kind of interface:

An apparent blending of two themes, the new look lifts interface elements from both of the company’s existing themes and embeds them inside a sleek platinum gradient. According to sources, the first application to adhere to the new look will be the company’s email client, Mail version 2.0.

9   Marc Jones ~ 05 October 2004 at 03:42 AM

It’s a little overused and maybe slightly “last year” but it still batters the XP GUI to death IMO.

Anyway, Paper Mario is the trend setter, everything else follows.

I’m serious BTW. Go look at the quicktime movies of said new game and then think laterally.

The first hints of the new flat-look is in the released Tiger screenshots of Mail 2.0. It’s not extensively used but there are one colour flat icons about it.

10   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 07:24 AM

Interesting. Definitely a blend of Aqua and platinum gradients, as AppleInsider suggests.

11   Jonathan Snook ~ 05 October 2004 at 07:32 AM

Yes Cameron, the old Apple look is out. I’d say check out my my five design trends but I think you already know about these. :)

Thanks for sharing!

12   Brian Cornett ~ 05 October 2004 at 07:43 AM

Well, if you look at a screenshot of today’s Panther and compare it with shots from 10.2 and 10.1, you can see that Aqua is already evolving into something different. 10.1 was drop shadow and hard stripes insanity.

Looks to me like tomorrow’s Aqua will not be completely flat, but a little flatter with a more subtle “so good you’ll want to lick them” Aqua look. I would like to see a healthy mix of brushed metal/platinum blended into Aqua goodness.

13   Ryan Johnson ~ 05 October 2004 at 07:46 AM

I’m not all that sad to see it go.

Maybe because I am not fortunate enough to own a Mac running X. Maybe because it felt like the transparent plastic everything ripoff revolution spawned byu the ever glorious Candy iMac’s.

It seemed to me that the style trend was one that would be poorly implemented and designed 9 out of 10 times. Leaving poor, poor me to suffer :)

I am always excited to see what the folks at Apple will come up with though, so that is definately a positive we can take from this new untrending.

14   Jon Zahlaway ~ 05 October 2004 at 08:16 AM

Am I the only one who really dislikes the whole brushed-metal theme? I don’t like Apple’s use of it in its GUI, nor do I like it on the G5’s and new monitors.

Just me?

15   Ryan Johnson ~ 05 October 2004 at 08:22 AM

No, not just you.

In interface terms I have never liked it. I don’t really know why, it just doesn’t do it for me.

Now, on the physical cases, I appreciate it. Most computer cases have no aesthetic or tactile beauty. With an Apple you pay more for that beauty.

Does the brushed metal do anything for you at all when you see it in person?

16   Neil ~ 05 October 2004 at 08:31 AM

I highly recommend the monochromatic, white bliss that is the Milk Theme for Shapeshifter.

99.9999% of the shapeshifter themes out there are just absolutely craptacular, but Milk isn’t. That said, I find it a wee bit TOO bright, so I use a mod of a mod (heh) called “Soft Aqua”, which has a version of Milk with more contrast.

Trust me, it helps.

17   Caleb ~ 05 October 2004 at 08:36 AM

Okay, one comment and one question. First a question. How did you do the blue gradient with the drop shadow? I messed with it in illustrator and I could not figure out how you did the shadow with the black outline around the gradient. If I changed the gradient to a solid color the shadow and bold outline would disaper.

As for the aqua look I have never been a fan of it. When I first saw it I Thought what is Apple thinking. But apparently it has worked for them. I despise it though. I hope the continue in their forward thinking mindest and come up with something new.

18   Josh Bryant ~ 05 October 2004 at 09:02 AM

I lost appeal for the aqua revolution as well, probably because that is all my XP box when I was on windows ever looked like. From the day that winXP came out and Aqua Soft started up, my PC always looked like a mac. So the day that I finally came upon a real machine :) I was kind of already burnt out on aqua. I do prefer the flat, subtle minimalist themes. There is something about an interface that stays out of your way and lets you get real work done. Here are some shots of my macinlove…

Sorry they are all the same, but it gives you an idea of what I work with. Aqua revolution? I say khaki revolution!

19   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 09:25 AM

Josh - what’s the butterfly icon in Shot 1?

20   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 09:28 AM

Caleb - I created the gradient using the gradient tool. What version of Illustrator (or other) are you using?

21   Josh Bryant ~ 05 October 2004 at 10:00 AM

Cameron - See the tabs at the bottom of the screen? Its an app called Sticky Windows. It is still in early beta. I played around with it for awhile, and it really did feel like a beta. It can be pretty inconsistent at times. The idea is promising though. However, I between windowshade, hide, and minimize, I just don’t need it.

22   ak ~ 05 October 2004 at 10:21 AM

heck, i’ve been sticking with flat for a while now. i could never justify and gradients or drop shadows because my site would then look like everyone else’s. so bring on the flat!

23   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 10:31 AM

Ah yes, I remember that app, Josh. Didn’t know it had the butterfly icon associated with it.

24   Caleb ~ 05 October 2004 at 10:57 AM

Cameron it was not so much the gradient I was curious about it is the drop shadow applied to it. I tried using the individual select tool but there was nothing there. I am using version 9 on PC

25   Caleb ~ 05 October 2004 at 11:01 AM

Nevermind, I just discovred they mystery of the drop shadow feature in Illustrator. WOW, I had never seen that before. I always used Photoshop for my drop shadows.

26   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 11:03 AM

Do Window > Appearance if the Appearance palette isn’t already open. Then select the object you want to view, and the Appearance palette will show the effects applied.

27   angelday true ~ 05 October 2004 at 12:28 PM

Speaking of drop shadows: Illustrator renders it jagged. Do you guys know if there’s a way to make it soft and delicious?

I have even tried to export it to web and apply a 500% zoom, but jaggedness won’t go away.

Sometimes I tend to believe Photoshop is the tool for designing icons of this kind. All the effects all the layer modes are native over there while you can get the Bezier tools.


28   Caleb ~ 05 October 2004 at 12:45 PM

Bingo, thanks man. I still hae much to learn when it comes to illustrator. I mostly edit photos in photoshop.

29   Cameron Moll ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:04 PM

Angelday - try Effect > Document Raster Effect Settings > Resolution High. You’ve probably got your settings to 72 dpi instead of 300.

30   Greg ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:06 PM

Wow, first Gnome designers were ripping off Apple, and now it looks like Apple is going to be ripping off Gnome with the new look.

31   Sean Sperte ~ 05 October 2004 at 01:32 PM

Aqua out, flat in? Perhaps. I’m guessing a combination of both 2d elements and 3d aesthetic will make up the interfaces of tomorrow. (Don’t forget the transparency.)

Remember Minority Report’s cool crime-bustin’ computer display used by Tom Cruise? That’s what I’m waitin’ for.

32   Kyle Jones ~ 05 October 2004 at 06:29 PM

Well, one thing I DEFINATELY don’t miss is the pinstripes. The Aqua look is still kickin if you ask me. Its gotten better since it first came out, but all the knock offs have almost killed it. But now that the pinstripoes are gone.. It’s awesome! Or at least way better than windows.

33   Bobby ~ 05 October 2004 at 11:06 PM

If you want a big hint about the next OS, look at the physical computers. It was a big tip off for the 9 > 10 switch, I’m sure the next GUI will fit nicely with the “flatter” and more minimal look of the G5’s. I use quote marks because it’s not really flatter, there are just less curves, less rounded bevels, and dimension and shape is used very economically.

34   mosquito ~ 06 October 2004 at 06:06 AM

personally i can’t stand the bevels, drop shadows, etc that are so prevelent in today’s OS. to me, both xp and os x are best described as “fisher price” as i feel like i’m using a toy. the first things i did to my mac at work were to install shadow killer and change the default level of anti-aliasing on text. with xp, i don’t use font smoothing at all and i reverted back to the 2000 style with everything. i like fonts at about 10px and anti-aliasing at that level renders them unreadable.

i do think that the look of paper mario, or cell shaded 3d, is much closer to a good direction in terms of ui. it’s just enough to add a touch of depth, provide visual appeal, but not so much that within a year or so it feels extremely old. that might have more to do with how much is done in terms of design to mimic computer interfaces, but it’s still old fairly quickly.

apple really needs to just realize that they do not hold the highest level of “authority” in terms of UI and provide a solid toolkit for “skinning” so that designer/developers can make the os look how they want it. of course apple does everything they can to break compatiblity with apps that provide themes so apparently they still don’t understand.

35   dave ~ 06 October 2004 at 07:48 AM

Technology and Design can play well together, but technology need not wear out its welcome.

I say look to architecture, music, clothes, and Europe (whos hot and whos not) to see what the new trend in Mac OS will be.

I don’t see high-tech 3D as a trend, but instead an approach towards simplicity. White space, flat.

36   Warren ~ 06 October 2004 at 09:16 AM

The icons for this Plesk Reloaded look familiar… maybe you inspired them Cameron :) Get that lawsuit going….

37   Kedron ~ 06 October 2004 at 09:54 AM

I’m with you on the brushed aluminum.
I think it was birthed out of 2 ideas, utility and showcasing techiness.

Utility still has to be a guiding factor, but I think the trend will be to blur the lines between technology and real life. I think interfaces are going to become scaleable like nothing we have ever seen and also more and more transparent. Not transparent in opacity, but meshed into the way we live.

I’m ready for an interface that lets me walk about and interact with the technology on a more organic level.

Check this out.

38   Cameron Moll ~ 06 October 2004 at 10:04 AM

No kidding, Warren. How long has that been up?

39   Jason ~ 06 October 2004 at 11:38 AM

Is there any chance you can post those in .png or Illustrator 8 format?

All I have here is lowly Macromedia Fireworks 4 and I am curious how those images are put together. (I can open the .eps file, but it is only a bitmap in Fireworks, cannot see the layers and such).

Though I worry that I should even toy with them since using similar effects will only place me behind the times :-)

40   Susanna ~ 06 October 2004 at 03:19 PM

I don’t know whether to agree or not with those who say the 3D interface is the next logical step. While it makes sense when you consider how many people play games in 3D environments, I just hope for my own sake it’s not true.

I cannot navigate 3D environments. When I try to play 3D games, I spin around, get stuck in corners, and feel dizzy. Even in real life, my spatial perception is not so good. I am always bumping into doorways and getting lost driving around town.

I like the simplicity of a 2D environment where I can see everything laid out clearly in front of me. For me, navigating the blueprint and the map is much simpler than navigating the building or the streets. I enjoy the godlike perspective of seeing everything at once, and knowing where everything is in relation to everything else.

41   Tinus ~ 07 October 2004 at 05:55 AM

Yes! Flat! I’ve been saying that since XP came out.. By the way, I turned back to the Classic theme one hour after I installed XP.

42   Warren ~ 07 October 2004 at 06:27 AM

I dunno - I just happened to be looking at their product yesterday, just after I read your post. I think it’s a pretty new product afaik.

43   Tony ~ 07 October 2004 at 02:06 PM

Flat like Fedora Core?

44   Tony ~ 07 October 2004 at 02:07 PM

Better screenshots:

45   Bill ~ 08 October 2004 at 08:40 PM

Wait a second… So, do you like the mac, or not? As far as I can tell, you’re saying - “I used a PC, and I prefer a mac” What the hell are all these other suckas saying?

46   Meredith ~ 09 October 2004 at 12:30 PM

After running a PC for 90% of my life, aqua was a nice change. Hooray for aqua (and, is it really not aqua, but cyan?)!

I’m not yet tired of it - and it makes me wonder, was this just an excuse to let us see your pretty logo in person/photoshop? *swoons*

47   Cameron Moll ~ 09 October 2004 at 12:52 PM

Bill - If speaking to me, I use a PC at work and Macs at home. I have been for 5+ years now. By far I prefer the Mac.

Meredith - Nope, no excuses here. The Aqua look has been waning for me for a little while now.

48   Dan ~ 10 October 2004 at 08:47 AM

Wow! I am so far behind in developing my design skills I haven’t even gotten to using (or abusing) this style. Should I even bother now? Could this style come back in some sort of retro-look 3 years from now (which would really be like 30 technology years)?

Cameron, I think your blog is great! Thanks for all the wonderful insight!



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