A recent debate on the Fedora desktop list shined some light on
the occasionally awkward relationship between user interface design and
open source projects. The original issue was one of visual branding, in
particular where and how the distribution logo should be displayed on
the login screen. But the subsequent discussion revealed just how
quickly such questions can pivot into more substantial
issues—such as end-user support, the selection of system
components, and the easily entangled needs of upstream and downstream
Leggo my logo
Ryan Lerch wrote to the list on March 18, observing that in Fedora
19 the Fedora logo on the GDM login screen had been moved to the side
and reduced significantly in size. Lerch originally asked only why
the logo had been moved; in reply,
GNOME designer Allan Day said that GNOME had decided that the layout
used in Fedora 18 was causing problems. There was already a bug open
on the topic, and while Day agreed that the layout used in Fedora 19
looked wrong, simply reverting back to the older design was a
The problem with the old layout started with the fact that the
distribution logo sat directly above GDM's list of user accounts,
which put it in the way whenever the list was long and vertical space
ran short. Whether that means that the logo looked weird
if it was pushed to the top of the screen or if it was simply
impossible to place the logo statically (given that the user list can
change size) was not fully explained, but there were other visual
problems at issue, too—such as having the centered logo
sitting on top of the left-justified list of users.
Several ideas were bandied about. Eventually the solution that was
implemented in GNOME 3.8 test builds (and is slated for inclusion in
Fedora 19) moved the logo
to the upper-left-hand corner of the login screen, shrunken down to fit
within the confines of the menu bar. Lerch pointed to a screenshot
(see the Fedora
18 version for comparison). The result is virtually unreadable; the
Fedora logo includes text but it has the "infinity f" bubble floating
above it, too; the upshot is that when scaled down the text is half
the height of the date and time display. In addition to the size,
however, Lerch reported that placing
the logo in the menu bar was confusing, because it looked like an
interactive UI element (which is the case for everything else in the
The look, the feel of GNOME
On the bug report, Day commented
that GNOME's design team had decided that the distribution logo should
be dropped from the GDM login screen entirely, and that the
distribution name should be rendered as a text string in the menu
bar. He opened two additional bugs (695691 and 695692) to discuss where else the
distribution could place its branding elements.
But that solution did not sit well with the Fedora team. Jared
Smith commented that the change hurt
Fedora's branding. Fedora designer Máirín Duffy
asked how often GNOME expected there to be so many users on a system
that the GDM user list would need all of the screen space,
and asked for clarification on how the logo "visually clashes" with
the login screen, as an earlier bug
described it. "Removing the logo completely and replacing it
with a string is completely unacceptable from a Fedora point of view,
and I'm very surprised this is the suggested solution," she
Day replied with additional detail
on the visual problems, explaining:
... the logo was felt to be a distracting presence. We've made an
effort to make sure that the most important elements are the most
visually prominent, and we want the primary interaction points to be
the ones that jump out at you. The logo was a strong visual presence
placed above the user list: this drew the eye to it, making it the
first thing you saw, and distracted you from the parts of the screen
that are actually useful to the user (ie. the user list).
His preference was to move the distribution branding to the corner
so as to "mitigate the negative impact of including a
logo while retaining a visual reference to the distributor," he
said, although he also agreed that Lerch's critique of the solution
deployed was valid.
But therein lies the root of the disagreement. Does the
distribution logo "negatively impact" the user's experience, or not?
The Fedora project members clearly regard branding the login screen to
be an important part of the overall user experience. Those on the GNOME
side argued that branding which grabs the user's attention makes the
user experience worse, and thus hurts the distribution. In fact, they
argued that any prominent logo was problematic—neither
Day nor anyone else from the GNOME team was advocating removing the
Fedora logo and replacing it with a GNOME logo. Cosimo Cecchi even asked why the login screen needs any
branding whatsoever, since he wants to get past the login screen as
quickly as possible, and on to his desktop.
Seth Vidal asked "So the question is this: Is the user installing
Fedora or are they installing Gnome? I think it is Fedora." Duffy
concurred; she responded that as a practical matter, where the user goes
when they encounter a problem is paramount; since Fedora users will
come to the Fedora community (not the GNOME project) for help,
reinforcing the Fedora brand is important.
Complicating the question is the fact that GNOME is the default
desktop environment in Fedora, but historically it has not been the
only option. Changes in the GNOME 3 era have seen
desktop-neutral Fedora components replaced with GNOME-specific ones,
which can marginalize or adversely affect other environments like Xfce.
Adam Williamson noted the replacement
of Fedora firstboot with gnome-initial-setup, and pointed out that GDM was "now a
special instance of GNOME Shell, strongly integrated with
GNOME." Vidal even suggested
that Fedora consider display managers other than GDM, but that idea
was not well received.
Another level of complication stems from the fact that many
developers are active participants in both projects, and many are paid
employees of Red Hat. As Colin Walters observed, even
if Red Hat does not dictate changes to Fedora, its developers must
keep Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) in mind while they work, since
Fedora serves as RHEL's upstream.
The hidden mysteries of design
Finally, the discussion also reveals how tricky it can be to merge
the work of software developers and user interface designers. At
times, the two camps do not even seem to speak the same language.
Design rarely results in something that can be read, diff'ed,
or checked in, so feedback from designers can at times be
frustratingly terse or opaque. Consider Day's comment
"the design is to have a string with the distributor name in the
top left hand corner." That reads like a final decision; one
could be forgiven for not seeing how to respond to it.
Duffy's comments, however, illustrate that the gap can be bridged.
Design is not the same as engineering, but solutions can be
researched, tested, and evaluated, which is good engineering practice,
and takes design out of the hard-to-grasp "pure aesthetic" realm and
integrates it with developing an actual product. She questioned the
"design" angle of removing the logo, saying:
I would like to see user data backing up the assertion that providing
the vendor logo a minimal amount of space on the login screen is harmful
to the user experience. I have seen remarks that it 'visually clutters'
the login screen, and is 'distracting,' but I'd like to see more than
personal opinions on this. [...]
I always strive to follow a design process that includes user research,
brainstorming, and iteration - user research can help identify problems
to solve; brainstorming and iteration involve coming up with solutions
to those problems; then you research again to see if you actually fixed
Here I see iteration and I don't see user research.
Similarly, Lerch's observations that the Fedora 19 logo was
unreadably small and that its placement in the menu bar was easily
confused with an interactive element are both feedback from a
real-world user test (albeit an informal one). Distributions tend to
put branding in predictable places: boot manager, splash screen, login
screen, desktop wallpaper, system menus, and so forth. There may not
be a quantifiably optimal size and placement for the Fedora
logo (or any other user interface element), but testing is the only
way to adequately compare the imperfect solutions available.
For now the GDM login screen in GNOME 3.8 is a done deal; the
project has entered a freeze in preparation for the release of 3.8.0.
The good news is that Day and the other members of the design team are
open to releasing an update with 3.8.1. Fedora 19 is not scheduled
for release until late June 2013, which should be plenty of time to
try out a variety of possibilities and come up with something that
both upstream and downstream developers are satisfied to see while
they enter their passwords.
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