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Moving on from Xcassets

Simple is insanely great.

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ORANGE WALK TOWN (Rixstep) — There was a time when toolbars went wild. They were all shapes and sizes, and some of them were way over the top, obscenely egregious. Then one company decided to calm things down, to preach to developers to use their new engine, and cut out the exaggerations.

Things were almost steady for a while.

Then another company in Cupertino inherited (purchased) an OS from Redwood City. Neither of those companies incorporated toolbars. But times would change.

As in and around Redmond a decade earlier... Not to speak of what's happened in the camp of Shuttleworth...

But if Apple are famous for one thing, it's good taste. Often spearheaded by their Safari group, Apple have developed an ergonomic ideal that's not only tasteful, but functional as well. This look, often attributed to Finder and not Safari, is both minimal, not to say austere, and elegant, but it takes more work to achieve.

'If Apple are famous for one thing, it's good taste.'

The basic model requires programmatic callbacks once initialisation's begun. The toolbar engine starts asking questions, the client application responds. Toolbar 'icons' (glyphs) are rendered 32x32, no matter the actual source image size. But rendering glyphs in bordered buttons is another matter entirely, a task normally performed in Interface Builder.

Resources directories were littered, literally, with hundreds of image files until Xcode assets came along, with long application load times. The assets file packs all the application's images - toolbar and otherwise - into a single controller sweep, speeding things up considerably. Unfortunately for our purposes, the images must be in the project (the application bundle) and can't be outsourced. This is an ideal solution for Apple, with thousands of developers. Redundancy will occur too, and we can do better.

'Resources directories were littered, literally, with hundreds of image files.'

Relegating toolbar logic to a central (framework) location and placing all graphics - for all applications - in the same location, as things are done here, can mean more work in the short term, but it means less work and optimal efficiency in the long term.

Toolbar buttons in this style want a height of 22 pixels. Their width is variable. Safari's buttons are amongst the slimmest. Getting things to work properly is trial and error, as the instruction sequence isn't random, but a bit of thought shows the way.

Toolbar glyphs seem best when they're minimal: simple black lines, transparency, and all in a canvas not more extensive than what Susan Kare once used, some thirty-five years ago. It's not always possible to live up to Susan's standards, and the images used must be generic and easily recognisable (according to, amongst others, the SAA/CUA principles). But it's a worthy and lofty goal to target. The ultimate objective is to make things feel 'intuitive', so that users find 'it just works'.

Using Xcode assets files is a great step forward, even as hardware technology moves towards solid state drives, and it's a great solution for software houses managing a small number of products, but software houses with a larger number of projects still do better to centralise.

'Keep it simple.'
 - Brian Kernighan
'It's insanely great.'
 - Steve Jobs

About Rixstep

Stockholm/London-based Rixstep are a constellation of programmers and support staff from Radsoft Laboratories who tired of Windows vulnerabilities, Linux driver issues, and cursing x86 hardware all day long. Rixstep have many years of experience behind their efforts, with teaching and consulting credentials from the likes of British Aerospace, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Lloyds TSB, SAAB Defence Systems, British Broadcasting Corporation, Barclays Bank, IBM, Microsoft, and Sony/Ericsson.

Rixstep and Radsoft products are or have been in use by Sweden's Royal Mail, Sony/Ericsson, the US Department of Defense, the offices of the US Supreme Court, the Government of Western Australia, the German Federal Police, Verizon Wireless, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Microsoft Corporation, the New York Times, Apple Inc, Oxford University, and hundreds of research institutes around the globe. See here.

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John Cattelin
Media Contact
ACP/Xfile licences

See Also
Developers Workshop: You Can't Beat the Pyramids

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