Happy Little GUIs

bob-rossRemember Bob Ross? You know, the “happy little trees” painter guy with an afro, who used to be on public television. Well, for those of you who don’t, and those who are simply too young to remember the late Mr. Ross; he was a fantastic painter who used to make these amazing nature scenes on his show, “The Joy of Painting”.  In every 30 minute episode, with no special editing (what we would now call “real-time”), Bob would crank out an incredible painting, using a handful of unconventional brushes, and his unique, impressionistic technique.

I not only remember Bob, but rather am somewhat of a “super-fan”; still watching his show on a daily basis via reruns and DVDs. Consequently, it has occurred to me on several occasions that there are many aspects to his technique that are very applicable to the visual side of the work I do as a UI designer.  So, “get yourself a tall glass of iced-tea and sit back and relax” as I share a few of them with you.

Layering & Contrast

Bob always stressed the importance of “working in layers”.  In the case of his paintings, this usually meant putting down very dark colors first, and then putting highlights on top.  In this way, the dark that still showed through would give the impression of depth.  This is very much the same way I work when I create UI elements.  In Photoshop or similar programs, there’s usually only so much you can achieve with one layer.  To truly give your buttons and other elements depth and realism, using multiple layers is key.


Bob used the say, “If you should be interested in makin’ that happy buck, quite often people will buy paintings based on color rather than content”.  In the case of touchscreen UIs, I think content is always of utmost importance, but Bob’s quote applies as well.  Having touchscreen graphics that complement the style and decor of the room they are in, is a priority for many of our clients.  These days, with .png graphics being supported by virtually all popular touchscreen controllers, we usually address this issue by using a design with semi-transparent elements and changeable background images that can change the overall color scheme of the panel.

Background / Foreground

Mr. Ross always taught that in order for some elements to stand out, some have to be subtle and muted.  Not every “happy little tree or bush” can be in the foreground.  You’ve got to have some distant, faded and blurred elements in your painting in order for the exciting, eye-catching ones to really shine.  The same goes for good UI design.  This was a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and I’m still learning it in a lot of ways.  When I first started designing UIs, it was a time when Apple had made the “gel button” look uber-popular, and as a budding Photoshop user, I absolutely loved it.  Once I learned how to make elements look shiny, I wanted everything on the page to be glossy and candy-coated.  What I didn’t realize is that while that look was cool (and still is in my opinion), it had to be used in moderation to be truly effective.

Happy Accidents

This was always one of my favorite “Bob-isms”.  He would stress that we never make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.  I try my best to keep this in mind when I’m about to throw in the towel on a frustrating design that just isn’t going well.  Practice makes perfect, but so does experimentation.  The worst thing that can happen is that you make something really ugly.  Big deal, even making bad stuff gives us practice, and teaches us what not to do with our next design.

Never Be Satisfied

This sort of goes hand in hand with the whole “happy accidents” philosophy, but Bob used to always tell his audience to “never be satisfied” with their paintings.  He didn’t mean for people not to be proud of their works; rather, he was expressing the fact that you should always have the attitude that you can get better with each work you create.  “My next painting will be my masterpiece” was one of his mantras, and I totally agree with this.  If I ever feel that I can’t get any better at UI design, I may as well quit and go into something else, because where’s the reward in any pursuit if you can’t be more excited about what’s next than you are about what’s already been.

Aaron Craig

Aaron Craig is a graphic designer & entrepreneur. He is the founder of NTDesigns, a UI design firm that specializes in touchscreen based interfaces, especially in the home automation industry. He is the primary author for the NTDesigns Blog, and writes periodically for other blogs and publications in the UI design and automation realms when he can. Aaron lives in Milwaukee with his family and two dogs, Napoleon and Kip.

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