Aqua (user interface)

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The Aqua GUI in its original version in thePublic Beta of Apple's Mac OS X operating system.

Aqua is the graphical user interface and primary visual theme of Apple Inc.'s Mac OS X operating system. It is based around the theme of water, as its name suggests,[1] with droplet-like elements and liberal use of translucency and reflection effects.

The Aqua theme and user interface was introduced at the January 2000 Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco.[2] Aqua's first appearance in a commercial product was in the July 2000 release of iMovie 2, in which the buttons and the scroll bar acquired the Mac OS X Aqua look, as well as in iTunes in January 2001.

Two primary features of Aqua are the gel-like buttons (colored red, yellow, and green) that control the windows, and the Dock, which facilitates the launching of and navigation between applications.

Aqua is the successor to Platinum, which was used in Mac OS 8 through 9.


Much of Aqua's original design was intended to complement the translucent two-tone look of Apple's contemporaneous hardware, primarily the original bondi blue iMac. In 2003 and 2004, Apple moved to the use of brushed metal in their industrial design (such as with the aluminum Apple Cinema Displays); Aqua changed accordingly, incorporating the additional brushed metal look while deemphasizing the pinstripe backgrounds and transparency effects. In recent years, however, the brushed metal look has also been abandoned, in favor of white semi-reflective plastic, similar to the industrial design of the original iPod. This somewhat inconsistent mix of interface styles has been controversial among the Mac OS X user community, whom often cite it as evidence of Apple focusing OS X's UI design on fleeting gimmicks rather than lasting usability.

Each successive release of Mac OS X has brought a new “Aqua Blue” wallpaper; in Mac OS X Leopard, this scheme was abandoned. It should be noted that in recent releases of OS X, the focus on traditional interface elements, such as drawers, has generally moved to alternative innovations such as movable palettes and inspectors. In general, there has also been a move towards using sidebars, which now appear in many Apple applications; in addition to more contextual interface elements and full-screen interfaces in many applications.


Jaguar brought with it flatter interface elements, such as new buttons and drop-down menus, as well as removing pinstripes from the windows and menus. These changes would continue from this point forward.


In Mac OS X Panther, brushed metal was fused to the heart of the Macintosh: the Finder. New buttons were made to appear sunken into their surroundings, following a general trend of more flattened interface elements in the operating system. Pinstripes were also toned down, most notably in the menu bar, and the use of transparency was lessened (for example in the title bars of inactive windows). Tabs also changed; they were made flatter and the whole tab area was sunken rather than raised. Tab buttons were centered on the top border of the tab area. New icons appeared across the system, including a new flatter, glossier Finder icon, a new System Preferences icon.


Tiger brought more subtle changes, also including the Unified theme as a cross between Brushed Metal and Aqua. The menu bar now got rid of its pinstripes entirely, and sported a new glossy look. Tabs were altered to appear as normal buttons. The Apple menu icon was toned down and the Spotlight search facility now had its own icon permanently bound to the right-hand end of the menu bar.


In Mac OS X Leopard, several changes have been made to the user interface. It could be argued that the user interface may no longer be Aqua, as most white and blue elements have been discarded for a darker scheme, tentatively named “Illuminous” by the public at large , as a more unified interface. The Dock now sports a reflective “floor” for icons to sit on, and icon labels now have a semi-transparent background. Active applications are no longer indicated by a triangle, but now by a glowing blue ball. The dividing line between applications and other Dock items is now resembles a pedestrian crossing instead of a simple line. Application windows are reflected off the surface of the dock when close enough. “Stacks” are groups of files which can be stored in the Dock, and fan out when clicked.

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The new menu bar in Leopard.

The menu bar at the top of the screen is now semi-transparent, no longer rounded, and menu highlights are now a blue gradient. The corners of menus (including Dock menus) are now rounded, conversely the corners of the menu bar are not. The Apple menu icon is now a glossy black.

The drop shadow of the active window is now greatly enlarged for emphasis. Inactive windows are less prominent for greater contrast between active and inactive windows. Title bars are a darker shade of grey, and all toolbars now use a darker “Unified” scheme. Brushed metal is no longer present, and has been replaced instead by a white “plastic” gradient scheme. Many windows now have no or minimal borders. Pinstripes in window backgrounds have now been completely removed. Sheets are now semi-transparent as well as blurring the area behind them for greater legibility.

Numerous icons have been changed, including a set of new folder icons, a new System Preferences icon and an updated Terminal icon.

Microsoft Windows

Aqua has been partially ported to Microsoft Windows through multiple programs released by Apple. A significant program is iTunes, which has the same theme as the Mac OS X version. iTunes for Windows also includes Cover Flow, which will be incorporated into Leopard. Another program for Windows that includes the Aqua theme is the Safari web browser. The Windows version includes a functional Aqua scrollbar, as well as warping notification boxes very similar to those in Mac OS X.

User interface

White and blue are two principal colors which define the Aqua style. Title bars, window backgrounds, buttons, menus and other interface elements are all found in white, and some, like scrollbars and menu items, are accented with a shade of blue. Most of the interface elements have a "glass" or "gel" effect applied to them; for instance, David Pogue described the original Aqua scrollbars as "lickable globs of Crest Berrylicious Toothpaste Gel".[3]

Interface elements

Below, all Mac OS X Cocoa interface elements ('controls') and their NEXTSTEP class name are given. Most of the controls are available in three sizes: regular, small and mini.


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An open sheet in Pages.
Both the standard Aqua-themed pinstriped windows (NSWindow) and the brushed metal windows appear to have the navigational buttons sunken into the window, however in versions of Mac OS X prior to 10.2, the buttons appeared to be on top of the pinstriped windows. Brushed metal windows also have more plastic-like buttons. Mac OS X also allows users to choose a Graphite version instead of a Blue version of the interface. (In Graphite, window controls appear silverish-grey instead of red, yellow, and green.)

Toolbars, defined as NSToolbar, are available in two types: standard or unified. Standard retains the normal Aqua title bar and simply places a row of icons below it, whilst the unified look extends the title bar downwards and places icons on top of it, as if the window has one large title bar.

Sheets, which are modal windows, are also defined as NSWindow. When opened, they are thrusted towards the user like a sheet of paper, hence the name. They are partially transparent and focus attention on the content of the sheet. The parent window's controls are disabled until the sheet is dismissed, but the user is able to continue work in other windows (including those in the same application) whilst the sheet is open.


Menus are backed with the standard pinstripe pattern, and when menu items are highlighted they appear blue. In application menus, which run in a single bar across the top of the screen, keyboard shortcuts appear to the right-hand side of the menu whilst the actual menu item is on the left.

Drop down menus for use in windows themselves (NSPopUpButton) are also available in several varieties. The standard "pop up" menu is white with a blue end cap with opposing arrows, whilst 'pull down' menus only have one downward facing arrow in the end cap. 'Pull down' menus are available four different Aqua varieties, most of which have fallen into disuse with subsequent Mac OS X releases.

Text boxes and fields

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The Apple menu, core to the Aqua interface.
Text boxes are black on white text with a sunken effect border, and are classed as NSTextField. In addition to regular square text boxes, rounded search text boxes are available (NSSearchField). For more extensive text requirements, NSTextView provides a larger, multi-line text field. A combined text box and pull down menu is available, NSComboBox, which allows the user to type in a value in addition to choosing from a menu. NSDatePicker is a combination textbox and picker control, which allows the user to type in a date and time or edit it with directional buttons. NSTokenField was introduced with Mac OS X v10.4, and allows the user to drag non-editable 'tokens' to a text box, between which text can be typed.

Push buttons

Standard push buttons with rounded corners are available in two varieties: white and blue. A blue button is the default action, and will appear to 'throb' to prompt the user to carry out that action. The action of a blue button can usually also be invoked with the return key. White buttons are usually associated with all other actions.

Also available are rounded bevel buttons, designed to hold an icon; standard square buttons; glass square buttons and round buttons. In addition, circular, purple online help buttons are available which display help relative to the current task when clicked. All types of button are classed as NSButton. Disclosure triangles, although technically buttons, allow views of controls to be shown and hidden to preserve space.

Checkboxes and radio buttons

In Mac OS X, empty check boxes are small, white rounded rectangles. When they are checked, they turn blue and a check is present. They are defined as NSButtons, in essence they are buttons which can be toggled on or off. Radio buttons are similar in appearance and behaviour except they are circular and contain a dot instead of a check. They are defined as NSMatrix.

Tables and lists

Tables and lists can be broadly categorised in three ways: NSTableView, a standard multi-columnar table with space to enter values or place other interface elements such as buttons; NSOutlineView, which is the same as NSTableView except it can contain disclosure triangles to show and hide sets of data; and NSBrowser, akin to the column view in the Finder. All table views can use alternating blue and white row backgrounds.

Progress indicators

Two main types of progress indicator are available: a progress bar or a spinning wheel (not the "beachball" wait cursor). Both are defined as NSProgressIndicator. The progress bar itself is available in two varieties: indeterminate, which simply shows diagonal blue and white stripes in animation with no measure of progress; or determinate, which shows a blue pulsing bar against a white background proportional to the percentage of a task completed. The spinning wheel indicator, also found in the Mac OS X startup screen, is simply a series of lines of various tones arranged in a circle spinning, like the side view of a rotating wheel.


Sliders are available in three types: one with tick marks and a triangular scrubber, one with a round scrubber and no tick marks and a circular slider which can be rotated. All are defined as NSSlider, and are available horizontally or vertically. The circular slider is simply a gray dot on a white circle which can be rotated to set values.

Mac OS X has a standard control for picking colors, NSColorWell, which appears as a regular square button with a color sample in the middle. When clicked, it shows the standard Mac OS X color palette.

Tab views (NSTabView) in Mac OS X appear to be sunken into the window, and are shaded darker and darker each time a new tab view is added inside another. The tabs appear in a row along the top of the sunken area, and are simply a series of white toggle buttons. The currently selected tab is blue. NSBox is a similar control, used to group interface elements, and uses the same sunken appearance, except without tabs. Image "wells" are also available (NSImageView), a small, sunken container into which image files can be dropped.


Apple uses the Lucida Grande font as the standard system font in various sizes and weights. Some areas of the operating system use another font, Helvetica. Mac OS X makes use of system-wide font anti-aliasing to make edges appear smoother.


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A widget being added to the Dashboard in Mac OS X 10.4.
Aqua makes heavy use of animation. Examples include:
  • Dock icons bounce up and down as their corresponding applications are launched.
  • Dock icons also bounce up and down, in a different rhythm, when the application requires the user's attention, but it is not the one currently being used.
  • Dock icons increase in size when approached by the cursor.
  • When minimized, windows are "sucked" into the Dock using the "Genie effect" or "Scale effect." Both of the effects are customizable by the user. The former makes a window turn into a curvy shape so it looks like reverse animation of a genie exiting a lamp, and the latter scales down the window until it is small enough to be in the dock. Using the shift key, both effects can be seen in slow motion and this can also be applied to other Aqua effects such as Dashboard, Exposé and Front Row.
  • When a folder on the desktop is opened or closed, the corresponding Finder window appears to come from, or disappears into, the folder icon.
  • Sheets are "posted" out of window title bars, so it appears that a dialog box is in fact a sheet of paper being thrust towards the user.
  • Dashboard widgets appear with a "ripple" effect, as if being dropped onto the surface of a pond. When removed, Widgets are sucked into the close button as if being drawn into a vacuum.

System integration and standardization

There are a series of Mac OS X features which are standardized across the operating system to make the system more accessible, so the user does not have to learn multiple ways of doing the same thing. Included amongst these features are:
  • Services menu - found in the application menu of most applications, which gives the user access to features of other applications
  • Palettes - Many palettes are repeated across the system, including:
  • Color - The Mac OS X color picker includes multiple ways of choosing colors, including a color wheel, sliders, a wax crayon view, and a "magnifying glass" to select a color from anywhere on the screen
  • Fonts - The Mac OS X font picker gives the user access to advanced typography features like ligatures and shadows in any program which allows the formatting of text,
  • Character Palette - Found as "Special Characters" in the Edit menus of most applications, allows the user to insert characters they are unable to insert with the keyboard
  • Open, Save and Print dialogs - Standard in many applications, and usually use a sheet view

Underlying technology

Aqua is powered by the Quartz Compositor, the Mac OS X window server.


In a miniature re-enactment of the Apple v. Microsoft lawsuit, Apple quickly threatened legal action against those who made themes similar to their look and feel.

In particular, the use of various Object Desktop components created by Stardock came under fire: Despite accepting (for the most part) Apple's right to their copyrighted artwork, the skinning community took exception to their heavy-handed actions against all Aqua lookalikes, which many compared unfavorably to Microsoft's laissez-faire (let it be) approach to the copyright of the Windows XP Luna style.[6]

See also


1. ^ The word aqua is Latin for water.
2. ^ Apple Computer (2000-01-05). Apple Unveils Mac OS X. Press release. Retrieved on 2006-10-11.
3. ^ Pogue, David (2000). Macs for Dummies, 7th Edition. Hungry Minds, 340. ISBN 0-7645-0703-6. 
4. ^ Windows skin site re-posts MacOS X desktop theme, The Register, 14 January, 2000.
5. ^ Apple rattles lawyers at DesktopX over Aqua, The Register, 2 February, 2001.
6. ^ Microsoft blesses XP skins, The Register, 20 September, 2001.

External links

graphical user interface (GUI) is a type of user interface which allows people to interact with a computer and computer-controlled devices which employ graphical icons, visual indicators or special graphical elements called "widgets", along with text, labels or text
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theme is a preset package containing graphical appearance details, used to customise the look and feel of (typically) an operating system, widget set or window manager.

Graphics themes for individual applications are often referred to as skins
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Apple Inc.

Public (NASDAQ:  AAPL , LSE:  ACP , FWB: APC )
Founded California (April 1 1976, as Apple Computer, Inc.)
Headquarters 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California

Key people Steve Jobs, CEO & Co-founder
Steve Wozniak, Co-founder
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Mac OS X (IPA: /mæk.oʊ.ɛs.tɛn/) is a line of graphical operating systems developed, marketed, and sold by Apple Inc., the latest of which is pre-loaded on all currently shipping Macintosh computers.
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An operating system (OS) is the software that manages the sharing of the resources of a computer. An operating system processes system data and user input, and responds by allocating and managing tasks and internal system resources as a service to users and programs of the
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Produced by Boston-based IDG World Expo, Macworld Conference & Expo is a trade show dedicated to the Apple Macintosh platform with conference tracks held annually in the United States, usually during the second week of January.
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City and County of San Francisco
"The Painted Ladies"

Nickname: The City, The City by the Bay, San Fran, Frisco,[1] Baghdad by the Bay[2]
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iMovie is a video editing software application which allows users to edit their own home movies. It was originally released by Apple Inc. in 1999 as a Mac OS 8 application bundled with the first FireWire-enabled Macintosh model[1].
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Maintainer: Apple Inc.

OS: Mac OS X (10.3+) , Windows XP, and Vista[1]

Use: Media player
License: Proprietary (freeware)
Website: Apple's Official iTunes Website
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Dock is a graphical user interface feature used to launch applications and switch between running applications. It was first introduced in the NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP operating systems and modified for Mac OS X where it behaves more like the Apple Newton's Newton OS Dock.
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In the pre-Mac OS X version of the Macintosh operating system, the Appearance Manager controlled the overall look of the Mac GUI widgets and supported several themes.
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Mac OS 8
(Part of the Mac OS Classic family)

Screenshot of Mac OS 8.1
Apple Computer
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Release information
Release date: July 26 1997 [
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Bondi blue is a color which is identical to the Crayola crayon color Blue-Green (See the List of Crayola crayon colors.).

Bondi blue in human culture

Computer Design
  • Bondi Blue is a color name coined by Apple for the original iMac computer.

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iMac is a desktop Macintosh computer designed and built by Apple, Inc. It has been a large part of Apple's consumer desktop offerings since its introduction in 1998 and has evolved through three distinct forms.
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Brushed metal is metal that has been abraded ("brushed"), usually with a fine grit sandpaper. The brushing gives the metal a distinctive look, as it retains some but not all of its metallic lustre and is
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Apple Cinema Display is a product line of widescreen flat panel monitors made by Apple Inc.. Apple initially introduced the 22" Apple Cinema Display in September 1999 alongside the Power Mac G4.
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iPod is a brand of portable media player designed and marketed by Apple and launched in October 2001. The line-up currently consists of the original style hard drive-based flagship iPod classic, the iPhone-like iPod touch, the mid-level video-capable iPod nano, and the low-end
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wallpaper and desktop picture refer to an image used as a background on a computer screen, usually for the desktop of a graphical user interface. 'Wallpaper' is the term used in Microsoft Windows, while the Mac OS calls it a 'desktop picture' (prior to Mac OS X, the term
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palette window, also known as utility window or floating palette, is a type of computing window which floats on top of all regular windows and offers tools or information for the current application.
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An inspector window is a type of computing window that shows current parameters of a selected object and allows these parameters to be changed on-the-fly.

For example, in a vector graphics application the user creates drawings out from elements such as lines, rectangles and
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The sidebar is a term that is used for a GUI element that displays various forms of information to the side of an application or desktop user interface.

Widgets in sidebars

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Mac OS X v10.2 "Jaguar"
(Part of the Mac OS X family)

Screenshot of Mac OS X v10.2 "Jaguar"
Apple Computer

Release information
Release date: August 24, 2002 info

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Mac OS X v10.3 "Panther"
(Part of the Mac OS X family)

Screenshot of Mac OS X v10.3 "Panther"
Apple Computer
Web site:
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Finder may refer to:
  • A device attached to a telescope which gives a much larger field of view than the main telescope and so allows an astronomer to center the telescope on an object using crosshairs.

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A menu bar is a region where computer menus are housed. Its purpose is to house window- or application-specific menus which provide access to such functions as opening files, interacting with an application, or help.
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tab is a navigational widget for switching between documents. It is traditionally designed as a text label within a rectangular box with its top borders rounded. Activating a tab (usually by a mouse click) makes its associated document visible and the tab itself usually becomes
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System Preferences is the application used by Mac OS X to modify user preferences. A variety of preference panes for controlling the current user session, networking, hardware and other settings are included with Mac OS X.
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Mac OS X v10.4 "Tiger"
(Part of the Mac OS X family)

Screenshot of Mac OS X v10.4 "Tiger"
Apple Inc.
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