GNOME Decides to Ditch Drawings

One of the most striking features of any desktop environment is its selection of icons. While wallpapers and window decorations hold a larger stage, it is the bright, colorful icons that draw ones attention and speed up the process of finding what one is looking for. The myriad of available icon themes may find themselves feeling a bit lonely in the near future, however, as the GNOME Art Team has decided that — at least some of them — will face the firing squad.

According to a blog post by Andreas Nilsson of the GNOME Art Team, a new policy on icon use has been adopted for future versions. In addition to adding larger icons for certain locales, the team has decided that the default value of the gtk-menu-images property in future GNOME releases will be changed to false, eliminating most of the icons used in menus. (This would include those used to represent "Open," "Save," and other similar dialogues.) The team feels it will produce a "visually more attractive default and that it will result in a cleaner and more efficient interface."

Before the torches and pitchforks emerge, however, there are exceptions. GNOME isn't to be completely icon-less — exceptions to the rule will include icons that depict a "dynamic object," including applications, files, bookmarks, and devices. Application developers will also have the option to override the default — it is Open Source, after all — using the gtk-image-menu-item-set-always-show-image property.

It is currently unclear whether users will also be given the opportunity to reverse this setting if they prefer the icons — a cursory review of the gconf-editor utility does not immediately reveal an option to alter the property, and Nilsson's blog post does not address the issue specifically. Although the note "and you can always change it back" appears in parenthesis after his comment about a "cleaner and more efficient interface," it is not immediately obvious whether this is directed towards users, or refers to the ability of developers to utilize gtk-image-menu-item-set-always-show-image. One expects that clarification on this point will be forthcoming as users begin to question the change.

Nilsson notes that "[g]etting rid of things (or changing defaults for that matter) is always tricky," saying that "the initial reaction from people used to the old behavior is that nothing of value gets added." This would seem to be a spot-on assessment, and is likely to be a fairly accurate prediction of the response that is to come. As support for the change, Nilsson cites the additional mental "processing" required by the use of both icons and text, as well as statistics showing the average human "skimming speed" to be in the range of 400 - 700 words per minute. There is acknowledgment, however, that icons, particularly by virtue of color, speed recognition significantly.

Without donning our Carnac the Magnificent attire, we predict the GNOME Art Team will hear more than they ever wanted to about the change. Without question, some will skip the "menu item" point entirely and jump directly to accusing the team of unilaterally removing all icons from GNOME. Others have already begun to question the decision to change the default, advocating for an opt-in approach instead, allowing users to remove the icons by preference dialog rather than changing the default behavior.

There does appear to be a certain logic to the idea of opt-in. Without resorting to stereotypes, it does seem that in similar discussions, it has been the more experienced users who prefer text-based interfaces — not command line v. GUI, but in areas like menus — while newer users have tended to favor a more graphical approach. On a practical level, one might assume that experienced users would be more likely than those brand new to Linux to know how to change the setting, particularly if the only way to effect it is through gconf-editor. There is likely a whole debate to be had — perhaps re-had — over efficiency v. user friendliness when making this type of choice.

Nilsson described the current situation as "some items have them, and some don’t," saying the disparity "is because no artist had time to draw it, or because the action is too complex to convey in a small icon, or both." "[H]and to heart," he says, "that’s not a really good guideline."

In the end — again consulting our crystal ball — we predict that while the default may change, the status quo will not. As it stands, developers who don't want icons, or aren't concerned either way, don't include any, and as a result, there are no icons. Those who want their application to have icons take the extra step and provide icons. If the default is changed, this will still be the case: those who don't want icons will continue not include any, just as it was before, and those who do want them will take the extra step to set gtk-image-menu-item-set-always-show-image.

When the dust settles — and with any luck, there won't be much — the end result will be that everyone is still standing where they were — just covered in dust.


Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.


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I hate icons, I have always

Tinker's picture

I hate icons, I have always hated icons, I will always hate icons,
I can read, in several languages, quicker than I can work out what some colored splodge is supposed to mean. My first action with a new install, after the upgrade fest, is to set up the desktop and apps to show the minimum number of icons. I have never manged to get a gui interface with absolutely no icons yet but I live in hope and if Gnome is going to help me down that road I might actually start using Gnome in the future.


Edgan's picture

This seems like the stupidest idea I have heard in a while. This will make menus utterly boring looking. It will probably lead to more bugs with icons since they won't be the default.

On the other hand if this goes like so many other stupid things it will either be ignored by the distributions or they will change their mind again later. My first suspicion is this is an act of we have no one willing to do it, or we are too lazy to do it. Especially when we know the distributions just redo our work after the fact.

This is why UIs shouldn't be

Josh's picture

This is why UIs shouldn't be designed by people who don't understand the principles of UI design. Menus aren't supposed to look cool, they're supposed to provide access to functionality. Boring is definitely better in this case. In some cases, such as cut and paste, icons may be helpful; however, in most cases, icons produce nothing but clutter and are implemented haphazardly.

Gnome (as far as I

Jack Timbledum's picture

Gnome (as far as I understand) is not normally included in a distro (especially a newbie oriented one such as ubuntu) untouched. The distros that provide pure Gnome such as arch and gentoo are normally for more experienced users anyway. And the end of the day most distros are not going to change what their desktop does just because a default has changed upstream.

Icons in menus? I don't see

Anonymous's picture

Icons in menus? I don't see any, just the keyboard shortcuts. Oh, wait, this is my MacBook. Thanks, Apple, for doing some things right (by far not not everything). Guessing from the past it will take another decade until Linux gets sane Human Interface Guidelines and even longer until most applications implement them :/

Very Bad Idea from the

Anonymous's picture

Very Bad Idea from the support perspective.

I've had to support non-English versions of Windows applications on non-English Windows in the past. It's only possible because the shortcuts and icons are language independent. Take away the icons, and you're navigating blind.

Or small kids, or illiterates

Anonymous's picture

The icons are useful also for users that cannot yet read, or never learned reading in the first place. I.e. this is an accessibility issue also.
(One can ask whatr an illiterate person would be doing with the computer in the first place. A lot, I would say, based on my observations of my 3-year old boy).

Good idea

Anonymous's picture

I have already disabled icons in menus, buttons.

Some Commentators Need To Learn To Read

Anonymous's picture

According to the article, no icons are being REMOVED - this change is simply a change to the default setting that controls the display of icons (not their existence.)

The article also predicted that there would be many who would read the article badly and jump to the conclusion that the icons are being removed.

The author's prescience is admirable.

Bad Idea

Anonymous's picture

I thought GNOME devs had more important things to do (Fix some outstanding bugs)than mess up the desktop, this should not be the default behaviour, for example, go into Inkscape click the path menu imagine only text there, this will be slower and uglier I can assure you of that, why should the slower (by slower I mean to recognize an item) and uglier state be the default?

iconless menus are almost every other system out there

Anonymous's picture

Yup, tell all Photoshop, Illustrator, Freehand, or Corel Draw users out there that their setting is slower to use. Then try not to blush when they laugh at you.

OTOH, I think this will hopefully push more users a bit more into reading and actually understanding what's displayed on the screen.

I've seen too many users not getting the results they wanted just because the green 'OK' button looks less dangerous than the red 'Cancel' one: their mind gets stuck sort of paralysed in awe and terror of an unknown danger (unknown because they don't understand the question or message —even if it's written in their own language—).

I can understand this decision.

Danielh's picture

I normally read texts a lot faster than i interpret icons or pictures. Im also of the believe that having both icons and then text explaining what the icons really means is totally redundant. You have either or, not both.

Its perfectly possible to make a very nice looking interface without cluttering it into a coulorful vomit.

Im much more concerned about Gnome getting smashed to bits by Microsoft after using patent encumbered stuff like mono than going under because they try to progress our ancient desktop metaphor.

With any luck KDE will

Anonymous's picture

With any luck KDE will follow suit, KDE-oxygen-icons is the third largest package on my computer :(. My SSD drive thanks gnome.


Anonymous's picture

pfftttt. wow.... save a couple hundred mega bytes by removing icons..... even my crappy acer aspire has 160 Gigs on its ssd drive.... how bout upgrading to something better than 7 gigs. LOL

At 160GB, you don't have an

Anonymous's picture

At 160GB, you don't have an SSD, but a HD. "How bout learning some computer science?"


kaddy's picture

ok.... so gnome is deciding to remove icons...... errrrr. This is the Dumbest thing I ever heard gnome do....
What the hell??? remove icons!!! are you friggin Serious? Gnome already looks like a gui comparable to Windows 95, and now they are
gonna make it Look Even Older! and more Dull than Ever before! What!!!???? You may aswell install FluxBox then! that has no icons! and looks like utter crap......

Who makes these decisions? seriously....
Instead of innovating and making gnome look Better, and competing with the modern looks of Kde 4.3... they are taking away icons and making it look Crapper than it already does..... PEOPLE LIKE ICONS!!!!! What the Hell are you gonna achieve by taking them away? a cleaner interface? pfftttt. what a load of crap... Now people will have to browse through letters to find their programs instead of the eye catching Icon to their favourite programs.... This is a Big Deal! arghhhh.... im sick of the stupid decicions gnome devs make.... Gnome 3/Gnome shell was a really crap and useless idea... NOW THIS!!!!

Im moving on to Kde.... this is ridiculous.........

Free Software

Anonymous's picture

You mean "it is Free Software, after all"

Seeing as "GNOME is Free Software and part of the GNU project, dedicated to giving users and developers the ultimate level of control over their desktops, their software, and their data. Find out more about the GNU project and Free Software at"

Please use the terminology the GNOME developers prefer.

Thank you.

Excellent choice

smpratz's picture

I applaud this move, as it marks a further step toward my own goal. I'm campaigning for a new default: Setting gtk-vowel-menu-item-set-always-show-vowels to "false."

Join me.

GNOME Decides to Ditch Drawings

Jean Chicoine's picture

Well, I'm a new Ubuntu user, 5 months top, I'm more of a GUI kind of guy, although I do use the command line, and I like icons, so there!
Whatever the Gnome team decides, I'll stick to icons and wipe the dust from my desktop.

great article

Anonymous's picture

Informative, unbiased, distribution unspecific, etc.