Gmail's New Default Theme is a Step Backwards for Usability

November 20, 2008

This week, Google has been rolling out a new theming feature into Gmail.  This is likely a welcome and overdue addition for many people who didn't like the default look of Gmail. Unfortuately for everyone else, along with the new feature, users are automatically updated to a new 'Default' theme for Gmail. This has happened in the past, but for the first time, this default appearance change is a step back for usability.

Fortunately, the new theme selector allows us to select the 'Classic' theme which returns Gmail to its previous appearance.  With this ability to switch between the new 'Default' and the previous 'Classic' we can look at some specific ways that 'Default' is less usable than 'Classic.'

Contrast is Reduced on the Important, Increased on the Unimportant

Menu Text and Content Borders

In the 'Classic' theme, text is darker and stands out more against the white background.  Additionally the border that runs around the body of the page is lighter.  It does its job, separating the dynamic content of the view from the static menus and gets out of the way.  Since this border isn't directly useful, it should be subtle, deferring attention the content.

Email Listing Text

Here the text has been changed from black to gray and the background has changed to a gray as well.  If we use a contrast calculator, we can objectively compare this change.  From the 'Classic' to 'Default' themes, the foreground to background brightness difference and the foreground to background color difference is reduced by 28%!

By default, Google is pushing people to a new theme with much worse usability.  The contrast of interface elements has increased while the contrast of text has been reduced by over 1/4. It is good that gmail allows users to return to the classic theme, but it should not be necessary.  The new 'Default' theme should be opt-in instead of opt-out because of its reduced usability.

Update: (11/25/08)

Kevin Albrecht has created a Greasemonkey script to force the listing text to black.  To see screenshots of the change and download the script, head over to his blog.


 vinay's avatar

I have older version in gmail. Tell me how to convert in new version and how to changes in new themes.


DBogs's avatar

Emails from Ryan Baucom AND David Plouffe? That is a dream come true.

 Hobbes's avatar

You finished with "It is good that gmail allows users to return to the classic theme".\r\n\r\nKinda makes your whole post redundant. Right?

 sophie's avatar

I agree. I wondered if the badly designed default was a conscious step to push users to use themes.

gaurav gupta's avatar
gaurav gupta

Bullseye!\r\nWonder what google was thinking when they did this change!\r\n

 Leah's avatar

I agree that lower contrast of black on white text is rarely if ever a good idea. My guess is that the people who don't find it a problem are people with good eyesight. My aging, astigmatic nearsighted eyes want things as crisp and contrasted as possible when it's meant to be something that can easily and quickly be looked at to find specific information, like an e-mail app. That said, I'm using the cherry blossom theme which is actually has nice contrast and has a nice pink instead of all that blue, which is a nice change.\r\n\r\nAlso, on a funny note, your political affiliations are showing, getting e-mails from that David Plouffe guy. *g*

 Foo's avatar

Totally agree that the default theme sucks.\r\nI use the air skin in Better Gmail2 add-on which has a clearer font and that coupled with classic theme looks good.

 Aerotek's avatar

I agree as well. One day I was browsing through my gmail and everything changed and was less readable! I thought I had highlighted by accident some parts of the page and refreshed numerous times thinking there was an error. Then I actually said 'hmmm... must be something else going on under the hood', and I realized that new themes were implemented.\r\n\r\nThe new default is actually not as good as the old one, but I must say I am really in love of the new themes! I was waaay bored of the old ones :D

 matija's avatar

as someone said: "You're really grasping here.. "\r\n\r\nHigh contrast is NOT necessarily better for reading. Too high a contrast can be harder on your eyes.

 Sam's avatar

Hmm I think the decreased contrast on the inbox and increased contrast on the bar/sidebar is for advertising purposes (the toplinks actually get more noticeable)\r\n\r\nAnyone think that also?

 mike's avatar

I love the Steel theme. It's simple, and it's easier to read than default.

 Shane's avatar

You're having a laugh, right?\r\n\r\nSeriously.

 Ryan's avatar

You're really grasping here..

 max's avatar

I really like the new theme better.

 Scott's avatar

I am digging the "planet" theme so far. Only thing that was a little strange was the disable new mail count labs feature. The bold is not bold enough in the planet theme.

 Mike's avatar

Shut up. The new themes are fine if not great. Stop being so negative and suck it up.

 Mike's avatar

Shut up. The new themes are fine if not great. Stop being so negative and suck it up.

Civ2boss 's avatar

I totally agree with the usability concerns, that's why out of the 30 or so themes, only some of them are really usable. However, maybe it's because I'm so used to the "classic," I just love the new default's colors much more.\r\n\r\nAnd hey maybe they should have used the "high contrast" theme as the default! Just kidding.

 Ben Requena's avatar
Ben Requena

Switched to Gmail's Classic theme\r\n\r\n/delete previous comment. (Note: "

 James's avatar

I totally agree. The worst offender IMO is the contrast change in the email listing. I immediately changed back to the Classic Default, and I'm sure they're measuring this. So, if anyone else doesn't like it, switch back to let Google know you're not satisfied.

Maurice's avatar

Great arguments, Anthony. Can't agree with you more.

 Anthony's avatar

Sorry, don't agree.

Dmitry's avatar

Also, the "Labels" box now has the same color as "Chat" and other boxes. In Classic theme, it's green, so it's much easier to find.

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