The default Mac file dialogue sucks.

Here is an example of how Apple’s UI is becoming dated and neglected, especially on Mac.

The majority of applications on OSX, including all of the native ones (e.g. Sheets, Notes, Photos, etc), use a file dialogue box — including Save, Export, Import, and so on — that is fixed in place in the center of whatever window it pertains to.

The most obvious deficiency with this design is the fact that you cannot move the dialogue around. This is important if you need to see some other information on the screen to choose a file name or a location for saving. Too bad for you, then.

But there is another, more subtle problem with this design and that’s what really bothers me. Note how the save dialogue has a shadow underneath it. That alone would suggest that it is a free floating window, able to move about. That is definitely not the case.

Then, thinking in terms of Z-axis, Apple intended this box to sit between the content and the tool bar, with the implication that the box extends upward (on the Y-axis) underneath the tool bar. That’s not what it looks like though. With that awkward little drop shadow that only applies to the box and not the content underneath, it looks like the dialogue box is at the same Z height as the tool bar and the shadow at the top is a bevel. See below:

Not only does this create the illusion of a free-floating box, but also an uncomfortably placed one. There is something about the box sitting perfectly on the edge of the toolbar that is deeply unsettling, like a vase on the edge of a table. This entire illusion could have been prevented with a different styling of the interface.

It seems like a small concern in comparison with the actual absence of a free-floating box, but that small concern is really a symptom of something deeply wrong at Apple. They were historically the pack leader when it came to digital interface innovation. Among desktop PCs, Macintosh pioneered the GUI in an age of command lines. Apple’s “lickable” UI of the late 90s made the digital world appealing to newcomers. But Apple has been flailing about in this area, as in so many others.

We all know how Microsoft beat Apple to Flat design by half a decade, and Apple’s copycat moment, when it finally happened, looked like it was drawn by a 3rd grader with Crayola Neon crayons, but it has not gotten any better since. Apple interfaces have been running up serious design debt with stratigraphic layers of design fads, mashing up holdovers from the Skeu days, ill-conceived Flat designs, and conventions that somehow survived from the Performa era. Apple’s visual interfaces are, at this point, a bastard mongrel with no coherent physical model, and this particular example is one of countless.


  • Modal dialogues should be movable when they cover up content.
  • Visual interfaces should feel like an actual physical space and behave logically.
  • Regularly pay off your design debt.

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