Throwing shade on gray

I’m afraid this will be another Apple complaint post, so you might want to skip over it if you’re tired of them. I do have some positive things to say, especially about my M1 MacBook Air, but first I need to deal with at least some of my backlog of gripes.

Peter Lewis, the man behind Keyboard Maestro, tweeted this a few days ago:

How exactly do I explain to someone that in Big Sur menus, command keys that are dimmed out in menus are not disabled, despite being drawn in exactly the same grey as menu items that are dimmed out and disabled? What lunatic decided this was a good idea?

Peter Lewis tweet image


The M1 MacBook Air is the only machine I have running Big Sur, and for the first few days I kept wondering why certain commands were disabled. They weren’t—I was confused about their status because the gray keyboard shortcut was catching my eye and the black command name wasn’t. It wasn’t until I slowed down and looked at the menus carefully that I noticed the contradictory text coloring.

I’ve been using Macs since 1985, and gray text in a menu item has always meant “disabled.” This was true even though early Macs didn’t have true gray.1 Among Mac users, “grayed out” is a synonym for “disabled” and has been for ages. Now, because looking cool is taking precedence over clear communication, we have menu items that tell us the command is available but the keyboard shortcut isn’t.

If Big Sur had chosen some new method to tell the user that a command was disabled, then maybe using gray text for the keyboard shortcut would be defensible. But as Peter says, it still uses gray—the exact same shade of gray—for disabled items.

In some ways, this is worse than confusing. It’s an indication that Big Sur considers keyboard shortcuts less important than using the menu. By making the shortcuts less prominent, they are less likely to be noticed and will therefore take longer to learn. As a result, Mac users will be less efficient.

The traditional knock on Apple is that it cares more about how things look than how they work. This argument is put forward by idiots who don’t understand that in user interfaces, how things look affects how they work. Apple’s best interfaces weren’t simply eye candy; they drew you in by being attractive, but they were also easy to use and easy to learn from. The way they looked made you a better, more effective computer user. Is that still the case?

When I first noticed the gray shortcuts, I raised the issue in the Mac Power Users forum2 to see if anyone knew of a way to get back the old look. I was hoping there might be some defaults write command that would revert to black text. But apparently there is no solution.3

I know that complaining about how things were better in the past is a laughable characteristic of the elderly, but god damn it, this was better before. Yes, I can still learn new keyboard shortcuts by slowing down and peering carefully to read the gray-on-gray text. But why should I have to?

The problem is certainly not that Apple tries out new interface ideas. The problem is that the bad new ideas stick around. When menus became translucent, I thought it was a fad designed to show off the power of their graphics engine. Surely, I thought, Apple will recognize that they add nothing to usability and are, if anything, a visual distraction to readability. But here we are, years later, and Apple is still selling computers with blurry messes in their menu backgrounds.

Thanks to Accessibility settings, I don’t have translucent menus on my Macs. One of the first things I did with my new M1 MacBook Air was dig into Settings and turn on “Reduce transparency.” If only Apple thought gray keyboard shortcuts were a problem for low vision users.

  1. They got the effect by using the same checkerboard pattern of black and white that they used as the default Desktop background. 

  2. Keyboard shortcuts are the first step on the road to becoming a Mac power user. 

  3. Do not suggest “Reduce transparency.” I already have that turned on to disable the abomination of the translucent menu bar and menus. And even if “Increase contrast” worked (it doesn’t), I wouldn’t turn it on because it’s jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the user interface.