Holy cow, I wrote a book!
The "look" of the Windows user interface has gone through fashion cycles.
In the beginning, there was Windows 1.0,
which looked very flat because screen resolutions were
rather low in those days and color depth was practically nonexistent.
If you had 16 colors, you were doing pretty good.
You couldn't afford to spend very many
pixels on fluff like borders, and shadows were out of the question due
to lack of color depth.
The "flat look" continued in Windows 2.0, but Windows 3.0 added
a hint of 3D (notice the beveling in the minimize/maximize buttons
and in the toolbar buttons on the help window).
Other people decided that the 3D look was the hot new thing, and
libraries sprung up to add 3D shadow and outlining effects to
nearly everything. The library CTL3D.DLL started out as just an
Excel thing, but it grew in popularity until it became the "standard"
way to make your dialog boxes "even more 3D".
Come Windows 95,
even more of the system had a 3D look.
Notice the beveling along the inside edge of the panes in the
Furthermore, 3D-ness was turned on by default for all programs that
marked themselves as "4.0"; i.e., programs that were designed for
For programs that wanted to run on older versions of Windows as well,
a new dialog style DS_3DLOOK was added, so that they could indicate
that they wanted 3D-ization if available.
And if the 3D provided by Windows 95 by default wasn't enough,
you could use CTL3D32.DLL to make your controls
even more 3D.
By this point, things started getting really ugly.
Buttons on dialog boxes had so many heavy black outlines that
it started to look like a really bad mascara job.
Fortunately, like many fashions that get out of hand, people
realized that too much 3D is not a good thing. User interfaces
got flatter. Instead of using 3D effects and bold outlines to
separate items, subtler dividers were used.
Divider lines became more subdued and sometimes disappeared entirely.
Microsoft Office and Microsoft Money were two programs that embraced
the "less is more" approach.
this screenshot from Microsoft Money,
observe that the beveling is gone. There are no 3D effects.
Buttons are flat and unobtrusive.
The task pane separates itself from the content pane by a simple
gray line and a change in background shade. Even the toolbar has
Office 2000 also went largely flat, though some 3D effects
linger, in the grooves and in the scrollbars (not visible in picture).
Windows XP jumped on the "flat is good" bandwagon
and even got rid of the separator line between the tasks pane
and the contents pane. The division is merely implied by the
change in color.
"Separation through juxtaposition."
Office XP and
Outlook 2003 continue the trend and flatten nearly everything
aside from the scrollbar elements. Blocks of color are used
to separate elements onscreen,
sometimes with the help of simple outlines.
So now the pendulum of fashion has swung away from 3D back towards
Who knows how long this school of visual expression will hold
the upper hand.
Will 3D return with a vengeance when people tire of the starkness
of the flat look?