Free software is great. Everybody loves free stuff. However there’s one common flaw experienced by a lot of free software – they look ugly.
The reason behind this isn’t because we have too many programmers (yes, we know you never have enough programmers) and have too little artists – no, the problem is a lot more subtle. The real problem is that there is no clear hierachy within the artists. There is no control. There is no clear structure, focus, and branding. The question so many artists fail to ask ourselves as a contributor to free software is – What do we want to communicate?
To illustrate my point, I would like to use Ubuntu as an example. Regardless of your prejudices for the distribution and/or Canonical, they did do something right – they have a brand. They have a clear, recognisable pallette and style – from colourschemes to typefaces. Why don’t you see it for yourself: go and visit Ubuntu.com. Notice the colours. Notice the icon styles. Notice the typography.
Another example of a project taking the steps in the right direction is KDE and their Oxygen iconset + plasma "Air" attempt. However there is still far to go.
However the issue does not lie with such large FOSS projects such as the above mentioned. Instead the real problem lies with smaller software and application created by smaller developer groups. The reason is because these small applications rarely have to worry about problems such as branding – instead they have to focus on creating an elegant application. Design elegance can only rely so far on the design of widgets in the UI toolkit used. The rest is really up to the developer. Allow me to give a quick visual example of Blogilo, a blog client which I’m using to type out this post. Take a look:
The untrained eye would not see any problem with the screenshot – however the application design above screams complexity. There is no elegance. There is no simplicity – no "flow" (a clear step by step separation of functions). A blog client is not a complex application like an IDE. It exists for you to add, edit, and delete blog posts. Nothing more. When stripped down to its basics, a blog client is naught more but a rich text editor with a few extra options. Instead we have frames within frames, accordion panels, tabs, and buttons strewn about. Overkill, in my humble opinion.
Design polish is a very hard topic to separate what is ugly and what isn’t. It’s blends over into many neighbouring topics such as usability, a macro-view of marketing (in this case, Blogilo is part of KDE), and functionality. If you are interested, however, I would like to direct you to this very interesting blog by Troy Sobotka, one of the folks behind Ubuntu, who discusses this in much more clarity and detail than I am capable of.