Document Proxy Icons in MacOS 11 and 12 as a – Ahem – Proxy for Apple’s Current UI Design Sensibilities

You should only see a button when you need it” seems to explain many of Apple’s recent UI directions. File proxy icons in MacOS document windows, for example, disappeared last year in MacOS 11 Big Sur — or rather, were hidden until you moused over them. This post from Michael Tsai has documented reactions and tips regarding this change over the last year — including the fact that in the MacOS 12 Monterey betas, proxy icons can be turned back on using an Accessibility setting in System Preferences. (If you think Accessibility is just for people with vision or motor skill problems, you’ve been missing out on some great system-wide settings for tweaking both MacOS and iOS.)

Does removing proxy icons from document window title bars reduce “clutter”? I can only assume that’s what Apple’s HI team was thinking. But I’d argue strenuously that proxy icons aren’t needless clutter — they’re useful, and showing them by default made them discoverable. Keeping them visible reminds you that they’re there. There’s a one-to-one relationship between a document icon in the Finder and the open application window for that document; showing the document icon in the window title bar reinforced that concept. This hidden Finder preference for MacOS 11 Big Sur delights me, because in addition to showing proxy icons, it also restores grabbable title bars in MacOS 11.

In a sense, no personal computer interface can out-minimalize an old terminal command line — just a blinking cursor on a black screen, awaiting your commands. The Mac’s breakthrough was establishing an interface where you could see — and thus discover through visual exploration — not just what you had done, but what you could do. Proxy icons in title bars weren’t added to classic Mac OS until version 8.5 in 1998, but they exemplified that philosophy. They said: Even though this document is open in an editing window, you can still do things with the file — here it is.

It’s devilishly hard work deciding what to expose at the top level of a user interface. Microsoft went overboard for decades of versions of Windows with way too many inscrutable tiny toolbar icons. But like almost every design challenge, it’s a Goldilocks problem — you can go too far in the other direction, and there is no “just right” that will please everyone.