Look and feel

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Picture showing 4 different types of look and feel applied in software Verto Look and Feel.jpg
Picture showing 4 different types of look and feel applied in software Verto

In software design, the look and feel of a graphical user interface comprises aspects of its design, including elements such as colors, shapes, layout, and typefaces (the "look"), as well as the behavior of dynamic elements such as buttons, boxes, and menus (the "feel"). The term can also refer to aspects of a non-graphical user interface (such as a command-line interface), as well as to aspects of an API – mostly to parts of an API that are not related to its functional properties. The term is used in reference to both software and websites. [1] [2]


Look and feel applies to other products. In documentation, for example, it refers to the graphical layout (document size, color, font, etc.) and the writing style. In the context of equipment, it refers to consistency in controls and displays across a product line.

Look and feel in operating system user interfaces serves two general purposes. First, it provides branding, helping to identify a set of products from one company. Second, it increases ease of use, since users will become familiar with how one product functions (looks, reads, etc.) and can translate their experience to other products with the same look and feel.

In widget toolkits

Contrary to operating system user interfaces, for which look and feel is a part of the product identification, widget toolkits often allow users to specialize their application look and feel, by deriving the default look and feel of the toolkit, or by completely defining their own. This specialization can go from skinning (that only deals with the look, or visual appearance of the graphical control elements) to completely specializing the way the user interacts with the software (that is, the feel).

The definition of the look and feel to associate with the application is often done at initialization, but some Widget toolkits, such as the Swing widget toolkit that is part of the Java API, allow users to change the look and feel at runtime (see Pluggable look and feel).

Some examples of Widget toolkits that support setting a specialized look and feel are:


Some companies try to assert copyright of trade dress over their look and feel.

The Broderbund v. Unison (1986) case was an early software copyright case that attempted to apply U.S. copyright law to the look and feel presented by a software product.

In 1987 Lotus sued Paperback Software and Mosaic for copyright infringement, false and misleading advertising, and unfair competition over their low-cost clones of 1-2-3, VP Planner and Twin, and sued Borland over its Quattro spreadsheet. [3]

In December 1989, [4] Xerox sued Apple over the Macintosh copyright.

Apple Computer was notable for its use of the term look and feel in reference to their Mac OS operating system. The firm tried, with some success, to block other software developers from creating software that had a similar look and feel. Apple argued that they had a copyright claim on the look and feel of their software, and even went so far as to sue Microsoft, alleging that the Windows operating system was illegally copying their look and feel. [5]

Although provoking a vehement reaction from some in the software community, [6] and causing Richard Stallman to form the League for Programming Freedom, [7] the expected landmark ruling never happened, as most of the issues were resolved based on a license that Apple had granted Microsoft for Windows 1.0. See: Apple v. Microsoft . The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a copyright claim on the feel of a user interface in Lotus v. Borland .

Taking it to the street

GNU's Richard M. Stallman led an "Innovate, don't litigate" public demonstration outside Lotus's headquarters, [3] using a hexadecimal chant:

1-2-3-4 kick the lawsuits out the door
5-6-7-8 innovate, don't litigate
9-A-B-C interfaces should be free
D,E,F,0 [8] look and feel has got to go!

More recent reactions

In 2012 and 2014, Apple Inc. has filed lawsuits against competing manufacturers of smartphones and tablet computers, claiming that those manufacturers copied the look and feel of Apple's popular iPhone and iPad products. [5] [9] [10]


An API, which is an interface to software which provides some sort of functionality, can also have a certain look and feel. Different parts of an API (e.g. different classes or packages) are often linked by common syntactic and semantic conventions (e.g. by the same asynchronous execution model, or by the same way object attributes are accessed). These elements are rendered either explicitly (i.e. are part of the syntax of the API), or implicitly (i.e. are part of the semantics of the API).

See also

Related Research Articles

Graphical user interface User interface allowing interaction through graphical icons and visual indicators

The graphical user interface is a form of user interface that allows users to interact with electronic devices through graphical icons and audio indicator such as primary notation, instead of text-based user interfaces, typed command labels or text navigation. GUIs were introduced in reaction to the perceived steep learning curve of command-line interfaces (CLIs), which require commands to be typed on a computer keyboard.

In computing, a desktop environment (DE) is an implementation of the desktop metaphor made of a bundle of programs running on top of a computer operating system that share a common graphical user interface (GUI), sometimes described as a graphical shell. The desktop environment was seen mostly on personal computers until the rise of mobile computing. Desktop GUIs help the user to easily access and edit files, while they usually do not provide access to all of the features found in the underlying operating system. Instead, the traditional command-line interface (CLI) is still used when full control over the operating system is required.

Motif (software)

In computing, Motif refers to both a graphical user interface (GUI) specification and the widget toolkit for building applications that follow that specification under the X Window System on Unix and Unix-like operating systems.

A widget toolkit, widget library, GUI toolkit, or UX library is a library or a collection of libraries containing a set of graphical control elements used to construct the graphical user interface (GUI) of programs.

OPEN LOOK Graphical user interface specification

OPEN LOOK is a graphical user interface (GUI) specification for UNIX workstations. It was originally defined in the late 1980s by Sun Microsystems and AT&T Corporation.

<i>Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp.</i>

Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation, 35 F.3d 1435, was a copyright infringement lawsuit in which Apple Computer, Inc. sought to prevent Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard from using visual graphical user interface (GUI) elements that were similar to those in Apple's Lisa and Macintosh operating systems. The court ruled that, "Apple cannot get patent-like protection for the idea of a graphical user interface, or the idea of a desktop metaphor [under copyright law]...". In the midst of the Apple v. Microsoft lawsuit, Xerox also sued Apple alleging that Mac's GUI was heavily based on Xerox's. The district court dismissed Xerox's claims without addressing whether Apple's GUI infringed Xerox's. Apple lost all claims in the Microsoft suit except for the ruling that the trash can icon and folder icons from Hewlett-Packard's NewWave windows application were infringing. The lawsuit was filed in 1988 and lasted four years; the decision was affirmed on appeal in 1994, and Apple's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.

Standard Widget Toolkit

The Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT) is a graphical widget toolkit for use with the Java platform. It was originally developed by Stephen Northover at IBM and is now maintained by the Eclipse Foundation in tandem with the Eclipse IDE. It is an alternative to the Abstract Window Toolkit (AWT) and Swing Java graphical user interface (GUI) toolkits provided by Sun Microsystems as part of the Java Platform, Standard Edition (J2SE).

Graphical widget Element of interaction in a graphical user interface

A graphical widget in a graphical user interface is an element of interaction, such as a button or a scroll bar. Controls are software components that a computer user interacts with through direct manipulation to read or edit information about an application. User interface libraries such as Windows Presentation Foundation, GTK, and Cocoa, contain a collection of controls and the logic to render these.

A user interface markup language is a markup language that renders and describes graphical user interfaces and controls. Many of these markup languages are dialects of XML and are dependent upon a pre-existing scripting language engine, usually a JavaScript engine, for rendering of controls and extra scriptability.

A PIGUI package is a software library that a programmer uses to produce GUI code for multiple computer platforms. The package presents subroutines and/or objects which are independent of the GUIs that the programmer is targeting. For software to qualify as PIGUI it must support several GUIs under at least two different operating systems. The package does not necessarily provide any additional portability features. Native look and feel is a desirable feature, but is not essential for PIGUIs.

A panel is "a particular arrangement of information grouped together for presentation to users in a window or pop-up". In ISPF, a panel is "a predefined display image that you see on a display screen". In modern multiple-document interface software a panel refers to a particular arrangement of information grouped together and presented to users docked in the user interface rather than floating in a window, pop-up or dialog box.

Paperback Software International Ltd. was a software company founded in the 1980s by Adam Osborne to manufacture discount software such as spreadsheet (VP-Planner), database (VP-Info) and information management (VP-Expert) software. The company was found guilty by a United States court of copyright violation for copying the appearance and menu system of Lotus 1-2-3 in its competing spreadsheet program, even though they did use different computer code. The loss of this lawsuit was the main cause for the foundering of the company and paved the way for future copyright law on computer software.

ARINC 661 is a standard which aims to normalize the definition of a Cockpit Display System (CDS), and the communication between the CDS and User Applications (UA) which manage aircraft avionics functions. The GUI definition is completely defined in binary Definition Files (DF).

Layout managers are software components used in widget toolkits which have the ability to lay out graphical control elements by their relative positions without using distance units. It is often more natural to define component layouts in this manner than to define their position in pixels or common distance units, so a number of popular widget toolkits include this ability by default. Widget toolkits that provide this function can generally be classified into two groups:

In the 1950s and 1960s, computer operating software and compilers were delivered as a part of hardware purchases without separate fees. At the time, source code, the human-readable form of software, was generally distributed with the software providing the ability to fix bugs or add new functions. Universities were early adopters of computing technology. Many of the modifications developed by universities were openly shared, in keeping with the academic principles of sharing knowledge, and organizations sprung up to facilitate sharing. As large-scale operating systems matured, fewer organizations allowed modifications to the operating software, and eventually such operating systems were closed to modification. However, utilities and other added-function applications are still shared and new organizations have been formed to promote the sharing of software.

A software widget is a relatively simple and easy-to-use software application or component made for one or more different software platforms.

Abstract Window Toolkit

The Abstract Window Toolkit (AWT) is Java's original platform-dependent windowing, graphics, and user-interface widget toolkit, preceding Swing. The AWT is part of the Java Foundation Classes (JFC) — the standard API for providing a graphical user interface (GUI) for a Java program. AWT is also the GUI toolkit for a number of Java ME profiles. For example, Connected Device Configuration profiles require Java runtimes on mobile telephones to support the Abstract Window Toolkit.


  1. "What is the "Look and Feel" of a Website?". November 21, 2013.
  2. "Look and Feel in Computer Software". ComputerLaw.com.
  3. 1 2 John Scwartz; Debra Rosenberg (August 27, 1990). "Computing the Cost of Copyright: Programmers fight "Look and Feel" lawsuits". Newsweek.
  4. Lawrence Fisher (December 15, 1989). "Xerox Sues Apple Computer Over Macintosh Copyright". The New York Times.
  5. 1 2 Timothy B. Lee (2011-10-25). "Yes, Google "Stole" From Apple, And That's A Good Thing". Forbes. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
  6. "Special Report: Apple's New Look and Feel".
  7. Richard Stallman. "Is Digital Inclusion a Good Thing? How Can We Make Sure It Is?". gnu.org. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
  8. (Oh)
  9. Derek Broes (2011-09-24). "Samsung vs. Apple: And The Winner Is..." Forbes. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
  10. Josh Lowensohn (March 31, 2014). "Round two: Apple and Samsung suit up for another billion dollar patent war". The Verge. Retrieved 2015-08-13.