Canonical Voices

Robin Winslow

Last weekend I went to my first Pycon, my second conference in a fortnight.

The conference runs from Friday to Monday, with 3 days of talks followed by one day of “sprints”, which is basically a hack day.

PyCon has a code of conduct to discourage any form of othering:

Happily, PyCon UK is a diverse community who maintain a reputation as a friendly, welcoming and dynamic group.

We trust that attendees will treat each other in a way that reflects the widely held view that diversity and friendliness are strengths of our community to be celebrated and fostered.

And for me, the conference lived up to this, with a very friendly feel, and a lot of diversity in its attendants. The friendly and informal atmosphere was impressive for such a large event with more than 450 people.

Unfortunately, the Monday sprint day was cut short by the discovery of an unexploded bomb.

Many keynotes, without much Python

There were a lot of “keynote” talks, with 2 on Friday, and one each on Saturday and Sunday. And interestingly none of them were really about Python, instead covering future technology, space travel and the psychology of power and impostor syndrome.

But of course there were plenty of Python talks throughout the rest of the day – you can read about them on my other post. And I think it was a good decision to have more abstract keynotes. It shows that the Python community really is more of a general community than just a special interest group.

Van Lindberg on data economics, Marx and the Internet of Things

In the opening keynote on Friday morning, the PSF chairman showed that total computing power is almost doubling every year, and that by 2020, the total processing power in portable devices will exceed that in PCs and servers.

He then used the fact that data can’t travel faster than 11.8 inches per nanosecond to argue that we will see a fundamental shift in the economics of data processing.

The big-data models of today’s tech giants will be challenged as it starts to be quicker and make more economic sense to process data at source, rather than transfer it to distant servers to be processed. Centralised servers will be relegated to mere aggregators of pre-processed data.

He likened this to Marx seizing the means of production in a movement which will empower users, as our portable Things start to hold the real information, and choose who to share it with.

I really hope he’s right, and that the centralised data companies are doomed to fail to be replaced by the Internet of Autonomous Things, because the world of centralised data is not an equal world.

Does Python have a future on small processors? Isn’t it too inefficient?

In a world where all the interesting software is running on light-weight portable devices, processing efficiency becomes important once again. Van used this to argue that efforts to run Python effectively on low-powered devices, like MicroPython, will be essential for Python as a language to survive.

Daniele Procida: All I really want is power

The second keynote was just after lunch on Friday, Daniele Procida, organiser of DjangoCon Europe openly admitted that what he really wanted out of life was power. He put forward the somewhat controversial idea that power and usefulness are the same thing, and that ideas without power are useless.

He made the very good point that power only comes to those who ask for it, or fight for it. And that if we want power not to be abused, we really need to talk about it a whole lot more, even though it makes people uncomfortable (try asking someone their salary). We should acknowledge who has the power, and what power we have, and watch where the power goes.

He suggested that, while in politics or industry, power is very much a rivalled good, in open source it is entirely an unrivalled good. The way you grab power in the open source community is by doing good for the community, by helping out. And so by weilding power you are actually increasing power for those around you.

I don’t agree with him on this final point. I think power can be and is hoarded and abused in the open source community as well. A lot of people use their power in the community to edge out others, or make others feel small, or to soak up influence through talks and presentations and then exert their will over the will of others. I am certainly somewhat guilty of this. Which is why we should definitely watch the power, especially our own power, to see what effect it’s having.

The takeaway maxim from this for me is that we should always make every effort to share power, as opposed to jealously guarding it. It’s not that sharing power in the open source community is inevitable or necessarily comes naturally, but at least in the open source community sharing power genuinely can help you gain respect, where I fear the same isn’t so true of politics or industry.

Dr Simon Sheridan: Landing on a comet: From planning to reality

Simon Sheridan was an incredibly most humble and unassuming man, given his towering achievements. He is a world-class space scientist who was part of the European Space Agency team who helped to land Rosetta on comet 67P.

Most of what he mentioned was basically covered in the news, but it was wonderful to hear it from his perspective.

Naomi Ceder: Confessions of a True Impostor

When, a short way into her Sunday morning keynote, Naomi Ceder asked the room:

How many of you would say that you have in some way or another suffered from imposter syndrome along with me?

Almost everybody put their hands up. This is why I think this was such an important talk.

She didn’t talk about this per se, but contributing to the open source community is hard. No-one talks about it much, but I certainly feel there’s a lot of pressure. Because of its very nature, your contributions will be open, to be seen by anyone, to be criticised by anyone. And let’s face it, your contributions are never going to be perfect. And the rules of the game aren’t written down anywhere, so the chance of being ridiculed seem pretty high. Open source may be a benevolent idea, but it’s damned scary to take part in.

I believe this is why less than 2% of open source contributors are female, compared with more like 25-30% women in software development in general. And, as with impostor syndrome, the same trend is true of other marginalised groups. It’s not surprising to me that people who are used to being criticised and discriminated against wouldn’t subject themselves to that willingly.

And, as Naomi’s question showed, it is not just marginalised people who feel this pressure, it’s all of us. And it’s a problem. As we know, confidence is no indicator of actual ability, meaning that many many talented people may be too scared to contribute to open source.

As Naomi pointed out, impostor syndrome is a socially created condition – when people are expected to do badly, they do badly. In fact I completely agree with her suggestion that the existing Wikipedia definition of impostor syndrome (at the time of writing) could be more sensitively phrased to define it as a “social condition” rather than a “psychological phenomenon”, as well as avoiding singling out women.

While Naomi chose to focus in her talk on how we personally can copy try to mitigate feelings of being an impostor, I think the really important message here is one for the community. It’s not our fault that open source is scary, that’s just the nature of openness. But we have to make it more welcoming. The success of the open source movement really does depend on it being diverse and accepting.

What I think is really interesting is that stereotype threat can be mitigated by reminding people of their values, of what’s important to them. And this is what I hope will save open source. The more we express our principles and passion for open source, the more we express our values, the easier it is to counter negative feelings, to be welcoming, to stop feeling like impostors.

A great conference

Overall, the conference was exhausting, but I’m very grateful that I got to attend. It was inspiring and informative, and a great example of how to maintain a great community.

If you want you can now go and read about the other talks.

(Also published on

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Robin Winslow

The weekend before last, I went to PyCon UK 2015.

I already wrote about the keynotes, which were more abstract. Here I’m going to talk about the other talks I saw, which were generally more technical or at least had more to do with Python.


The talks I saw covered a whole range of topics – from testing through documentation and ways to achieve simplicity to leadership. Here are some key take-aways:

The talks

Following are slightly more in-depth summaries of the talks I thought were interesting.


Leadership of Technical Teams – Owen Campbell

There were two key points I took away from this talk. The first was Owen’s suggestion that leaders should take every opportunity to practice leading. Find opportunities in your personal life to lead teams of all sorts.

The second point was more complex. He suggested that all leaders exist on two spectra:

  • Amount of control: hand-off to dictatorial
  • Knowledge of the field: novice to expert

The less you know about a field the more hands-off you should be. And conversely, if you’re the only one who knows what you’re talking about, you should probably be more of a dictator.

Although he cautioned that people tend to mis-estimate their ability, and particularly when it comes to process (e.g. agile), people think they know more than they do. No-one is really an expert on process.

He suggested that leading technical teams is particularly challenging because you slide up and down the knowledge scale on a minute-to-minute basis sometimes, so you have to learn to be authoritative one moment and then permissive the next, as appropriate.

Document all the things – Kristian Glass

Kristian spoke about the importance, and difficulty, of good documentation.
Here are some particular points he made:

  • Document why a step is necessary, as well as what it is
  • Remember that error messages are documentation
  • Try pair documentation – novice sitting with expert
  • Checklists are great
  • Stop answering questions face-to-face. Always write it down instead.
  • Github pages are better than wikis (PRs, better tracking)

One of Kristian’s main points was that it goes against the grain to write documentation, ‘cos the person with the knowledge can’t see why it’s important, and the novice can’t write the documentation.

He suggested pair documentation as a solution, which sounds like a good idea, but I was also wondering if a StackOverflow model might work, where users submit questions, and the team treat them like bugs – need to stay on top of answering them. This answer base would then become the documentation.


Asking About Gender – the Whats, Whys and Hows – Claire Gowler

Claire spoke about how so many online forms expect people to be either simply “male” or “female”, when the truth can be much more complicated.

My main takeaway from this was the basic point that forms very often ask for much more information than they need, and make too many assumptions about their users. When it comes to asking someone’s name, try radically reducing the complexity by just having one text field called “name”. Or better yet, don’t even ask their name if you don’t need it.

I think this feeds into the whole field of simplicity very nicely. A very many apps try to do much more than they need to, and ask for much more information than they need. Thinking about how little you know about your user can help you realise what you actually don’t need to know about your user.

Finding more bugs with less work – David R. MacIver

David MacIver is the author of the Hypothesis testing library.

Hypothesis is a Python library for creating unit tests which are simpler to write and more powerful when run, finding edge cases in your code you wouldn’t have thought to look for. It is stable, powerful and easy to add to any existing test suite.

When we write tests normally, we choose the input cases, and we normally do this and we often end up being really kind to our tests. E.g.:

What Hypothesis does it help us test with a much wider and more challenging range of values. E.g.:

There are many cases where Hypothesis won’t be much use, but it’s certainly good to have in your toolkit.


Simplicity Is A Feature – Cory Benfield

Cory presented simplicity as the opposite of complexity – that is, the fewer options something gives you, the more simple and straightforward it is.

“Simplicity is about defaults”

To present as simple an interface as possible, the important thing is to have many sensible defaults as possible, so the user has to make hardly any choices.

Cory was heavily involved in the Python Requests library, and presented it as an example of how to achieve apparent simplicity in a complex tool.

“Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible”

He suggested thinking of an “onion model”, where your application has layers, so everything is customisable at one of the layers, but the outermost layer is as simple as possible. He suggested that 3 layers is a good number:

  • Layer 1: Low-level – everything is customisable, even things that are just for weird edge-cases.
  • Layer 2: Features – a nicer, but still customisable interface for all the core features.
  • Layer 3: Simplicity – hardly any mandatory options, sensible defaults
    • People should always find this first
    • Support 80% of users 80% of the time
    • In the face of ambiguity do the right thing

He also mentioned that he likes README driven development, which seems like is an interesting approach.

How (not) to argue – a recipe for more productive tech conversations – Harry Percival

I think this one could be particularly useful for me.

Harry spoke about how many people (including him) have a very strong need to be right. Especially men. Especially those who went to boarding school. And software development tends to be full of these people.

Collaboration is particularly important in open source, and strongly disagreeing with people rarely leads to consensus, in fact it’s more likely to achieve the opposite. So it’s important that we learn how to get along.

He suggests various strategies to try out, for getting along with people better:

  • Try simply giving in, do it someone else’s way once in a while (hard to do graciously)
  • Socratic dialogue: Ask someone to explain their solution to you in simple terms
  • Dogfooding – try out your idea before arguing for its strength
  • Bide your time: Wait for the moment to see how it goes
  • Expose yourself to other cultures, where arguments are less acceptable

All of this comes down to stepping back, waiting and exercising humility. All of which are easier said than done, but all of which are very valuable if I could only manage it.

FIDO – The dog ate my password – Alex Willmer

After covering fairly common ground of how and why passwords suck, Alex introduced the FIDO alliance.

The FIDO alliance’s goal is to standardise authentication methods and hopefully replace passwords. They have created two standards for device-based authentication to try to replace passwords:

  • UAF: First-factor passwordless biometric authentication
  • U2F: Second-factor device authentication

Browsers are just starting to support U2F, whereas support for UAF is farther off. Keep an eye out.

Data Visualisation with Python and Javascript – crafting a data-visualisation for the web – Kyran Dale

Kyran spoke about visualising data, and demoed using Scrapy and Pandas to retrieve the Nobel laureatte data from Wikipedia, using Flask to serve it as a RESTful API, and then using D3 to create an interactive browser-based visualisation.

(Also published on

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Steph Wilson

We believe that the first impression matters, especially when it comes to introducing a new product to a user for the first time. Our aim is to delight the user from the moment they open the box, through to the setup wizard that will help them get started with their new phone.

Devices have become an essential part of our everyday lives. We choose carefully the ones we want to adopt, taking into account all manner of factors that influence our lifestyle and how we conduct our everyday tasks. So when buying a totally new product, with unfamiliar software, or from a new brand, you want to make the first impression count in order to seduce and reassure the user that this product is for them.

The out of the box experience (OOBE) is one of the most important categories of software usability. It essentially says how easy your software is to use, as well as introducing the user into your brand through visual design and tone of voice, which can convey familiarity and trust within your product.

How did we do it?

We started to look at research around users past experiences when setting up a new device and their feelings about the whole process. We also took a look at what our competitors were doing, taking into account current patterns and trends in the market.

From gathering this research we started to simplify as much as possible the OOBE workflow. Taking into consideration the good and the bad things, we started to define our design goals:

  • Design for seduction
  • Simplicity
  • Introduce the brand through design
  • Transform the setup wizard

What did we change?

First of all we started from the smallest screen, taking the existing screens we have for mobile and assessing the design faults and bugs.

In order to create a consistent experience across all devices, we drew together common first experiences found on the mobile, tablet and desktop:

  • Choosing a language
  • Wifi setup
  • Choosing a Time Zone
  • Choosing a lock screen option

One of the major changes we wanted to achieve was to give the user the same experience across all devices, moving us closer to achieving a seamless convergent platform.

What did we achieve?

  • We achieved our main aim in creating the same visual experience across all devices.



  • We defined two types of screens: Primary screen (left), Secondary screen (right)

Image 1

The secondary screens created more space for forms, which helped us to define a consistent and intuitive animation between screens.


  • All the dialogs were transformed where possible into full screens. We kept the dialogs only to communicate to the user confirmation or error messages.

Image 2


  • The desktop installer was simplified and modernized.

desktop 2

The implementation of the OOBE has already begun and we cannot wait for you to open the box and experience it on your new Ubuntu device.

UX Designer: Andreea Pirvu

Visual Designer: Grazina Borosko

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Robin Winslow

Prepare for when Ubuntu freezes

I routinely have at least 20 tabs open in Chrome, 10 files open in Atom (my editor of choice) and I’m often running virtual machines as well. This means my poor little X1 Carbon often runs out of memory, at which point Ubuntu completely freezes up, preventing me from doing anything at all.

Just a few days ago I had written a long post which I lost completely when my system froze, because Atom doesn’t yet recover documents after crashes.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, I now have a solution! (Although it didn’t save me in this case because it needs to be enabled first – see below.)


The magic SysRq key can run a bunch of kernel-level commands. One of these commands is called oom_kill. OOM stands for “Out of memory”, so oom_kill will kill the process taking up the most memory, to free some up. In most cases this should unfreeze Ubuntu.

You can run oom_kill from the keyboard with the following shortcut:

Except that this is disabled by default on Ubuntu:

Enabling SysRq functions

For security reasons, SysRq keyboard functions are disabled by default. To enable them, change the value in the file /etc/sysctl.d/10-magic-sysrq.conf to 1:

And to enable the new config run:

SysRq shortcut for the Thinkpad X1

Most laptops don’t have a physical SysRq key. Instead they offer a keyboard combination to emulate the key. On my Thinkpad, this is fn + s. However, there’s a quirk that the SysRq key is only “pressed” when you release.

So to run oom_kill on a Thinkpad, after enabling it, do the following:

  • Press and hold alt
  • To emulate SysRq, press fn and s keys together, then release them (keep holding alt)
  • Press f

This will kill the most expensive process (usually the browser tab running in my case), and freeup some memory.

Now, if your computer ever freezes up, you can just do this, and hopefully fix it.

(Also posted on

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Jamie Young

dConstruct 2015


We had a great time at dConstruct in Brighton last Friday. Ubuntu was the premier sponsor of the event, so 15 of us headed down from London in the small hours of the morning to set up our stand and enjoy a day out.

Origami competition



Our stand became a landscape of wolves and unicorns as attendees of the conference took up our challenge to fold one of these animals (with instructions) to win themselves a brand new BQ Aquaris E5 Ubuntu Phone.

The talks



The theme of the talks was ‘Designing the Future’ so we had robots, The Jetsons, various superheroes and The Terminator all making an appearance during the day.

Josh Clark demonstrated real magic on stage. Matt Novak revealed the secret behind robot vacuum cleaners of the 1950s (they were radio-controlled). Nick Foster brought us all back down to earth with a great talk on designing for the mundane and finally Dan Hill encouraged us to look more closely at the planning regulation notices pinned to lampposts.

If you want to hear all the talks from the day you can find them here.

A well deserved lunch!


After a morning of mental sustenance we needed some real food in our stomachs and we all set off for a tasty lunch at the Chilli Pickle, just around the corner from the venue. Feeling energised from the spicy food, it was back for round two of talks…

Positive feedback



From the moment the doors opened we had people coming up to the stand to speak to us about Ubuntu. We had a really positive response from attendees to the stand, where we were showing off demos of both Ubuntu Phones. People were really happy to see us, which was nice! From our end, it was invaluable meeting you all and hearing all the interesting questions you had for us. We hope we managed to answer them all!

A sunny day out

A beautiful sunny day, without a drop of rain, made it for a nice day out of the office: that alone is usually enough to fill anyone with energy and inspiration.

The future is sponsored by Ubuntu

We are inspired to support entrepreneurs and inventors focused on life-changing projects. We’re building open source tools for the next generation of devices, things, desktops and clouds.

Take a look at

Join us

Passionate about good design and creating delightful experiences? We’re looking for people who love to learn and share their knowledge and ideas.

See all the design jobs on

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Inayaili de León Persson

We’re going to be at dConstruct!

Ubuntu is once again sponsoring the excellent dConstruct conference, taking place this Friday, 11th September in Brighton.

This year’s theme is “Designing the future” and we can’t wait to hear what the stellar lineup of speakers has to share.

As ever, if you’re going to be there, come and say hi, and grab a few Ubuntu goodies while you’re at it.

In the meantime, why not listen to the dConstruct podcast, where Jeremy Keith talks to the speakers before the event?

See you on Friday!

Ubuntu at dConstruct 2014

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Inayaili de León Persson

August’s reading list

The design team members are constantly sharing interesting, fun, weird, links with each other, so we thought it might be a nice idea to share a selection of those links with everyone.

Here are the links that have been passed around during last month:

Thanks to Robin, Luca, Elvira, Anthony, Jamie, Joe and me, for the links this month!

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Tristram Oaten

Publishing Vanilla

We’ve got a new CSS framework at Canonical, named Vanilla. My colleague Ant has a great write-up introducing Vanilla. Essentially it’s a CSS microframework powered by Sass. The build process consists of two steps, an open source build, and a private build.

Open Source Build

While there are inevitably componants that need to be kept private (keys, tokens, etc.) being Canonical, we want to keep much of the build in the open, in addition to the code. We wanted the build to be as automated and close to CI/CD principles as possible. Here’s what happens:

Committing to our github repository kicks off a travis build that runs gulp tests, which include sass-lint. And we also use to make sure our npm dependencies are up to date. All of these have nice badges we can link to right from our github page, so the first thing people see is the heath of our project. I really like this, it keeps us honest, and informs the community.

Not everything can be done with travis, however, as publishing Vanilla to npm, updating our project page and demo site require some private credentials. For the confidential build, we use Jenkins. (formally Hudson, a java-based build management system.).

Private Build with Jenkins

Our Jenkins build does a few things:

  1. Increment the package.json version number
  2. npm publish (package)
  3. Build Sass with npm install
  4. Upload css to our assets server
  5. Update Sassdoc
  6. Update demo site with new CSS

Robin put this functionality together in a neat bash script:

We use this script in a Jenkins build that we kick off with a few parameters, point, minor and major to indicate the version to be updated in package.json. This allows our devs push-button releases on the fly, with the same build, from bugfixes all the way up to stable releases (1.0.0)

After less than 30 seconds, our demo site, which showcases framework elements and their usage, is updated. This demo is styled with the latest version of Vanilla, and also serves as documentation and a test of the CSS. We take advantage of github’s html publishing feature, Github Pages. Anyone can grab – or even hotlink – the files on our release page.

The Future

It’d be nice for the regression test (which we currently just eyeball) to be automated, perhaps with a visual diff tool such as PhantomCSS or a bespoke solution with Selenium.


Vanilla is ready to hack on, go get it here and tell us what you think! (And yes, you can get it in colours other than Ubuntu Orange)

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Robin Winslow

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I recently tried to setup OpenID for one of our sites to support authentication with, and it took me much longer than I’d anticipated because our site is behind a reverse-proxy.

My problem

I was trying to setup OpenID with the django-openid-auth plugin. Normally our sites don’t include absolute links ( back to themselves, because relative URLs (/hello-world) work perfectly well, so normally Django doesn’t need to know the domain name that it’s hosted it.

However, when authenticating with OpenID, our website needs to send the user off to with a callback url so that once they’re successfully authenticed they can be directed back to our site. This means that the django-openid-auth needs to ask Django for an absolute URL to send off to the authenticator (e.g.

The problem with proxies

In our setup, the Django app is served with a light Gunicorn server behind an Apache front-end which handles HTTPS negotiation:

User <-> Apache <-> Gunicorn (Django)

(There’s actually an additional HAProxy load-balancer in between, which I thought was complicating matters, but it turns out HAProxy was just passing through requests absolutely untouched and so was irrelevant to the problem.)

Apache was setup as a reverse-proxy to Django, meaning that the user only ever talks to Apache, and Apache goes off to get the response from Django itself, with Django’s local network IP address – e.g.

It turns out this is the problem. Because Apache, and not the user directly, is making the request to Django, Django sees the request come in at rather than This meant that django-openid-auth was generating and sending the wrong callback URL of to

How Django generates absolute URLs

django-openid-auth uses HttpRequest.build_absolute_uri which in turn uses HttpRequest.get_host to retrieve the domain. get_host then normally uses the HTTP_HOST header to generate the URL, or if it doesn’t exist, it uses the request URL (e.g.:

However, after inspecting the code for get_host I discovered that if and only if settings.USE_X_FORWARDED_HOST is True then Django will look for the X-Forwarded-Host header first to generate this URL. This is the key to the solution.

Solving the problem – Apache

In our Apache config, we were initially using mod_rewrite to forward requests to Django.

RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^/?(.*)$$1 [P,L]

However, when proxying with this method Apache2 doesn’t send the X_Forwarded_Host header that we need. So we changed it to use mod_proxy:

ProxyPass /
ProxyPassReverse /

This then means that Apache will send three headers to Django: X-Forwarded-For, X-Forwarded-Host and X-Forwarded-Server, which will contain the information for the original request.

In our case the Apache frontend used HTTPS protocol, whereas Django was only using so we had to pass that through as well by manually setting Apache to pass an X-Forwarded-Proto to Django. Our eventual config changes looked like this:

<VirtualHost *:443>
    RequestHeader set X-Forwarded-Proto 'https' env=HTTPS

    ProxyPass /
    ProxyPassReverse /

This meant that Apache now passes through all the information Django needs to properly build absolute URLs, we just need to make Django parse them properly.

Solving the problem – Django

By default, Django ignores all X-Forwarded headers. As mentioned earlier, you can set get_host to read the X-Forwarded-Host header by setting USE_X_FORWARDED_HOST = True, but we also needed one more setting to get HTTPS to work. These are the settings we added to our Django

# Setup support for proxy headers

After changing all these settings, we now have Apache passing all the relevant information (X-Forwarded-Host, X-Forwarded-Proto) so that Django is now able to successfully generate absolute URLs, and django-openid-auth now works a charm.

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Robin Winslow

We recently introduced Vanilla framework, a light-weight styling framework which is intended to replace the old Guidelines framework as the basis for our Ubuntu and Canonical branded sites and others.

One of the reasons we created Vanilla was because we ran into significant problems trying to use Guidelines across multiple different sites because of the way it was made. In this article I’m going to explain how we structured Vanilla to hopefully overcome these problems.

You may wish to skip the rationale and go straight to “Overall structure” or “How to use the framework”.

Who’s it for?

We in Canonical’s design team will definitely be using Vanilla, and we also hope that other teams within Canonical can start to use it (as they did with Guidelines before it).

But most importantly, it would be fantastic if Vanilla offers a solid enough styling basis that members of the wider community feel comfortable using it as well. Guidelines was never really safe for the community at large to use with confidence.

This is why we’ve made an effort to structure Vanilla in such a way that any or all of it can be used with confidence by anyone.

Limitations of Guidelines

Guidelines was initially intended to solve exactly one problem – to be a single resource containing all the styling for This would mean that we could update Guidelines whenever we needed to update’s styling, and those changes would propagate across all our other Ubuntu-branded sites (e.g.: or

So we simply structured the markup of these sites in the same way, and then created a single hosted CSS file, and linked to it from all the sites that needed Ubuntu styling.

As time went on, two large problems with this solution emerged:

  • As over 10 sites were linking to the same CSS file, updating that file became very cumbersome, as we’d have to test the changes on every site first.
  • As the different sites became more individual over time, we found we were having to override the base stylesheet more and more, leading to overly complex and confusing local styling.

This second problem was only exacerbated when we started using Guidelines as the basis for Canonical-branded sites (e.g.: as well, which had a significantly different look.

Architecture goals for Vanilla

Learning from our experiences with Guidelines, we planned to solve a few specific problems with Vanilla:

  • Website projects could include only the CSS code they actually needed, so they don’t have to override lots of unnecessary CSS.
  • We could release new changes to the framework without worrying about breaking existing sites, allowing us to iterate quickly.
  • Other projects could still easily copy the styles we use on our sites with minimal work

To solve these problems, we decided on the following goals:

  • Create a basic framework (Vanilla) which only contains the common elements shared across all our sites.

    • This framework should be written in a modular way, so it’s easy to include only the parts you need
  • Extend the basic framework in “theme” projects (e.g. ubuntu-vanilla-theme) which will apply specific styling (colours etc.) for that specific brand.

    • These themes should also only contain code which needs to be shared. Site-specific styling should be kept local to the project
  • Still provide hosted compiled CSS for sites to hotlink to if they like, but force them to link to a specific version (e.g. vanilla-framework-version-0.0.15.css) rather than “latest” so that we can release a new version without worry.

Sass modularisation

This modular structure would be impossible in pure CSS. CSS itself offers no mechanism for encapsulation. Fortunately, our team has been using Sass to write our CSS for a while now, and Sass offers some important mechanisms that help us modularise our code. So what we decided to create is actually a Sass mixin library (like Bourbon for example) using the following mechanisms:

Default variables

Setting global variables is essential for the framework, so we can keep consistent settings (e.g. font colours, padding etc.). Variables can also be declared with the !default flag. This allows the framework’s settings to be overridden when extending the framework:

We’ve used this pattern in each of the Vanilla themes we’ve created.

Separating concerns into separate files

Sass’s @import feature allows us to encapsulate our code into files. This not only keeps our code tidier, but it means that anyone hoping to include some parts of our framework can choose which files they want:

Keeping everything in a mixin

When a Sass file is imported any loose CSS is compiled directly to the output. But anything declared inside a @mixin will not be output unless you call the mixin.

Therefore, we set a goal of ensuring that all parts of our library can be imported without any CSS being output, so that you can import the whole module but just choose what you want output into your compiled CSS:


To avoid conflicts with any local sass setup, we decided to namespace all our mixins with the vf- prefix – e.g. vf-grid or vf-header.

Overall structure

Using the aforementioned techniques, we created one base framework, Vanilla Framework, which contains (at the time of writing) 19 separate “modules” (vf-buttons, vf-grid etc.). You can see the latest release of the framework on the project’s homepage, and see the framework in action on the demo page.

The framework can be customised by overriding any of the global settings inside your local Sass, as described above.

We then extended this basic framework with three branded themes which we will use across our sites:

You can of course create your own themes by extending the framework in the same way.

NPM modules

To make it easy to include Vanilla Framework in our projects, we needed to pick a package manager to use for installing it and tracking versions. We experimented with Bower, but in the end we decided to use the Node package manager. So now anyone can install and use any of the following packages:

Hotlinks for compiled CSS

Although for in-depth usage of our framework we recommend that you install and extend it locally, we also provide hosted compiled CSS files, both minified and unminified, for the Vanilla framework itself and all Vanilla themes, which you can hotlink to if you like.

To find the links to the latest compiled CSS files, please visit the project homepage.

How to use the framework

The simplest way to use the framework is to hotlink to it. To do this, simply link to the latest version (minified or unminified) directly in your HTML:

However, if you want to take full advantage of the framework’s modular nature, you’ll probably want to install it directly in your project.

To do this, add the latest version of vanilla-framework to your project’s package.json as follows:

Then, after you’ve npm installed, include the framework from the node_modules folder:

The future

We will continue to develop Vanilla Framework, with version 0.1.0 just around the corner. You can track our progress over on the project homepage and on Github.

In the near future we’ll switch over and to using it, and when we do we’ll definitely blog about it.

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Richard McCartney

Converting old guidelines to vanilla

How the previous guidelines worked

Guidelines essentially is a framework built by the Canonical web design team. The whole framework has an array of tools to make it easy to create a Ubuntu themed sites. The guidelines were a collaboration between developers and designers and followed consistent look which meant in-house teams and community websites could have a consistent brand feel.

It worked in one way, a large framework of modules, helpers and components which built the Ubuntu style for all our sites. The structure of this required a lot of overrides and work arounds for different projects and added to a bloated nature that the guidelines had become. Canonical and cloud sites required a large set of overrides to imprint their own visual requirements and created a lot of duplication and overhead for each site.

There was no build system nor a way to update to the latest version unless using the hosted pre-compiled guidelines or pulled from our bazaar repository. Not having any form of build step meant having to rely on a local Sass compiler or setup a watcher for each project. Also we had no viable way to check linting errors or create a concrete coding standard.

The actual framework its self was a ported CSS framework into Sass. Not utilising placeholders or mixins correctly and with a bloated amount of variables. To change one colour for example or changing the size of an element wouldn’t be as easy as passing a mixin with set values or changing one variable.

Unlike how we have currently built in Vanilla, all preprocessor styles are created via mixins. Creating responsive changes would be done in a large media query at the end of any document and this again would be repeated for our Canonical or Cloud styles too.

Removing Ubuntu and Canonical from theme

Our first task in building Vanilla was referencing all elements which were ‘Ubuntu’ centric. Anything which had a unique class, colour or style. Once identified the team systematically took one section of each part of guidelines and removed the classes or variables and creating new versions. Once this stage was achieved the team was able to then look at refactoring and updating the code.

Clean-up and making it generic

We decided when starting this project to update how we write any new module / element. Linting was a big factor and when using a build system like gulp we finally had the ability to adhere to a coding standard. This meant a lot of modules / elements had to be rewritten and also improved upon, trimming down the Sass nesting, applying new techniques such as flex box and cleaning duplicated styles.

But the main goal was to make it generic, extendable and easy. Not the simplest of tasks, this meant removing any custom modules or specific style / classes but also building the framework to change via a variable update or a value change with in a mixin. We wanted the Vanilla theme to inherit another developers style and that would cascade through out the whole framework with ease. Setting the brand colour for example would effect the whole framework and change a multiple of modules / elements. But you are not restricted which we had as a bottle neck with the old guidelines.

Using Sass mixins

Mixins are a powerful part of Sass which we weren’t utilising. In guidelines they were used to create preprocessor polyfills, something which was annoying. Gulp now replaces that need. We used mixins to modularise the entire framework, thus giving flexibility over which parts of the framework a project requires.

The ability to easily turn on/off a section of vanilla felt very powerful but required. We wanted a developer to choose what was needed for their project. This was the opposite of guidelines where you would receive the entire framework. In Vanilla, each section our elements or modules would also be encapsulated with in mixins and on some have values which would effect them. For example the buttons mixin;

@mixin vf-button($button-color, $button-bg, $border-color) {
  @extend %button-pattern;
  color: $button-color;
  background: $button-bg;
  @if $border-color != null {
    border: 1px solid $border-color;
  &:hover {
    background: darken($button-bg, 6.2%);
    @if $button-bg == $transparent {
      text-decoration: underline;

The above code shows how this mixin isn’t attached to fixed styles or colours. When building a new Vanilla theme a few variable changes will style any button to the projects requirements. This is something we have replicated through out the project and creates a far better modular framework.

Creating new themes

As I have mentioned earlier a few changes can setup a whole new theme in Vanilla, using it as a base and then adding or extending new styles. Change the branding or a font family just requires overwriting the default value e.g $brand-colour: $orange !default; is set in the global variables document. Amending this in another document and setting it to $brand-colour: #990000; will change any element effected by brand colour thus creating the beginning of a new theme.

We can also take this per module mixin. Including the module into a new class or element and then extend or add upon it. This means themes are not constricted to just using what is there but gives more freedom. This method is particularly useful for the web team as we build themes for Ubuntu, Canonical and Cloud products.

An example of a live theme we have created is the Ubuntu vanilla theme. This is an extension of the Vanilla framework and is set up to override any required variables to give it the Ubuntu brand. Diving into the theme.scss It shows all elements used from Vanilla but also Ubuntu specific modules. These are exclusively used just for the Ubuntu brand but are also structured in the same manner as the Vanilla framework. This reduces complexity in maintaining these themes and developers can easily pick up what has been built or use it as a reference to building their own theme versions.

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Steph Wilson

We have given our monochromatic icons a small facelift to make them more elegant, lighter and consistent across the platform by incorporating our Suru language and font style.

The rationale behind the new designs are similar to that of our old guidelines, where we have kept to our recurring font patterns but made them more streamlined and legible with lighter strokes, negative spaces, and a minimal solid shape.

What we have changed:

  • Reduced and standardized the strokes width from 6 or 8 pixels to 4.
  • Less solid shapes and more outlines.
  • The curvature radius of rectangles and squares has been slightly reduced (e.g message icon) to make them less ‘clumsy’.
  • Few outlines are ‘broken’ (e.g bookmark, slideshow, contact, copy, paste, delete) for more personality. This negative space can also represent a shadow cast.


Less solid shapes


Screenshot 2015-07-15 16.39.59


Screenshot 2015-07-15 16.38.19

Lighter strokes



Screenshot 2015-07-15 17.27.20


Screenshot 2015-07-15 17.26.34

Negative spaces



Screenshot 2015-07-15 17.30.01



Screenshot 2015-07-15 17.50.50


Font patterns 

Oblique lines are slightly curved

Screenshot 2015-07-16 13.39.03

Arcs are not perfectly rounded but rather curved


Screenshot 2015-07-15 16.38.19

Uppercase letters use right or sharp angles

Screenshot 2015-07-16 13.42.56

Vertical lines have oblique upper terminations.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 17.26.34

Nice soft curves

Screenshot 2015-07-16 13.44.16










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Peter Mahnke

Ubuntu is a big Open Source project and there are a lot of websites in our community. The web team at Canonical literally doesn’t even know how many sites there are. We have heard there are over 200 subdomains alone, but we know that there are many more that are owned by local groups and teams outside that single domain.

Traditionally most of our work has been on and, but over the years, we have designed, often built and occasionally are responsible for the content of a series of key sites like:,,, And we have often attempted to provide on-brand versions of wiki and WordPress templates.

As the number of sites grew, we got tired of re-creating grids, templates, CSS all the time.

Enter guidelines

To resolve these issues, we created Ubuntu web guidelines. Instead of sites of cobbled together CSS and a borrowed grid, guidelines gave us something far more formalised and systematic. A grid, typography, core styles and pattern, all with our beautiful Ubuntu brand guidelines. We were not only able to maintain a whole set of sites from a single hosted set of CSS files, but others could borrow and use it easily. We even transitioned the guidelines to be responsive without breaking our sites. You can read more in our series of posts Making responsive.

Exit guidelines

Around two years ago, the web team started supporting the design and development of some of Canonical’s cloud apps, including Juju, MAAS, and Canonical OpenStack Autopilot installer. These apps have a different look and feel than And they often have special requirements, for example, MAAS is likely to be run in data centres without internet access for things like fonts, images, or CSS, that the guidelines did not natively support.

We looked at how to best adapt the guidelines to work with these web apps. We looked at how we were already making work, essentially overriding the Ubuntu branded guidelines and decided to change the entire approach.

Enter Vanilla

For Vanilla, we wanted to start over, but not have to rewrite everything. So our quick list of project goals was:

  • Minimise the changes to our existing html
  • Create a core theme that distilled the guidelines to its basic Ubuntu-ness
  • Make everything more modular, easy to add or remove components
  • Make it easy for anyone to create themes for each new project that could borrow from other themes
  • Create themes for ubuntu and canonical websites
  • Remove our reliance on javascript
  • Make it work stand-alone
  • Make it easy to build, develop and update
  • Invite other people both inside and outside Canonical to start using the framework

The future

So now we are close to releasing the first version of Vanilla. and will be moved over the coming months. Then we will look at moving other projects, like MAAS,, Landscape to the framework.

Please keep reading these posts, you can see Ant’s first post, Introducing Vanilla. And take a look at the project on GitHub and let us know what you think.

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Anthony Dillon

Why we needed a new framework

Some time ago the web team at Canonical developed a CSS framework the we called ‘Guidelines’. Guidelines helped us to maintain our online visual language across all our sites and comprised of a number of base and component Sass files which were combined and served as a monolithic CSS file on our asset server.

We began to use Guidelines as the baseline styles for a number of our sites;,, etc.

This worked well until we needed to update a component or base style. With each edit we had to check it wasn’t going to break any of the sites we knew used it and hope it didn’t break the sites we were not aware.

Another deciding factor for us was was the feedback that we started receiving as internal teams started adopting Guidelines. We received a resounding request to break the components into modular parts so they could customise which ones they could include. Another request we heard a lot was the ability to pull the Sass files locally for offline development but keep the styling up to date.

Therefore, we set out to develop a new and improved build and delivery system, which lead us to a develop a whole new architecture and we completely refactored the Sass infrastructure.

This gave birth to Vanilla; our new and improved CSS framework.

Building Vanilla

The first decision we made was to remove the “latest” version target, so sites could no longer directly link to the bleeding edge version of the styles. Instead sites should target a specific version of Vanilla and manually upgrade as new versions are released. This helps twofold, shifting the testing and QA to the maintainers of each particular site allows for staggered updates without a sweeping update to all sites at once. Secondly, allowed us to modify current modules without updating the sites until the update was applied.

We knew that we needed to make the update process as easy as possible to help other teams keep their styles up to date. We decided against using Bower as our package manager and chose NPM to reduce the number of dependencies required to use Vanilla.

We knew we needed a build system and, as it was a greenfield project, the world was our oyster. Really it came down to Gulp vs Grunt. We had a quick discussion and decided to run with Gulp as we had more experience with it. Gulp had all the plugins we required and we all preferred the Gulp syntax instead of the Grunt spaghetti.

We had a number of JavaScript functions in Guidelines to add simple dynamic functionality to our sites, such as, equal heights or tabbed content. The team decided we wanted to try and remove the JS dependency for Vanilla and make it a pure CSS framework. So we stepped through each function and tried to work out if we, most importantly, required it at all. If so, we tried to develop a CSS replacement with an acceptable degradation for less modern browsers. We managed to cover all required functions with CSS and removed some older functionality we did not want any more.

Using Vanilla

Importing Vanilla

To start using Vanilla simple run $ npm install vanilla-framework --save in the root of your site. Then in your main stylesheet simple add:

@import ../path/to/node_modules/vanilla-framework/build/scss/build.scss
@include vanilla;

The first line in the code above imports the main build file of the vanilla-framework. Then included as it is entirely controlled with mixins, which will be explained in a future post.

Now that you have Vanilla imported correctly you should see the some default styling applied to your site. To take full advantage of the framework we require a small amount of mark up changes.

Mark up amendments

There are a number of classes used by Vanilla to set up the site wrappers. Please refer to the source for our demo site.



This is still a work in progress project but we are close to releasing and based on Vanilla. Please do use Vanilla and any feedback would be very much appreciated.

For more information please visit the Vanilla project page.

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Pierre Bertet

.gsa-example { margin: 1em 0; } .gsa-example p { display: none; } .gsa-grid { font-size: 14px; color: #555; border: 0.5px solid #CCC; } .gsa-grid-header { height: 30px; line-height: 30px; text-align: center; background: #F3F3F3; border-bottom: 0.5px solid #CCC; } .gsa-grid-container { display: table; width: 100%; height: 80px; } .gsa-grid-part { display: table-cell; text-align: center; vertical-align: middle; } .gsa-grid-margin { font-size: 12px; background: #FBFFCF; } .gsa-grid-content { background: #D6FED6; } .gsa-grid-panel { position: relative; background: #FFECDE; } .gsa-grid-panel:before { content: ''; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; bottom: 0; width: 0.5px; background: #666; } .gsa-grid-panel:first-child:before { display: none; } .gsa-grid-mcl-margin { background: #FBFFCF; } .gsa-grid-mcl-gutter { background: #CFFFFF; } .gsa-grid-mcl-column { background: #C3CBE4; } .gsa-pseudocode { font-size: 1em; margin-bottom: 1em; } .post-content h2 { margin-top: 0.863em; }

Following the article “To converge onto mobile, tablet, and desktop, think Grid Units”, here is a technical description of the way the Grid System behave. We will go through the following concepts: a Grid Unit, a Layout, a Panel, and a Multi-Column Layout.

Grid Unit

A Grid Unit (GU) is a virtual subdivision of screen space. The actual size, in pixels, of one Grid Unit is assigned by the OS depending on the device’s screen size and density, freeing the developer from worrying about these device-specific details. For more description of the system and its benefits, please see this design blog posting.

Note: There are only three target short-side screens in the grid system: 40, 50, and 90. A Grid Unit can not contain a fractional number of pixels, so if the screen width can not divide by the desired number of Grid Units (40, 50, or 90), the remainder becomes side margins.

Grid Unit Calculation

The width of a single Grid Unit is calculated as follows:

  • The width of the short edge of the screen is divided by the desired number of grid units (integer division).
  • The remainder, if any, gives us the size of the margins.
  • The quotient gives us the size of one Grid Unit.

In pseudocode:

margins = total_width mod layout_grid_units
grid_width = total_width - margins
grid_unit_width = grid_width / layout_grid_units

Example with a 540×960 screen and a 50 GU Layout

540px (total portrait width)
500px or 50 GU (total width without margins)

margins = 540 mod 50 = 40
grid_width = 540 - margins = 500
grid_unit = grid_width / 50 = 10

Example with a 1600×2560 screen and a 90 GU Layout

1600px (total portrait width)
1530px or 90 GU (total width without margins)

margins = 1600 mod 90 = 70
grid_width = 1600 - margins = 1530
grid_unit = grid_width / 90 = 17


A Layout represents the desired number of Grid Units for the short edge of the screen. That number will be used to calculate the width of a single Grid Unit in pixels, using the method described in the Grid Units section. For touch devices, the available layouts are 40 GU, 50 GU (phones or phablets), and 90 GU (tablets).

Landscape Grid Units Count Calculation

The number of Grid Units in Landscape Orientation is calculated as follows:

  • The width of the long edge of the screen is divided by the width of of a single grid unit (integer division).
  • The remainder, if any, gives us the size of the margins.
  • The quotient gives us the number of Grid Units in the Landscape Orientation.

In pseudocode:

margins = total_width mod grid_unit_width
grid_width = total_width - margins
grid_unit_count = grid_width / grid_unit_width

Example with a 540×960 screen, 50 GU Layout and 1 GU = 10px

960px (total landscape width)
96 GU (total width, no margins)

margins = 960 mod 10 = 0
grid_width = 960 - margins = 960
grid_unit_count = grid_width / 10 = 96


A Panel is a group of Grid Units. The amount of Grid Units can be any of the Layout sizes (according that it fits in the total amount of Grid Units), or variable for the remaining part.


90 GU Layout

90 GU (portrait orientation)
40 GU Panel
50 GU Panel

147 GU Layout

147 GU (landscape orientation)
40 GU Panel
50 GU Panel
57 GU Panel (variable)

Try more combinations using the Grid System Tool.

Multi-Column Layout

A Multi-Column Layout is a set of columns that can be defined inside of a panel. It contains the following properties:

  • Side margins (before the first column and after the last column)
  • Gutters (between two columns)
  • Columns

It can use from one to six columns. In 40, 50 and 90 GU Panels, the Multi-Column Layouts have been manually selected. For other widths, an algorithm tries to find the best candidate.

The margins and gutters tend to have a 2 GU width, but it can vary depending on the available possibilities.


3 Columns in a 50 GU Panel

50 GU
14 GU
14 GU
14 GU

3 Columns in a 60 GU Panel (variable)

60 GU
18 GU
18 GU
18 GU

Try more combinations using the Grid System Tool.

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Steph Wilson

Last week the SDK team gathered in London for a sprint that focused on convergence, which consisted of pulling apart each component and discussing ways in which each would adapt to different form factors.

The SDK provides off-the-shelf UI components that make up our Ubuntu apps; however now we’re entering the world of Unity 8 convergence, some tweaking is needed to help them function and look visually pleasing on different screen sizes, such as desktop, tablet and other larger screens.


To help with converging your app, the Design Team have created a set of predefined grid layouts screen targets: 40, 50, 90 GU (grid units), which makes life a lot easier to visualize where to place components in different screen sizes.

Scheduled across the week were various sessions focusing on different components from the SDK such as list items, date and time pickers; together with patterns like the Bottom Edge and PageStack. Each session gathered developers, visual and UX designers, where they ran through how a component might look (visual), the usability (UX) and how it will be implemented (developer) on different form factors.

Here’s the mess they made…

Here's the mess they made...

Main topics covered:

– Multi-column layouts, panel behaviors and pagestack

– Header, Bottom Edge and edit mode

– Focus handling

– List item layouts

– Date and time pickers

– Drop-down menus

– Scrollbars

– Application menu

– Tooltips


Here are some of the highlights:


  • Experiments and explorations were discussed around how the Bottom Edge will look in a multi-column view, and how the content will appear when it is revealed in the Bottom Edge view. Also, design animations were explored around the ‘Hint’ and how they will appear on each panel in a multi-column layout.
  • Explorations on how each panel will behave, look and breakpoints of implementing on different grid units (40,50,90).
  • A lot of discussion was had around the Header; looking at how it will transform from a phone  layout to a multi-column view in a tablet or desktop. Currently the header holds up to four actions placed on the right, a title, and navigational functions on the left, with a separate header section underneath that acts as a navigation to different views within the app. The Design Team had created wireframes that explored how many headers would appear in a multi-column layout, together with how the actions and header section would fit in.
  • Different list item layouts were explored, looking at how many actions, titles and summaries can be placed in different scenarios. Together with a potentially new context/popover menu to accompany the leading, trailing and default options.
  • The Design Team experimented with a new animation that happens during a focused state on the desktop.
  • The new system exposes all the features of a components, so developers are able to customize and style it more conveniently.

Overall the convergence sprint was a success, with both the SDK and Design Team working in unison to reach decisions and listing priorities for the coming months. Each agreed that this method of working was very beneficial, as it brought together the designers and developers to really focus on the user and developer needs.


They enjoyed some downtime too…

Arrival dinner at Byron Burgers

Arrival dinner at Byron Burgers


Out in Soho

Out in Soho

Wine tasting in the office (not a regular occurrence)

Wine tasting in the office (not a regular occurrence)


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Benjamin Keyser

In the converged world of Unity-8, applications will work on small mobile screens, tablets and desktop monitors (with a mouse and keyboard attached) as if by magic. To achieve this transformation for your own app with little to no extra work required when considering the UI, simply design using grid units for a few predetermined virtual screen targets. Combined with Ubuntu off-the-shelf UI components built with convergence in mind, most of the hard work is done, freeing developers and designers to focus on what’s most important to their users.

What’s a grid unit? And why 40, 50, or 90 of them?

A grid unit (GU) is a virtual measure of screen space that’s independent of device hardware details like pixels or aspect ratio: those complexities are mapped under the covers by Ubuntu. Instead, by targeting just three ‘fixed’ virtual GU portrait widths—40, 50, and 90 GU— you’re guaranteed to be addressing the largest number of devices, including the desktop, to a high degree of design quality and consistency where relative spacing and content sizing just works.

The 40, 50, and 90 GU dimensions correspond to smaller smartphones, larger smartphones/phablets, and tablets respectively in portrait mode. These particular panel-widths weren’t chosen arbitrarily: they were selected by analyzing the most popular device specs on the market and picking the portrait dimensions that would embrace the largest number of possibilities most successfully, including for the desktop (more on that later).

For example, compact phones such as the BQ Aquarius E4.5 are best suited to the 40 GU-wide virtual portrait screen, offering the right balance of content to screen real estate for palm-sized viewing. For larger phones with more screen space such as the Meizu MX4, the 50 GU layout is most fitting, allowing more room for content. Finally, for edge-to-edge tablet portrait layouts for the N7 or N10, the 90 GU layout works best.

Try this exercise

Having trouble envisioning the system in action? Close your eyes and imagine a two-dimensional graph paper divided into squares that can adapt according to just three simple rules:

  • It can only be 40, 50, or 90 whole units along the short edge but the long edge can be variable
  • The long edge (in landscape mode or on the desktop) will be the whole number of GUs that carves out the maximum area rectangle that will fit within any given device’s physical screen in landscape mode based on the physical dimension of the GU determined from portrait mode (in pixels)
  • The last rule is simple but key: the squares of the graph paper must always be square—the graph paper, just to push the image a bit too far—is made of something more like graphene than polypropylene (no squeezed or stretched GUs allowed.)

Try it for yourself here:

There is one additional factor that can impact the final available screen area, but it’s a bit of a technical convolution. The under-the-covers pixels to grid unit mapping can’t include fractional pixels (this may seem like an obvious point, admittedly). But at the end of the day, the user sees the largest possible version of the 40, 50, or 90 GU wide virtual screen that’s possible on any given device. That means that all you have to do as a designer or developer is plan for the virtual dimensions we’ve been talking about, and you’re assured your user is getting the best possible rendering.

Though the system may seem abstract at first, the benefits of this system are all to easy to understand from a developer or designer standpoint: it’s far more predictable and simpler to design for layouts that follow rules rather than trying to account for a universe of idiosyncratic device possibilities. In addition, by using these layouts as the foundation, the convergence goal is much more easily achieved.

What about landscape & desktop? Use building blocks

By assembling these key portrait views together, it’s far easier to achieve landscape and desktop layouts than ever before. For example, if your app lends itself to a two panel layout, simply join together 40 and 50 GU phone layouts (that you’ve already designed) to achieve a landscape layout (or even a portrait tablet layout!)

Similarly, switching from portrait to landscape mode on tablet—also a desktop-friendly layout—could be as simple as joining a 40 GU layout and a 90 GU layout for a total of 130 GU, which fits nicely within both 16:9 and 16:10 tablet landscape screens as well as on any desktop monitor.

Since landscape and desktop layouts are the least predictable due to device variations and manual stretching by users, you can designate that of one of your panel layouts be of flexible width to fill the available space using one of these strategies:

  • Center the layout in the available space
  • Stretch or squeeze the layout to fit the available space
  • Combine these two, depending on the individual components within the layout

More complex layouts can also be achieved by joining three or more portrait layouts, too. For example, three 40 GU layouts can be joined side by side, which happen to fit perfectly into a 4:3 landscape tablet screen.

Columns, too

To help developers even further with one of the most common layouts—columnar or grid types—we’re adding a capability that maintains column-to-content size relationships across devices and the desktop the same way that type sizes are specified. This makes it very simple to achieve the proper content readability and density regardless of the device. For example, by specifying a “medium” sized column filled with “small” type, these relative relationships can be preserved throughout the converged-device experience without having to manually dig into pixel measurements.

The column capability can also adapt responsively to extra wide, variable landscape layouts, such as 16:10 aspect ratio tablets or manually stretched desktop layouts. This means that as more space becomes available as a user stretches the corners of the app window on the desktop, additional columns can be added on cue, providing more room for content.

Putting it all together across all form factors

By making screen dimensions virtual, we can minimize the vagaries of individual hardware specs that can frustrate device-convergent thinking and help developers focus more on their user’s needs. A combination of snap-together layouts, automated column layouts, and adaptive UI toolkit components like the header, list component, and bottom edge component help ensure users will experience a consistent, elegant journey from mobile to desktop and back again.




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Robin Winslow

Despite some reservations, it looks like HTTP/2 is very definitely the future of the Internet.

Speed improvements

HTTP/2 may not be the perfect standard, but it will bring with it many long-awaited speed improvements to internet communication:

  • Sending of many different resources in the first response
  • Multiplexing requests to prevent blocking
  • Header compression
  • Keep connections alive
  • Bi-directional communication

Changes in long-held performance practices

I read a very informative post today (via Web Operations Weekly) which laid out all the ways this will change some deeply embedded performance principles for front-end developers. Namely:

Each of these practices are hacks which make website setups more complex and more opaque, but with the goal of speeding up front-end performance by working around limitations in HTTP. Fortunately, these somewhat ugly practices are no longer necessary with HTTP/2.

Importantly, Matt Wilcox points out that in an HTTP/2 world, these practices might actually slow down your website, for the following reasons:

  • If you serve concatenated CSS, Javascript or image files, it’s likely you’re sending more content than you strictly need to for each page
  • Serving assets from different domains prevents HTTP/2 from reusing existing connections, forcing it to open extra ones

But not yet…

This is all very exciting, but note that we can’t and shouldn’t start changing our practices yet. Even server-side support for HTTP/2 is still patchy, with nginx only promising full support by the end of 2015 (with Microsoft’s IIS, surprisingly, putting other servers to shame).

But of course the main limiting factor will, as usual, be browsers:

  • Firefox leads the way, with support since version 36
  • Chrome has support for spdy4 (the precursor to HTTP/2), but it isn’t enabled by default yet
  • Internet Explorer 11 supports HTTP/2 only in Windows 10 beta

As usual the main limiting factor will be waiting for market share of older versions of Internet Explorer to drop off. Braver organisations may want to be progressive by deliberately slowing down the experience for people on older browsers to speed up the more up-to-date and hence push adoption of good technology.

If you want to get really clever, you could serve a different website structure based on the user agent string, but this would really be a pain to implement and I doubt many people would want to do this.

Even with the most progressive strategy, I doubt anyone will be brave enough to drop decent HTTP/1 performance until at least 2016, as this is when nginx support should land; Windows 10 and therefore IE 11 will have had some time to gain traction and of course Internet Explorer market share in general will have continued to drop in favour of Chrome and Firefox.

TL;DR: We front-end developers should be ready to change our ways, but we don’t need to worry about it just yet.

Originally posted on

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Jouni Helminen

Ubuntu community devs Andrew Hayzen and Victor Thompson chat with lead designer Jouni Helminen. Andrew and Victor have been working in open source projects for a couple of years and have done a great job on the Music application that is now rolling out on phone, tablet and desktop. In this chat they are sharing their thoughts on open source, QML, app development, and tips on how to get started contributing and developing apps.

If you want to start writing apps for Ubuntu, it’s easy. Check out, get involved on Google+ Ubuntu App Dev –… – or contact – you are in good hands!

Check out the video interview here :)

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