Minimalism In Plugin GUIs

Minimalism is one of the driving principles behind Valhalla plugins. In our opinion, a plugin should have exactly what is needed to do the required job. Adding extra stuff in there complicates the situation. Plugins are tools, and an ideal tool is easy to pick up and use right away.

The GUI design philosophy reflects our love of minimalism. Back when we were starting Valhalla DSP, Kristin mocked up a GUI. It used circles for the knobs, short line segments for the knob pointers, and a sans-serif font for the knob labels. The name of the plugin was prominently featured. I looked at the mockup, and said “THAT’S IT!!!” We both fell in love with the simplicity of the idea.

In the past, I’ve written about how I want a plugin to reflect the nature of the medium. A plugin isn’t a 3D object. It isn’t made out of wood, or brushed metal. It doesn’t need screws to hold it together. A plugin GUI is just an idea actualized into pixels of light on a 2D screen. Our goal is to create GUIs that reflect this essential nature.

Minimalism, Winslow Warren, and the Swiss School

One of our big GUI influences was the “Swiss School” of graphic design. Kristin and I love the poster work of Josef Müller-Brockmann, Jan Tschichold, and other minimalist graphic designers . We wanted to design plugins that looked like they could be screen printed, using a few colors. There’s so much noise in the world already. We get overwhelmed by it sometimes, so the idea of keeping things simple with just a few colors and lots of space feels refreshing to us. Ideally, these GUIs give your creativity some room to breathe too.

During the early design period, we envisioned a GUI that looked like a poster. Text areas would appear next to a knob or slider to explain the function of that parameter. We were also inspired by a genius software developer named Winslow Warren that Kristin used to work with. He insisted that all documentation live in the product as functional code. Thinking about this, we changed our approach to a single tooltip area on the bottom of the plugin that changes functionality based on the selected parameter or current settings, so that the documentation made more sense in context and was easier to use.

Photo Credit: https://jasonkeenan.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/muller1.jpg

The name of the plugin is prominently displayed in the Valhalla GUIs so that you know what you’re using. This also stems from our love of Swiss School posters, where there are often 1 or 2 blocks of HUGE text.

Of course, too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. ValhallaRoom’s original design text was gigantic, and used up space that could be put to other purposes. The recently released 1.5.1 revision of ValhallaRoom brought the title text in line with the other Valhalla plugins.

We’ve also learned a lot about the importance of color in accessibility, thanks to helpful feedback from our color-blind customers. The revised Electric Blue color palate for ValhallaRoom should be much easier on everybody’s eyeballs. Enjoy!

About the author:

Sean Costello is the "algorithmic reverb plugin wizard" [citation needed] at Valhalla DSP.

Comments (15)

  1. My luthier once said that he wanted his instruments to make me want to pick them up and play. He achieved that aim. I’ve had my basses since 1993 and I still want to touch them.

    I think you have achieved the same with your plugins. I find myself opening them up just to look at them and hear them. The temptation to produce a sound just to listen to the reverb is just too great – sometimes! I also enjoy the aesthetic shared between the GUI and the sound.

    Thanks for your work.

  2. I think the interface in Valhalla plugins is quite fresh and original. Though I wish it had some visual representation of parameters. For example in Ubermod I wish it had minimalistic visualisation in the Taps section for Spread, Spike, Skew and other knobs. Its really not always obvious for newbies like me what they do. Another thought for improvement is to add double click action to knobs. In most plugins it resets them back to some default value or sometimes it offers keyboard input for precise value and automatic calculation of values such as 1/4 or 12st. Thank you for uber awesome plugins and pricing! 😉

  3. I do like having a visual representation of the verb though, like how the Convolution M4L plugin shows the IR waveform, or how the UVI verb has the color thingie. I think a fine balance is good. Keep things simple, but providing visual accordances and beauty in subtle ways is the ideal ground.

    I have yet to find the reverb for me that hits all the right notes. I love the Convolution verb in Ableton, I use D16s verb (sometimes I want skeuomorphic, sometimes I don’t), and other times I use Valhalla Room.

  4. Sean, I am a big fan of your plugins and of the thoughtfulness that not only goes into them, but gets shared eloquently on this blog.

    I think we would tend to agree that visual clarity and simplicity are paramount. With that said, I must say that I dislike staring at completely flat visual design for any extended period of time, which makes me limit the time used with your VSTs (as with, similarly, my Android phone).

    A little textural skeuomorphism, with some minor impression of depth and physicality, goes a long way toward placating the animal part of my brain that would rather be outside all day.
    …and you know which textures do the trick really well and simply? Wood and brushed metal. As tacky as they may appear to today’s graphic-design community, they soothe the eyes and bring a quiet pleasure to one’s work. I think the minimalist/flat-design program is
    (a) a modernist austerity program that’s overly concerned with a certain notion of truth/rigor, and only partly responsive to people’s actual needs and wants,
    (b) currently oversold by Google and others who are heavily invested in mobile- and cross-platform UI (which they still don’t quite get right) and less relevant to VST use on desktop machines.

  5. Beautiful designs … and beautiful sounds from these as well!
    Keep up the excellent work.

    Agreed about minimalism and clean simple design. Gratuitous complexity (and “skeumorphism”) in interfaces is just overkill.

    I like to keep my studio to a clean monochrome minimalist aesthetic also (and I know full well that some others prefer a creative “mess” and thrive on chaos). The studio is a blank canvas to me; let the “colors” and ideas come from the music that occurs in it. Similarly for plugins.

    (Perhaps one exception to “skeumorphism” is that of plugins which are aiming to exactly replicate the functionality of hardware; especially for those already familiar with the hardware, it makes sense to duplicate the look and layout)

  6. I love the simplicity. I find that limitations make the best creations, and the best things often come from accidents.
    I much prefer not to see a visual representation of what I am (supposedly) hearing. Seeing takes away hearing. Seeing is believing and that belief is misleading.

  7. You are absolutely right. What I create can be as complex as I desire, but I prefer the interfaces on the screen to be as simple and easy to use as possible.
    And when I use a real-life stomp box with my guitar, I do not have a graph or visual representation of what I do either. I tweak the sound so that what I hear is what I want. Desiring visual representation of a sound is based on a deep-rooted fear of not being perfect. This hinders creativity.

  8. I agree with Andy that flatness doesn’t automatically means more usable. There has been a lot of usability research that indicates that a bit more depth adds to usability. This is the main reason Google added the z-levels to their material design language. Personally I think the Valhalla plugins would be more usable when a bit more depth is added. No skeuomorphism, just follow the MD guidelines.

    Two specific remarks regarding the Valhalla UIs. First, the contrast ratio between background color and font color in some plugins is not good. (e.g the light grey background of shimmer with white font color) which makes it difficult to read. There are lots of sites that let you check these values. Run your values through these sites.
    Second, I think the UIs would benefit from removing the version number and Valhalla url. These two lines add noise to the UI without adding value. Hide them behind the title. This will make the UI more minimalistic 🙂

  9. I’ve always appreciated the minimal and flat design of your plug-ins – it goes hand in hand with the well-chosen set of parameters and their ranges. Even though I still dream of having all my favorite effects integrated natively into Ableton Live, this is as good as it gets for me in terms of third-party plug-ins. My only gripe are the colors. A black and white skin for all of them would be incredible.

  10. It was this very design approach that first attracted me to your plugins and I felt it was pretty likely the sound that would follow would be equally as suitable…I wasn’t wrong. Excellent work.

  11. Black and white? Must be a Mac user 🙂

    I like the distinct colors for each product. Maybe it’s a touch of synaesthesia, but Plate just feels blue to me, and VRoom is red. VVV is a softly-lit studio in 1975 with lava lamps and incense.

    +1 for the T-shirt idea. Of course, one can always grab a screenshot and have it imprinted on a shirt. Copyright? We don’ need no stinkin’ copyright. But I’d rather see Sean make a couple bucks than my mall t-shirt shop.

  12. I’m a huge fan of the swiss graphic design era and Muller-Brokman’s book will always have a place in my heart.

    I’ve always found the UI of Room a tiny bit jarring with a few hot spots, particularly around the late/early knobs. This post made me want to have a quick shot at rejigging the visual hierarchy a little: http://imgur.com/a/klxmv

    Obviously this is just hot air and speculation. Although I could build it out as a working web ui, I’ve no idea of the constraints in your process. Appreciate your work + blog, very inspiring.

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