Blue is the Color of the User Interface

By Audrey Molloy


Charles O’Rear, Bliss, 1996, digital photograph



“…the first step into a new architecture of values comes in the setting of limits. Negatively drawn out of the darkness of Being, the field of linguistic translation—and thus, of action—emerges as a game shaped by the specific limit of the board over which it takes place. One step beyond the edge of metaphysics, and the horse falls off the chessboard—and yet it is just that abyss that makes the game possible”.

— Federico Campagna, After Nihilism, After Technic, from Supercommunity


In 2001 the American multinational technology company Microsoft released the Windows XP personal computer operating system. Retaining a majority of the functionality from previous Windows OS versions, the “new” system was largely stylistic, introducing drop shadows, subpixel rendering to enhance the clarity of text in (backlit) liquid-crystal display, and alpha compositing effects—a processing procedure that allows for the compositing of multiple 2D elements into a single, final image.


Notably, Windows XP came preinstalled with a default computer desktop image entitled Bliss (1996).


Conceivably the most widely viewed and distributed photograph in the world, Bliss is a digitized image of a lush, rolling green field and a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds; its composition is exactingly appealing, with both field and sky occupying equal portions of the picture plane. A swath of painterly light illuminates the cresting, luminous horizon that bisects the center of the image—albeit a banal visual detail, the effect lends the image a sense of the infinite and a dimensionality otherwise negated by the flat clarity of Window’s interface.


Bliss is also largely considered to be a product of digital manipulation or image compositing. In the 1990’s, as today, rapidly increasing digitization threatened—as an apparition of manipulation—the evidentiary value of the digital image. Although a straight image of the physical world, its digital translation as a “wallpaper” or arbitrary decorative “background” upon which virtual actions transpire, sunders the veracity of its origin. When confronted with the picturesque expanse through the window of their personal desktop computers, viewers/users find the perspective too hyper-aesthetic and geographically ambiguous to be based in the real[1].


The former National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear, who made the image that would become Microsoft’s Bliss, mused at the company’s selection of his photograph; “Were they looking for an image that was peaceful?”… Were they looking for an image that had no tension?”[2]


The computer screen, as a formal and ideological referent to the notion of a window, or the picture-plane-as-window conceived of by Baroque trompe loeil painters, is a closed formal structure that represents a subset of reality. Here, as in painting, the illusion of enterable pictorial space is dependent on the mechanical structuring of limitations; these seemingly infinite windows of independent action are flimsy simulations of free choice, bound by authority—computational and societal.


Objectively, the computer window is unreal in that the structure it simulates is not based in the physical world. Rather, it is the human mind’s capacity for fantasy that facilitates the transformation of the unreal to real, or the inversion of space that exists therein[3]. In a discussion of his work, photographer John Lehr posits the pervasive ambiguation of reality as intimately linked to technologies of image production; “The images we see onscreen represent only the current iteration of an infinitely malleable image…this way of seeing extends beyond the computer screen and infects the way [we] see the world.”[4]


Attending to this quandary of reality, where abstractions of space refer to, and transform once again into material structures in the physical landscape, is a simultaneous function of the mind promulgated by art.


In 2007, the Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby produced After Microsoft, a video installation piece that coincided with Microsoft’s phasing out of Bliss. The work is a single-channel video of the rephotographed default view, over which a three-minute narration by O’Rear details the sequence of events that lead to the imaging of the picturesque landscape:

Blue was an important brand color already in 95. Clouds and sky being a common theme in many aspects of the products identity and collateral. Illustrating potential and opportunity. Continuing the cloud theme, but with added grounding. The horizon gives a sense of scale to the image. Makes it possible to imagine being there

On this hill grapevines had been planted. But in the early 90s a Phylloxera bug infested the grapes and made them unusable. The entire vineyard had to be pulled out. For a few years the hill was covered with grass. Green at the time of the photograph. Green was the second main color in the branding scheme and in the User Interface. Running late in the product development cycle. Looking for a nature shot. The reality of real life.[5] 


This language and formal ideology, deterministically individualist and abstract, assimilates the aesthetic value of the picture plane—irrespective of its implicit real-world context—with its capacity to accurately convey “the reality of real life”. It is an ironic assertion that the “Real”, of the subject, referent, or its object be accurately posed in a virtual world.


Further, the narrative voice in After Microsoft denotes that the computer-window is designed to be conceived, at default, as a pictorial space representative of a single-point perspective. True life is contained in the bound-box frame of the computer-window; the disembodied self (the mind) can endlessly extend into the horizon (potential) of abstracted reality. It is no mistake that Microsoft elected to brand their family of personal computer desktops under the name of Windows.


Indeed, the notion of the canvas as a “window” is a concept derivative from Renaissance naturalism—a genre of painting in which devices of spatial illusion are employed in such a manner that scenes, personages, and landscapes be represented naturally, as seen through a window. The advent of this stylistic technique was occasioned by the invention of linear projection perspective—a visual system for creating an illusion of depth on a flat surface in which all parallel lines (orthogonals) in the image plane converge in a single vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line. Photographic lenses and computer games, as in trompe loeil painting, employ the mechanics of linear perspectival projection because it is how the human eye sees. This is referred to as “realism”.


In current Microsoft Windows 10 terminology, “painting the window” indicates the process by which an operating system, program, or human user will initiate painting to update the appearance of a new or existing window. The text manual outlining this procedure states, “To mix metaphors, a window is a blank canvas, waiting for you to fill it.”


It is apropos that Microsoft should associate the “filling” of a window or “canvas” as an aesthetic, painterly action of the abstracted self as it underscores the similarities in aesthetic and form that computer windows and Baroque trompe loeil painting shares; both windows belie the proverbial “transparency” of single-point perspective by underscoring the artifice of its convention. Similar to the hyperreality of O’Rear’s Bliss, Baroque trompe l’oeil distorts the realistic referentiality offered by perspectival manipulation by employing the mechanics of illusion with hyperbolic accuracy; it is a spectacle of realism that, like the computer-window, structurally disrupts its own mimetic claims.


Consider the expansive Baroque trompe loeil frescoes that adorn the interior walls and ceilings of sixteenth and seventeenth century secular buildings. As in Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s nave ceiling fresco, Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1674-1679) in the Church of Gesù in Rome[6], the real, physical bounds of the church structure are undermined by an illusion of infinite pictorial expansion. The work, which figures a central, radiant celestial “opening”, is framed above by a swirling mass of levitating saints and patrons adoring the symbol of Christ amidst clouds, while in the dark distal (bottom) border of the composition, heretics are excluded—cast down—from the fusillade of light emanating from the vision of heaven. A facsimile of enterable empyrean space is constructed through the mechanical structuring of perspective—the single vanishing point has been removed and foreground elements foreshortened to construct a conceivably limitless space that projects beyond and behind the picture plane.


This three-dimensional representation of a divine space within an architecture of worship offers viewers a shared visual realm into which their independent spiritual values and moral actions may be projected—played out—ad infinitum, unbound by structure (reality) and time (life). It is a plausibly infinite visual space that contains and extends a universe for the disembodied moral self. Yet, such minute pictorial detail and perspectival splendor unpins the sublime simulation on which their deceit depends: viewers are implicitly curious of the hand of the artist to produce a hyperrealistic representation of an abstract space—the technological mechanics of production—and conscious of the functional constraints of the human body to observe it.


As Walter Benjamin claimed in the closing of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction;

The fact is, there is not, on the tactical side, any counterpart to what on the optical side constitutes contemplation. Tactile reception does not occur both through the medium of attentiveness and at the same time through that of habit. As regards architecture, the latter largely determines even optical reception. The truth of the matter is that this also tends to occur very much less in a state of close attention than in one of casual observation”.


In other words, the effect of the pictorial illusion is not simultaneous, but dependent on the viewer’s willingness to surrender their rational senses to the distillation of observable space and sequence[7]. “Rational,” of course, has for Western societies long meant, uniform, ceaseless, and sequential and is best modeled by the linear manner in which time, narrative, information, and life is conceptualized in Western culture. Think only of the manner in which language is textually ordered and designed to be read: as a series of horizontal symbols, visually comprehended from left to right. Or of the flat, linear landscapes in early-seventies computer games that scroll progressively right with player advancement. So too, does the name “linear perspective” infer the creation of a truthful resemblance.


It is such that the abstract notion of “the West” is visually synthesized with images of expansive, natural landscapes blessed with a ceaselessly receding horizon—images that also act as visual symbols for other critical concepts such as “expansion”, “freedom”, and “progress”. Recall Microsoft’s branding team, who sought a grounded image of clouds and sky, “illustrating potential and opportunity” that, “Makes it possible to imagine being there.” Likewise, the expansion of Baroque art is nearly synonymous with propagandistic efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to reassert itself in the wake of Protestant Reformation; heavenly spectacles of architectural and visual illusion were vehicles for a dogmatic campaign.


So too, do the bodies in Gaulli’s Triumph, as with most Baroque illusionism, offer a visual likeness with which the viewer can associate oneself; their close (visual) proximity to the opening of heaven—the limitless sky—conditions viewers to associate themselves with those figures who are both “good”, and progress in a life after death on Earth, and those who are “bad” and are depicted falling into a ceaseless darkness. For the nonbelievers and sinners of that building of worship, judgement is finite; into the horizon, greatness. The work’s content fulfills a basic, linear, and self-referential human narrative—life towards death.


Thus, the fictive “window” provides the tidy parameters in which to enclose and convey lessons of individual progress and morality at the behest of the author. Perceptual illusions—linear perspective—alert individuals participating in either passive or active looking in an abstract simulation of reality’s greatest shared inevitability. Fortunately, the hyperrealism of the window visually signals a temporary pause in the structure of the fantasy, permitting the user/viewer to partake in another illusion; of death/reality simultaneously experienced and defied. Although a linear referent to idealized Western horizontality, this is a globalized landscape. In it, users/viewers recursively enter a nonphysical world to consciously partake in constricted simulations of freedom, ad nauseam.


Noting that a semblance of the third dimension on a two-dimensional picture plane is a product of technological innovation upon which Western mediation—media—is based, Marshall McLuhan identifies the isolating and self-referential values incurred by this mode of visual interpretation in The Medium is the Message (1964), writing:

For the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases to be sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acquires the illusion of the third dimension and the private point of view as part of his Narcissus fixation, and is quite shut off from Blakes awareness[8] or that of the Psalmist[9], that we become what we behold”.


It is clear that the premediated experience is a fallacy. The fabricated window, as a disembodied playground for the authentic (rational mind), is a provisional space where the realm of abstraction (time) and the realm of life (structure) may coexist, however mediated. Within the proportional frame provided by the window, discreet linear exercises in habituation and visualization matriculate from the limits of the painting; computer; mind; to the physical “real” window.


If what is collectively agreed to be real is also rational, then it follows that the window idolizes an illusion not of the rational world but of the self. The realistic window engages in accurate formal assertions of structures and formal shapes that claim a bond to reality, while asserting visual and indexical limits—as a screen, a painting—that conveys information relevant to the “private point of view”. The window then, is a procedural reification and externalization of identity; the window, in truth, takes the place of the mirror.


[1] Incidentally, O’Rear’s image is a straight film photograph of a field along the Sonoma County Highway, somewhere near the Napa-Sonoma County line. Microsoft bought the rights to the image in 2000, but the origin of the image was not widely known for several years following XP’s release.


[2] Taylor, Victoria. 2019. “The Story behind the Famous Windows XP ‘Bliss’ Wallpaper .” New York Daily News. January 9, 2019.

[3] Myers-Szupkinska, Julian. “After the Production of Space.” In Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics, edited by Scott Emily Eliza and Swenson Kirsten, 21-33. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015.

[4] Chuang, Joshua, Owen Kydd, John Lehr, and Lucas Blalock. 2015. “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy: Catalogue.” The Pure Products of America Go Crazy. Tucson, AZ: Center for Creative Photography.

[5] Golding Senneby. 2007. “After Microsoft.” After Microsoft revisits the site for the default wallpaper in Windows XP, a green hill with blue sky and cumulus clouds which became the most distributed image ever. . Malmö Art Museum. Sweden.

The re-photographed view is presented together with a 3 min voice-over that tells the story of a January day in the late 1990’s when this hill came to coincide with a global branding strategy.

[6] Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus (also known as the Worship, Adoration, or Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus) is an allegory of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians 2:10 “That as the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the sky”.


Audrey Molloy is an arts writer, educator, and administrator.