Aza Raskin released a new project today called Algorithm Ink. For the full story check out his explanation and video. The app is basically a “grown up version of Logo”—a front-end to a simple programming language for creating fractal images. While the fractal art is the main attraction, I was more interested in the unconventional UI.

Algorithm Ink continues the style that Aza demonstrated six months ago with Songza. His UI comes from another planet where Microsoft Windows never caught on and Hypercard rules the world. There are no native form widgets, no scroll bars, and nary a “ or Cancel” in sight. Normally this is a recipe for confusion, but in Aza’s case the results are often models of clarity and intentionality.

On Songza, the most noticable break from convention was the mouse-flower. Traditionally, a web UI for playing a song would consist of the song’s title, a widget to play/pause, and some adjacent links to share, rate, etc. Instead Songza only shows the song title. When you click the title, a flower opens with an action on each petal like “Play” or “Share.” You can click a petal or mouse away from the flower to dissolve it. The jury’s still out on mouse-flowers, but the clutter-free UI they enabled should raise an eyebrow.

On Algorithm Ink, the header is what interested me. Each of the grey buttons (Edit, Save, Browse, etc.) is actually a toggle between an “on” state and an “off” state. When a button is “on”, a panel appears on top of the canvas with the functionality for that button.

The grey buttons toggle overlaying panels

For example, when you click “Edit”, the button turns on and a panel is revealed with the code for the current artwork. You don’t “Save” or “Cancel” to leave edit mode. Instead you click the red “Draw” button to apply your changes, or click Edit again to hide the panel.

The Edit button is on and the panel is visible

Each of the buttons has its own custom panel. Edit displays a long narrow sidebar, while Save displays a thin horizontal strip. It’s note-worthy when different features of an app actually look different. We’re all guilty of leaning on our templates to the point that each screen in our apps looks a bit like the others. In Algorthim Ink, the Edit mode is tall and narrow. The Save mode is wide and thin. These differences give the app character and also help users develop a kind of “muscle memory.” They can remember the screens by shape as much as by name.

The Save button is on and the panel is visible

My favorite thing about these grey buttons is that they don’t just turn panels on and off. They also exclude each other, so that if you are using the Edit mode and you click the Save button, the Edit panel will disappear and the Save panel will replace it. You could say the buttons are “mutually-exclusive modes”. A simpler way is to say they act just like tabs.

Look closely at how a typical tabbed interface works. You click a tab, and the whole screen reloads to a new screen. The tab bar on the new screen has the same options and position as the old screen, except the tab that you clicked changes appearance to indicate that you are “on” this tab to the exclusion of the other tabs.

In Algorithm Ink, the buttons work in exactly the same way. Except there’s a twist. The “tabs” (grey buttons) don’t replace the screen, or even replace part of it. Instead they hide and reveal panels which overlay a single screen that never changes. Your art never goes anywhere, but the panels which allow you to perform actions come and go.

These overlay tabs may not be as eye-catching as a mouse-flower, but I think they’re very interesting. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly I like so much about Algorithm Ink, but it’s plain to see that the approach is different. And in our current UI climate, well-executed difference is itself enough to deserve some thought.