I've got a mental block as far as desigining the main screen interface for a desktop application that I'm currently upgrading. When I first developed this program the screen resolution was 640 X 480. Today there are multiple screen resolutions out there.

Where can I find ideas for a good main screen layout for a desktop application?


6 Answers 6


I would recommend you check out a couple different books, which, oddly enough, aren't focused on desktop application GUI design. Regardless, these texts will help you start thinking in terms of how to get the information your users need in a form that their brains will comprehend. Anyway, the first book is The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams. This book will teach you about composition in not-so-graphic-design-oriented terms. This book will get you started thinking about how the human mind perceives design elements.

Second, check out Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. It deals with navigation and data representation on web pages, but many of the recommendations (i.e. bread crumb navigation) often make just as much sense in desktop apps as they do on web pages.

As another poster indicated, good design patterns do not exist in per-medium isolation. Some things do not translate so well between analog and digital (i.e. multiple column text in actual an actual newspaper vs. an app for the newspaper) because certain restrictions are different depending on the medium, but many principles of good design hold true no matter what medium you're talking about.


One tip I have often heard is to look at designs you like for inspiration. This is not isolated to just say desktop applications, but should extend to art, architecture, web, photography, products, etc.

This will help you build a sense for what good design is and will help you in ht long run design applications that are pleasing to the eye and user friendly.

If you prototype your design you can get some help from users or other developers to take it for a spin while gathering feedback. Not just what the say, but what they do. (example: people say they don't like cluttered isles at Walmart, but they literally lost more than $1B in sales when thy removed the clutter)


I always follow the rule of minimizing clicks and keystrokes. I'm not very good at making a sexy-looking UI, with lots of colors and plump-looking buttons, but users tell me my UIs are a breeze to use. Here's one.

One of the things I discovered is that users love instant response. It's like Hollywood. People love pixels (preferably colored pixels). They really love pixels that move.

In an attempt to make UIs like that, and to simplify the coding effort, ages ago I came up with a scheme that I still use to this day - Differential Execution. (I can't say I've had much luck publicizing it, but there it is. It has been published, FWIW.)

So that's just my two cents.

  • Your wiki page has been deleted. Is it anywhere else? Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 22:58
  • @Cape: Yeah, I got cut off at the knees there - something about neologism. Whatever. The SO tag "differential execution" has me expounding on it, and I put an implementation on sourceforge. Also there are the publications, the recent one of which I'll be happy to send, if you need some eye-glazing. Maybe more to the point might be an auction app I did a couple years ago, that I could zip to you. It's in VC6 (MFC) but not big and works just fine. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 23:03
  • @Cape: In fact my Wikipedia user page still has it, but as I look at it it's not very good. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 23:07
  • One thing to consider about the minimization of clicks and keystrokes is the cost of each click when thinking. People will typically prefer making several clicks that are nearly mindless than one that takes some consideration. Obviously, fewer mindless clicks are better than several mindless clicks though. This principle is discussed a bit in Don't Make me think. Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 1:02
  • @whatsisname: Thanks for that insight. I do try to make the "path of least resistance" what people are most likely to want. Can't always do it, though. Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 3:38

I think the first step is to determine a style/theme. For example Windows 8 Metro vs. NT style.

Some suggestions for resources and inspiration (I mention WPF/Web but you don't have to be using it of course):

A - If you want to start with prototyping, control styles here are cool Web Control Styles and Controls

B - Component Factory does give windows forms a good face lift - They even offer one free product at: Component Factory

C - 3rd party GUI control makers have good looking demos

D - Try to search for the word "books" in this site:User Experience - You will get plenty of posts.

E- This WPF application: WPF Health Care Application

F - This WPF application: Billy Holis - WPF and the finished version on: WPF - StaffLynx

G - Metro style tools are out there if you like. Check this: Metro Style

Most importantly, as you may already know, balance effort with value.


DevXpress has released a new release supporting Metro Style, just seen the video toady DevXpress-2

  • 1
    The link for E - WPF-Health Care Application is broken. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 23:03
  • @CapeCodGunny, thanks for the note, it should be OK now :)
    – NoChance
    Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 0:33

I can't recommend Edward Tufte's book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information highly enough. Really makes you think about what you're presenting and why. All his books are good, but I find myself referring to this one the most.

A good "UI Design Pattern" book I've found is Designing Interfaces. It has sections on designing layouts, navigation, displaying complex information and designing input forms. There's a similar book out on designing social interfaces (called, appropriately enough, Designing Social Interfaces), but I haven't read it so I don't know enough to recommend it.

  • What is one of the most useful things you discovered from Tufte's book? How did it change your thinking? Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 0:34
  • Do you honestly think that's a good book for a beginner to come up with a simple UI design? I don't. It's a valuable book, but it's a bit like suggesting they learn about opening a restaurant when all they want to do is bake a batch of cookies. Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 1:21
  • @CapeCodGunny: The things that really stick with me are his deconstruction of typical presentation styles, reducing them to the barest essentials (ch. 6) and the section on "graphical integrity".
    – TMN
    Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 2:15
  • @BryanOakley: He said he first designed the screen for a screen resolution of 640x480, that has to be several years ago, so I doubt he's a beginner. And he gave no indication that the UI was simple (or that it wasn't). I was just relating some resources that helped me when I started really designing UIs, instead of just sticking a bunch of text boxes and labels on the screen.
    – TMN
    Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 2:21
  • @Bryan - My product is 20 years old, has gone from DOS to Windows. It still sells but is outdated. Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 13:27

There are some fine books that have been recommended already. The UX Stack Exchange website is more well-equipped to handle questions like this, but it isn't totally off-topic either.

First and foremost, mediaqueri.es is a great resource for your specific problem because it is a gallery of websites and web applications that are responsively designed to fit different screen resolutions and user agents.


Also check up on Smashing Magazine. It's a blog that is front-end development heaven, with posts concerning UX/UI, HTML/CSS/Javascript, graphic design, and web design. They also have posts that study specific websites and marketing campaigns and see what they did right (and wrong) with their UI/UX decisions. Check this site regularly for daily tips regarding these topics.

Then when you've gotten some inspiration, take a look at some SO/SE questions I have starred specifically on this kind of topic. These are just general resources for anybody and not just OP:

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