GUI Basics for Beginners

Rory Bowman of MacRory.Com

With many people getting new computers this time of year, I thought it might be worthwhile to go over the basic parts of the modern GUI (graphic user interface, pronounced “gooey”): the sort of computer screen you see when using Windows, Mac OS, Mac OS X or Gnome and KDE on Linux.
Back in the bad old days of the early 1980’s all computers had slate-gray screens with nothing but white, yellow or green letters on them. Interacting with such computers involved knowing cryptic commands that one would enter onto the “command line.” Whether one used CPM, DOS, Unix or some version of the Apple II, one would boot to a stark line and begin typing such things as “pwd” or “ls” or “more” or whatnot to find out where one was. Although this was powerful, it was not intuitive, and the people who learned this language were understandably smug and proud of their arcane skills.

The first consumer computer to do things differently was the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which included a mouse, no command line and such revolutionary ideas as variable fonts and black text on a white screen, like a piece of paper. Because there were no arcane command lines, nerds of the time looked down their noses at users of these computers as wimps, and the acronym “WIMP” is as good a place as any to talk about GUI basics. All modern PC’s use this Mac-like interface, built around the mouse with (W) windows, (I) icons, (M) menus and (P) pointers.


Windows are rectangular boxes which show you the contents of documents or folders. Whatever operating system you may be using, all windows have certain parts in common. Along the top will be a “title bar” which tells you the name of the file or folder you are viewing. Somewhere to the left or right of this will be “window widgets,” little tools to do things such as close the current window, toggle its size or minimize it somehow so that it takes up less space. On Mac OS X these buttons are the color of traffic lights and live in the upper left corner of most windows. Other elements which each window shares are a “resize” tab in the lower right corner, an “elevator” (vertical scroll bar) on the right and a “subway” (horizontal scroll bar) on the bottom. These scroll tabs may only appear if there is more to see within a window, and moving them lets you view different areas within a window’s document or folder contents.


Icons are the little pictures one clicks on and moves to manipulate files on your computer. As anyone who has visited an Orthodox church knows, icons are not just pictures but special holy pictures which provide insight into the mind of God. Because programmers have a sense of humor, computer icons do much the same thing and try to take forms which make sense to humans. An icon which looks like a calculator may open a program which works like a calculator. An icon which looks like a piece of paper may open a document for a word processor. An icon which looks like a folder may contain other folders or various pieces of paper. The icon for storing files to be deleted may look like a trash can or recycling bin.


Menus are lists of options from which a user may choose. On the Mac there is always one menu bar across the top of the screen. On the left is usually an “apple” icon and on the right is usually a clock. Other menus may appear at various other times and places, but the main thing to know about menus is that they change. Just as the menus are different at Burgerville, Popeye’s and a fancy French restaurant, different programs will have different menus. The content of menus will also change, depending on the circumstance. Clicking on a menu will generally show its contents, with some choices available (as indicated by dark text) and some unavailable (or “grayed out”). Careful inspection of menus will reveal hidden heiroglyphs and codes about each command. If a menu brings up more choices it may have an ellipses (three dots …) next to its name. If a menu shows a sub-menu, it may have a little arrow next to it. Many menu commands will have key combinations (such as Alt-O, Command-P or Shift-Delete) next to them, indicating that they have keyboard equivalents, so that one need not use the mouse.


Pointers are the last GUI element worth noting, and here refers to the thing which moves around the screen when one uses the mouse. The first thing to notice about the pointer (or “cursor”) is that it can change shape depending on the circumstance: it may be an arrow, a pencil, a magnifying glass or a wristwatch. Whatever the shape, each cursor has a single “hot spot” which is its most important. When one clicks on an icon with an arrow cursor, it is the tip of the arrow which really matters. When one draws with a pencil cursor, it is the tip of the pencil that determines where the line appears, and the mouse has its own special language.

Mouse Talk

When the Macintosh first came out in 1984 almost two-thirds of the manual was about using the mouse, and this basic hand-eye coordination is still one of the hardest things for new users. Pointing with the mouse (moving the hot-spot of the cursor) is only one skill. There is also clicking (pushing and releasing the mouse button once), clicking-and-dragging (holding down the button as one moves the mouse), double-clicking (pushing and releasing the mouse button twice in quick succession) and more.

Take some time to pay attention to the small things on your computer, and you will find that you see more and more all the time. A good user interface is always talking to you, but its language is a subtle one of small variations and pictures. The more closely you look, the more you will see.

Play and pay attention and you will be amazed at how much consistency there is in all things.

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