How to cope with the Gmail redesign

Reports are coming in from around the Internet that the Gmail redesign, which we were previously able to stave off with “revert to the old look temporarily”, is now forcing itself upon us. I too have succumbed to the new design, and have been forced to find ways to cope. Here’s what I did to make it semi-bearable:

Display density: Compact

The default is lousy information density; too much screen real estate wasted in blank pixels. Fix it like this:

Theme: High Contrast

The “High Contrast” theme is Gmail’s grudging admission that its design is too low-contrast. Find it under Settings > Themes:

Importance markers: No markers

I don’t use Priority Inbox, but I do star a lot of messages. They’re right next to each other and they’re exactly the same color, so I have a hard time telling them apart:

You can get rid of the “importance” markers under Settings > Inbox:

Button labels: Text

Here are the new Gmail action buttons. Quick, what does each one do?

I find these icons hard to parse—too minimalist/iconic. (Worse, the buttons only show up when you have a message selected. But there doesn’t seem to be a way around that.)

You can turn the icons into more understandable text labels under Settings > General:

Disable “web clips”

If you didn’t do this years ago, do it now. The new design is hard enough to parse without news links and ads getting in your way, and you can’t even customize web clips anymore, which maybe is Google’s way of saying that even they don’t want you to use them. Besides, when you’re in your inbox, you should be focused and productive, not distracted by random links. Disable web clips under Settings > Web Clips:


Net effect

Here’s a before-and-after showing the net effect of these changes. Before:



These tips worked for me; some may not be ideal for you if you manage your email in a different way.

Got tips of your own? Better yet, a tip for a better Gmail client? Leave them in the comments.

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  1. Andrew Lyon says:

    Thanks, this helped out a lot, especially the text vs icons for buttons…the icons are infuriatingly vague. 

  2. Floris says:

    The before picture looks better, the after picture is usable, and that is where the difference lies. 
    I like the white, and the whitespace, but I don’t like losing overview and having to basically guess where is what and why it is there.
    I don’t use high contrast, and I don’t use compact, but I do not use the defaults either. It’s a personal compromise I guess.
    But yes, I completely agree with this article as to how gmail has transformed itself into looking great on screenshots, but being a bit more frustrating to use in real life.

  3. Matt Briggs says:

    I don’t understand how someone who wants “parsability” would choose the compact theme. spaced lines are much easier to read then a massive blob of text, and data density is a silly argument in the age of scrollwheels.

    • Elion says:

      still it is nice to have a lot of messages reachable with an eyeblink instead of scrolling 20 kilometers to look for a message.

    • To each his own; as I said, this is what worked for me. I find the compact setting quite easy to read. But I definitely disagree that data density is unimportant, regardless of scrollability. I want to see as much as possible on the screen, in a glance. Same when I’m coding. That’s why devs like large, high-res monitors.

      • Matt Briggs says:

        Yeah, to each his own (sorry, that comment came off a little more harsh then I intended). What i should have said was that if you value parsability, then your initial reaction to the padding around the titles may be more that it is different from what you are used to, rather then something bad per se. I would recommend giving it a try for a week or so before turning it off.

        When I first used lion, I had a similar reaction to natural scrolling on my mbp. Nowadays I really love it, to the point where I have a hard time using trackpads that have it off.

      • Jason Oches says:

        You have your preferences. I have mine. I disagree with anyone that thinks they should revert the design. I’d argue Google should keep the settings that allow someone to have their preferred view and perhaps make it even clearer. Perhaps provide some method to walk someone through the changes (e.g., a step through wizard). 

        • nanette22 says:

          Sorry, the changes are understandable: they are just hard to see and read if you don’t have young eyes. I don’t think I’d be so upset a decade ago when my eyes were *merely* nearsighted.  

      • Mayson says:

        Why not just go back to basic html?

  4. Doug says:

    Thank you for this.  It is nice to have a guide, so I do not have to search for everything…

  5. Hank Reardon says:

    Downvote for subscribing to the Ayn Rand Institute

  6. mtnrunner2 says:

    I never really took to Gmail (v1?) and forward mine to Hotmail (which is my most-used email domain anyway). The interface is somewhat similar to Exchange and works fine day to day. 

    However, I agree that changing the line spacing in Google lists (including Reader) is critical, and I do the same thing when possible for every interface I use. I wish Blogger’s post list were the same way. The original wide spacing of “Comfortable” contains a bunch of useless space and forces me to scroll too much. A UI shouldn’t make me work extra, it should balance clarity and ease. 

    I still don’t like the lack of definition (white everywhere) and the fact that a lot of things are invisible until you mouse over them. I find myself mousing all over just to see what shows up. Imagine if the world were a big fuzzy blob, and you couldn’t figure out where to go until you actually went slightly in that direction. It’s not entirely effective.

  7. Joel P. says:

    You are the wind beneath my wings.

  8. Daniel Ha says:

    I actually quite like the new Gmail interface now. I did many of the tweaks that you’ve suggested, but I also use Mailplane which allows me to add custom CSS. So I tweak away until I get something that looks right to me (and it’s not too far off from the new default but way more readable).

  9. Noe says:

    How can they call this theme high contrast when there is less contrast (black text on white background for standard theme VS black text on gray background for high contrast)?

  10. Mike Bracco says:

    I’d also add a tip to check out the Minimalist Suite – It’s Chrome extension for Gmail as well as other Google properties that allows you to customize the UI and remove of things you don’t use. There are many extensions that do this but this is the best IMHO.

  11. Tom Davis says:

    I think you meant to say `yum install mutt` ;)

  12. says:

    Did the same things to fix my gmail.. Its stupid that google made this change.. its not very helpful but I guess its free so no issues :) 

  13. Beachcap says:

    Thank you so much!!  I’m with you, I like the sleeker feel.  Makes quick review much easier.

  14. The new interface looks great. The changes prescribed above make it less usable, IMHO.

    • The new interface is unusable for certain display devices in combination with turning up the font size (because I’m getting old and blind).

    • James Cape says:

      Yeah, my first thought was “wow, you’ve found a way to make Gmail ugly again”

      • Oh Cheers says:

        Do you really think old Gmail was “ugly”? It’s an email system. An innovative email system that clusters emails on the basis of conversation, but JUST an email system. Gmail never was attractive. Gmail will never be attractive. Gmail USED TO BE highly functional. Gmail is now LESS FUNCTIONAL. Thanks Google! Thanks a bunch! Way to alienate your userbase! On the plus side Gmail has had autoforwarding since day 1 so hopefully changing provider will be relatively pain free…

    • Asf says:

      You are blind or work for Google.

      • Jason Oches says:

        Someone has a preference that doesn’t match the authors. Clearly he’s blind or works for Google.

        • joe says:

          its not about preference, its common sense, if something is harder to use but some people think it looks “prettier” this is an improvement?  anyway these changes are optional for those of you who are google fanboys or prefer style over usability you are free to keep the wonderful new look, for the rest of us who don’t worship at the google alter these changes make the “new look” somewhat bearable

          • Oh Cheers says:

            I agree with Joe, Asf and the author. This low contrast nonsense IS hard to read and I’ll bet a classic British 20p that Google will concede eventually. I held off as long as possible before the changeover and I’m TRYING to make use of it, but for me (even as a youngster!) the new Gmail is NOT fit for purpose. It is NOT as clear to read, even in UGLY high contrast mode. I don’t know how much CHANG they’re putting up their noses at Google, but they’re MIGHTY arrogant to kill off an otherwise pleasing and satisfactory interface in favour of this cooler-than-thou lameness.

    • Mark Smucker says:

      The new design is considerably harder to read for me even under the faux “high contrast” setting.  My primary concern is about fonts and colors.   Why put my labels inside of dark grey boxes?  Might as well make it black text on a black background.Why not provide a theme that matches the old theme?  How hard is it to do this?  

      The “mustard” theme is the most readable for me, but it still is not as good as the old one.  I often find myself switching to “basic html” to be able to read my inbox.

  15. webreac says:

    Hello, I have switched to the new interface since a long time, but I have done exactly the same settings as you.
    “web clips” was not an option, but I have made a adblock filter to have the same effect.

  16. OrJakub says:

    My biggest issue with the new mail is missing margin on top of the message list so you neverknow whether are on top of the list or not. Gets every time.

  17. Mark Ruggles says:

    I could have written this myself, I am using the exact same settings and customizations as you.


  18. There is A little chrome extension that will help out.
    AdBlock+ Element Hiding Helper 

    It’s meant to get rid of stubborn ad’s that adbocker’s have trouble with but it will remove
    elements from gmail and igoogle or any site for that matter.

    You can remove those tabs you don’t want and don’t use play well just remove it from the toolbar ;)
    Just play with it as if you make a mistake like remove your whole email list lol 

    Don’t worry every thing can be undone with a couple of clicks :)

    Oh yeah did I mention it blocks ads as well ;) It allows you to subscribe to many popular ad lists (easylist,etc)

    BTW works on facebook as well :) But of course who uses that anyways right ;)

  19. Reza Daryaei says:

    basic html will give you (some of) the old design back:

  20. Curt Coleman says:

    Thanks…worked for me, especially changing the icons to text, as I always hesitate and think when selecting one.

  21. Bobby says:

    I think the new gmail contrast is appalling.

    This issue of poor contrast, even in the “high contrast” theme has been around for months.

    The fact that the new look is being forced on users is yet another “big google” crapola.


    Basically, they don’t care otherwise it would be fixed. All they need to do is add a css or color function so that one can change it to how we want it exactly.

    I will start to move back over to yahoo…

  22. You would think with the number of people continually hitting “Revert to Old Design” would trigger a metric somewhere.

    I would like the Gmail team to take a cue from the G+ redesign.

    • They clearly heard the feedback. That’s why they introduced the density setting and the “high contrast” theme. They know what the problems are. They just don’t want to admit that the new design is inferior, and they don’t want to throw it out. So they fool themselves into thinking that it’s enough to add a few settings, to placate the people who are complaining.

      • Danielsoar says:

        Those things were there from the beginning. For what it’s worth I’ve chosen the “comfortable” setting and will continue to use Priority Inbox, which is a brilliant innovation. I’m with you only on the difficulty of the text-less icons, though my main complaint is that the Android app uses a different icon for archive from the web client.

      • Richard Lusk says:

        I am not a fan of the new design. Funnily enough, I made the same selections you suggest, BEFORE reading this post.

    • Aileen Rodriguez says:

       In addition to all the feedback they probably got as to “why” we don’t like the changes.

  23. […] How to cope with the Gmail redesign The before picture looks better, the after picture is usable, and that is where the difference lies. I like the white, and the whitespace, but I don't like losing overview and having to basically … […]

  24. . mrsdurff says:

    Oh THANK YOU! As soon as I read this, I followed your instructions!

  25. Shouldbe51 says:

    Thank you!

  26. theophrastvs says:

    Thank you very much for this!  There are several tricks here I didn’t know about.  ….still the “new look” change is a disappointment.  *why* can’t the massive wonder that is google support both (their old and their sucky new) UIs?

  27. Quickdrawartist says:

    F**k all that, how about a massive petition to get the “old” version back. This reminds me of the “classic coke” debacle.

    • Oh Cheers says:

      New Coke vs. Classic Coke would be a neat analogy for leaving otherwise happy users in the cold as we’ve had a lame product foist upon us without our consultation. Otherwise we leave in droves and the strike will hit Google where it hurts – less ad views!

  28. chrisco says:

    Thanks for this. Now if you can get them to get rid of Buzz (I mean +) and go resume GReader.

  29. Nolan Butcher says:

    This is how I cope with the redesign:

  30. lucasho says:

    It’s really a matter of preference. 

  31. Amanda says:

    Thank you so much. This is exceptionally useful.

    I’m especially grateful for a way to get rid of the “Importance” markers, which have been plaguing me horribly. Consistently, Gmail marks between 92-98% of my messages as “Important.” Obviously this cannot be true for any rational value of “important.” I have no idea where it is coming up with this rating, but at least now I can turn it off.

    • There is a way to “train” the importance markers. If you mark things as “not important”, it will “learn” over time. It may even be very useful for some people—I just decided not to use it, because by the time the feature was introduced I had already come up with other ways to manage email priority. If you like the idea, give it a week or so of “training” (by manually marking things as “important” or “not important”).

      In any case, I was happy to simply ignore the importance markers until the redesign. They weren’t easily confused with stars in the old design; now they are. That’s why I finally turned them off.

  32. mlstotts says:

    You are too kind. Thanks for this tutorial. I’ve made almost all the changes you recommend, but I cannot find “high contrast” or “themes” for that matter. I’m a google-apps user – any idea where it is?

    • “Themes” should be the last subtab under “Settings”. There’s also a shortcut to it directly from the gear menu (notice it in the first screenshot up top). From there you should see “High Contrast”.

      • mlstotts says:

        Thanks. Looks like our admin disabled themes. All the other tips worked great. They aren’t / don’t seem to sync across browsers though. Used the office computer today and saw that all the icons were back in the email menu rather than text.

      • RebelNC says:

        Thanks for your suggestions, Jason. The new Gmail interface is atrocious as others have mentioned, but your recommended changes make a bad situation better. One feature that Gmail still doesn’t include is the ability to create folders in which to place messages by subject category. Virtually all other email clients have the option of creating folders, but not Gmail. They never have.

  33. Gmelius says:

    You should try Gmelius™, a poly-browser extension that proposes a better and cleaner Gmail™ inbox for Chrome, Firefox and Opera:

  34. Excellent post.  I hope Google sees this.  Their changes are all bad.  It is so hard to read anything in Gmail now.  Even the high contrast setting has insufficient setting.  Where did anybody get the idea of using a gray background?  Use white, please, no gray.

  35. TooManyJens says:

    I finally ditched the web interface when I got switched to the new look for the last time and couldn’t switch back. I simply can’t read it without getting a headache, and that’s with the “high contrast” theme (black on medium gray, really? If I were the word “high” or “contrast” I would sue for defamation).  It’s all IMAP for me now.

  36. Bob says:

    I like the new Gmail interface. It took me all of about 2 minutes to find my bearings.

    Go be old somewhere else. This is the Internet.

  37. Rahul dangi says:

    this look were nice. i think that this look of gmail is helpful to our old family  members.

  38. Rahul dangi says:

    this look were nice. i think that this look of gmail is helpful to our old family  members.

  39. guest says:

    The new design scrolls only the center section and causes multiple scroll bars to appear in the left column when I’ve turned on some lab widgets. Complaining gets no response. I think they botched this one. Pretty lame bunch of designers and interaction people at google these days.

  40. Abc says:

    Thanks, Google seems to be committed to unpractical ugly designs lately. Any workaround helps.

  41. […] Neues Gmail Design: Google rollt sein neues Design für Gmail unausweichlich aus. Jason Crawford zeigt ins seinem Blog, wie man das beste aus dem neuen Design herausholt und es übersichtlich hält. JasonCrawford […]

  42. skylights says:

    Ayn Rand? Excuse me… BARF

  43. Gsokolova says:

    My new gmail got too annoying to use.  
    Jason improved my life for time being. I’ll leave gmail at first opportunity.

  44. […] get your text labels back for icons, get rid of the wide-spaced crapola, and more.Link: How to cope with the Gmail redesignRich’s OpinionBased on what I’ve seen for comments from Gmail’ers concerning the […]

  45. Venturaphotography says:

    Any idea how to get my email to scroll again??? I can only see the top maybe 1/3 of my email!!!

    • Dave Bell says:

      Scrolling has been a long-running problem with some browsers. I’m not sure what changed when, but Opera was unusable until recently. Whatever browser you use, going to the latest version might be necessary.

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