How Google finally got design

A detailed article about how Google transformed itself from scoffing at design, to embracing it.

Such attention to detail used to be Apple’s thing. Today, that distinction falls to Google. Unveiled last year, Material Design – Google’s evolving design language for phones, tablets, and desktop – offers relentless consistency in interactions; invisible rules that govern everything, so that every app feels familiar; and beauty in the service of function. It’s why so many designers will tell you, as they’ve told me, “I just like Android better.” Whereas iOS is still inching along without improving much, Google is creating a coherent, unified language that easily scales across phones, with enough flexibility to jump to watches and cars. “It’s not even about composing a UI in one place,” says Nicholas Jitkoff, who helped lead the creation of Material Design. “It’s about composing interactions from one device to the next.”

Most of OSNews’ readers will scoff at this article, because they consider “design” to be a dirty word. They’re Pine.

This was Google. And this was Larry Page, a man who, when asked by one designer what Google’s aesthetic was, responded, “Pine.” That is, a command-line email system common during Page’s college years, whose main draw was its speed.

Page’s answer spoke to a philosophy that still dominates in the minds of many engineers: That the best design is no design at all, because speed is the only metric that matters. Adding anything charming to a computer interface simply slowed down. For many years, that made sense. In the dawn of computing, and the dawn of the internet, it didn’t matter of the computer spat out something ugly, so long as it spat out something as soon as you asked. This was a version of the so-called two second rule, formulated in the 1970s: If a computer didn’t respond within that time frame, humans naturally drifted away. For a computer to actually augment your mind, it had to respond almost instantaneously.

As far as design languages go, Material Design is quite minimalist, yet still retains the depth and the kind of information required to easily grasp what things do, where things go, and where things are coming from. It borrows heavily from Metro – as does every modern design – but improves upon it by the heavier use of the Z-axis and subtle animations to understand where things are going and where they’re coming from. The clear colours make it easy to identify what you’re doing and where you are. It’s welcoming, without being overbearing.

Contrast this with the Aero-like iOS 7/8 design, with its are-these-buttons-or-just-labels-or-perhaps-an-input-field, endless use of transparency and blurriness for no particular reason, and just an overall sense of chaos, and the differences couldn’t be more stark. I find iOS overwhelming, unclear, unfocused, messy, inconsistent; every application is different and implements its own rules, buttons, and design. On Android 5.x, thanks to Material Design, I never feel lost. I never have to learn yet another new set of icons or interactions.

Matias Duarte is, quite clearly, the leading voice in UI design right now. Microsoft set the current trend, Google perfected it, and Apple just made stuff flat and blurry with no sense of purpose or direction. Before Material Design, I could’ve easily been swayed towards iOS. Now, though?

No way.


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