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Jan 3, 2016

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What Google’s Material Design Is Really About

With the November release of Android Lollipop, Google’s Material Design language has begun making its first appearances in the wild. Designers and technologists everywhere are aflutter with praise for the new design language, which aspires to unite Google’s expansive product line under a rich set of design styles and principles.

The visual details are delightful, and the paradigmatic underpinnings — that interfaces are three-dimensional constructions, composed of layers of “physical” components — are refreshingly novel. But I’ll spare you more “oohs” and “aahs” over the language’s use of bright colors, large images, and depth. If we take anything from Material Design it isn’t how to use color, how your ease timing should be set, or what the resting elevation of an object should be. It’s not the details themselves we take away, it’s how the details combine to create purposeful brand experience.

THE INTERFACE IS THE BRAND
Like all digital brands, our experiences with Google center around product interfaces. These experiences involve interactions with stuff made of metal and plastic, like phones and keyboards, but involve significantly more interactions with stuff made of pixels, like weather apps and word processors. Those pixels create our experience and perception of the brands behind them. Those pixels are the brand.

Material Design doesn’t just create order, it creates order with purpose and meaning. It’s a sensory expression of Google’s brand. If it finds purchase, it could be the first serious threat to Apple’s apparent monopoly on sublime user experience. As an iPhone devotee, I have to confess that for the first time I’ve begun casting sidelong glances Android’s way (Android has about as good a chance of earning my affection as Lloyd Christmas did with Mary Swanson).

EVERYTHING IS DESIGNED
The mind-numbing specificity of Material Design is a response to two facts:
-If it’s possible for a developer to ruin a UI, they will
-The alternative to good design isn’t no design, it’s bad design
A brand is either built up or razed by the details of the experience. There is no pixel too small — not even a Retina one — that it shouldn’t be considered.

GOOGLE’S DESIGN EVOLUTION
It’s worth noticing that Material Design wasn’t created ex nihilo; astute observers have seen Google’s careful evolution over the last few years. In 2011, Gmail was redesigned with flatter buttons and a healthy serving of margin and whitespace. In 2012, Google Now introduced layered “cards,” even more whitespace, and well-designed typographic hierarchies. Discrete design updates like these, now formalized via Material Design, were a part of — from an outside perspective, at least — a very purposeful process.

While there’s always room for improvement, what’s been most impressive is Google’s ambition for, and subsequent achievement of, unity across a varied and disparate set of products. Anyone who has worked in software can attest that even modest updates to legacy systems — with existing users, stale code, and competing business interests — can be impossibly difficult. Material Design may turn out to be proof that it can be done, even at scale.

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  • Emilia Gizewska
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