Does Google Get Design Now?

It’s only been a short while since Google co-founder Larry Page assumed the role of CEO but it’s safe to say that we now have a sense of what his vision of Google looks like. Apparently design is a key part of it.

The search giant’s recently launched, high profile social networking bid Google+ debuted with an unexpectedly thoughtful (though admittedly derivative) design, and evinces an attention to the finer details of typography, spacing and visual hierarchy that was previously absent across the vast majority of Google’s products. Similarly, the company has made additional refinements to its iconic home page that reflect a newfound respect for the intangible — the changes have been minor, but they’ve felt less beholden to the brutally analytical decision-making that has guided Google product design and aesthetics in the past.


Gmail Gets Some Space

Not long after it rolled out Google+, the company also debuted a new look for its widely-used Gmail application. This is apparently the first of “a series of interface updates to help strip out unnecessary clutter and make Gmail as beautiful as it is powerful.”

I think it looks terrific, if only because among other improvements it finally heeds my advice that the Gmail interface could be dramatically improved with just a bit of extra spacing (this is a point I made three years ago in this blog post by gently modifying the then-current Gmail interface to reflect more careful spacing). The designers of this new theme have gone even further than I suggested by adding an extremely generous amount of spacing in the theme’s list view, but thankfully there’s a slightly denser option available that, in my opinion, strikes just the right balance.

Assessing the Design Moment

Earlier this year, when it was first announced that Page was going to be stepping forward and assuming the CEO title, I wrote in a blog post that “This could be Google’s design moment.”

“We tend to think that design is a function of good process, well-structured organizations, and copious time and budgetary resources. But design is just as much a function of leadership. Who’s in the top seat matters very much to whether a company can design well. If the leader cares passionately about producing amazingly well-designed products, then you can get a string of indelible successes that capture the popular imagination like we’ve seen at Apple for the past decade-plus. We haven’t seen that kind of result from Google during that same span of time, though. Beyond the iconic minimalism of the original Google home page, not one of their subsequent products has truly inspired us.”

I’m not sure that Page has fully seized the moment yet — these recent launches look better than what came before them, but they’re not terribly inspiring, and they’re certainly not iconic. But they do represent a promising step forward, and they could be setting the stage for much more exciting things. It’s early yet in Page’s tenure, so I hope that’s the case.

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9 Comments

  1. You’re right, Khoi. I couldn’t agree more. For years I’ve wondered why Google was so hostile to design. Spacing can make all the difference. I’m excited to see what’s to come.

  2. your points are valid Khoi, but I feel you’ve overlooked products like Maps and Earth. These tools are inspiring in the sense that they’ve changed the way we see and move about in the world. For example, I’ve been particularly impressed by the de-cluttering techniques used for map labels.

    Google Map Legibility

  3. I like the Google designs for the most part, but am wondering about all the bold red headers, red text, and red buttons. When I was missing a field on my Google+ sign in form, it took forever for me to notice the error message, in a slightly brighter red, drowned by the H2 and field labels.

  4. Google has also done a very nice spruce up of Blogger’s post editor: link

    The functionality is still not where it should be, but the look is leaps and bounds better for focusing on writing.

  5. I’ve found myself using more and more Google products because they work great, but the designer in me always wished they had better aesthetics. It kept me from being excited about them. If Google keeps their rigorous analytical decision-making and includes design as an important part of their process, now THAT would produce some pretty exciting things.

  6. Just cause Page is CEO doesn’t mean it’s his work.. The development of a project for millions of people usually needs more than one year of development and preparation.

  7. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there has been a lot of [justified] speculation that Google+ has blatantly ripped off the UI design from another social networking site called Diaspora (https://joindiaspora.com/).

    Diaspora is an open source social network service started by a small group of ambitious NY university students. Google, it seems, blatantly ripped off the look and feel of that website for Google+. They also introduced the “circles” concept, which were called “aspects” in Diaspora.

    All that being said…

    With the amount of money and resources that Google has to do something really new and innovative, maybe even inspiring, it seems pretty embarrassing that this has occurred in a new product and only demonstrates the fact that they don’t, in fact, care about design.

  8. True, I could be mistaken but I think the diaspora guys were motivated and inspired by Paul Adams’ (then of Google and working on plus, now at fb) very public talks on social networking which hinted at the circles ui.