Google’s Material Design

Google’s newly announced design language is called “Material Design.” It’s an evolution of the company’s Holo framework, made more elegant with closer attention paid to typography and spacing, and injected with healthy new amounts of highly fluid transitional animations. This video demonstrates its highlights, and this creative manifesto declares the high-minded principles that drive it (to be frank, I couldn’t make sense of anything it was saying).

I’ve watched the video several times, each time trying to step outside of the point of view of an interface designer, putting myself in the shoes of an “average” consumer of technology products with little intimate understanding of what makes interface concepts like this interesting. That’s not the primary audience for the marketing of Material Design, of course, but it’s useful for designers to think about this stuff from the perspective of non-designers, at least as much as we can.

From that vantage point, what I take away from Material Design is that it emphasizes modularity and consistency across platforms, that it’s spare, spacious and orderly—especially in contrast to what Google has been known for in the past. In fact, Material Design seems most interesting in relation to the Google of old, almost as if the company is still shaking off the aesthetic dissonance that used to be so deeply integrated into its products.

There was an amusing moment for me watching the video stream of Material Design’s public debut, when Google showed what happens when a bit of the new design language’s thoughtful spacing is applied to its Gmail product. I chuckled because I had implored the company to do just that in this blog post from 2008. Google’s new version is much more thoroughly considered, of course, but it’s indicative of how far the company has come in six years.

Google’s transition from a company that used to think about design the same way as it thought about human resources—as a cost of doing business—to a company that prioritizes design is remarkable, at least insofar as its products look and feel and work so much better today than they used to. The company is writing a fascinating case study for how to retrofit design into a tech giant’s DNA. And in that context, within the framework of reinventing something massively successful yet aesthetically wanting, their work is amazing. But it still feels like a work in progress; Material Design is markedly cleaner than what came before, but that seems to be about as far as it goes. Material Design still strikes me as being fairly anonymous, lacking in uniqueness or personality or point of view, and still short of being truly beautiful. It’s nice work, but like many things that Google does, it feels iterative, and in that light, it might be more important in that it paves the way for a true aesthetic breakthrough somewhere further down the line.