Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Reflections on Google's Material Design


It is really interesting to read about the new initiative from Google that is labeled "Material Design". It is a new interface 'language'.  Google has released an excellent Introduction that shows and explains the principles and details of their Material Design philosophy. It is very informative to click through all the pages and to try all the examples. It takes a few minutes but it is worth it.

It is impressing how much thinking and work has gone into this new design guideline. The basic inspiration is the notion of "material". It is however not easy to understand what that means and how Google understands the notion. One interpretation that is both ambitious and informative can be read in this interview with two of Google designers. The writer and interviewer is Mark Wilson who writes for Fast Company. His article explores some quite good explanations of "Material Design".

He writes "With Material Design, Google has become a second reality inside touch-screen devices--complete with its own rules of logic and physics--and if Google has its way, it will eventually break free of touch screens to quite literally reshape the world around us". I think he is right. This is the intention behind the new design guidelines. It seems to be an attempt to join the physical world, or at least some of its characteristics, with the digital world. Or at least an attempt to give the digital world some physical properties, as Wilson writes "Material Design wants to add the intuitive feeling of physical objects in a purely digital environment."

It is clear when you go through the Google Introduction that this is their ambition. They have built their ideas based on the common material 'paper' and its qualities. Even though they are not trying to copy paper and all its properties, they are looking for some fundamental characteristics that can guide the design of the digital. For instance, material things can not disappear in any kind of way, materials have built in properties that has to be respected (to some extent), for instance when put on top of each other they cover each other. Wilson argues that this is also why "Material Design is Google's synthetic explanation of what's going on between their screens and apps. The digital physics might not be real, but it provides a grounding to the virtual interface nonetheless." And on a bit more abstract level Wilson ends with "The object will become the interface, and the interface will become the object. In Duarte's mind [Google design lead for Android], one can see Material Design powering a living infrastructure in a world where every conceivable surface glows, shifts, and ripples, quite literally reshaping the way we communicate, learn, work, and live."

I find the Material Design to be a highly developed idea that rests upon a stable foundation of both philosophical principles as well as pragmatic guidelines. However, it is also the case that Google states all through the Introduction what is a "Do" and what is a "Don't", that is, they clearly outlines what is a correct Material Design and what is not. I am sure designers and developers will have a tough time finding ways to design their products in perfect harmony with these strict guidelines. And of course, if they are successful, then everything that is by Google, based on Google, depending on Google, will look and feel the same. Is this what we want? Is this what Google wants?

If we at some time become bored (and we will) with the wonderful, consistent and beautiful Material Design--it will be everywhere and we will not be able to escape it except by escaping Google. This is the underlying problem with carefully developed design guidelines. They show you the way to a world where all things are designed based on great principles, probably reducing the number of bad designs in our world, but at the prize of living in a conformed and boring environment.

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