From 41 Shades of Blue to Material Design: The Evolution of Google’s Design Sensibilities

Way back in 2009, the exit of Google’s then design chief, Douglas Bowman, resulted in an unexpectedly entertaining look at the inner workings of one of the fastest growing companies the world has ever seen. In his eloquently worded goodbye letter to Google, Bowman described his frustrations.

As Google was a company of engineers, founded by engineers, and managed by engineers, even simple decisions become futile exercises demanding empirical knowledge before proceeding. The epitome of this “paralysis by analysis” was highlighted in a New York Times article at the time focusing on Marissa Mayer, who was leading Google’s search team before later leaving for Yahoo. Mayer infamously required empirical evaluation of 41 different shades of blue for a toolbar.

Bowman couldn’t take it anymore, and left to join Twitter where he remains Creative Director:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

I can’t fault Google for this reliance on data. And I can’t exactly point to financial failure or a shrinking number of users to prove it has done anything wrong. Billions of shareholder dollars are at stake. The company has millions of users around the world to please. That’s no easy task. Google has momentum, and its leadership found a path that works very well. When I joined, I thought there was potential to help the company change course in its design direction. But I learned that Google had set its course long before I arrived. Google was a massive aircraft carrier, and I was just a small dinghy trying to push it a few degrees North.

Enter Material Design

Fast Company’s Cliff Kuang provides an insightful look at how Google transformed itself from a broken “evidence-based” analytical design process to understanding how critical design was in connecting with humans and connecting humans to one another.

The source of that spark leading to the development of Google’s Material Design philosophy was the rapid rise of mobile:

Computing power eventually became a secondary draw to user experience. That’s partly because broadband exploded, making sheer speed less of a selling point. But mobile is what really forced design to center stage. Unlike desktop computing, which took decades to become household mainstays, the iPhone ushered in a new era of invention that was geared toward computing experts and computing novices—from software developers to grandmothers—at the same time. Everyone was learning about mobile, all at once, forcing both engineers and designers to think about usability on unprecedented scales. User experience, once a discipline that evolved at a pace dictated by Apple and Microsoft, was being pushed ahead by every new app that did things just a little bit better…

For Google, all of this change arrives at a telling moment: The enormous amounts of data that the company hoovers up about us—whether it’s our dinner reservations or commuting patterns or work relationships—offer the potential to unlock a new era of computing. You already get glimpses of it in the anticipatory gestures you find in Google Now, which can anticipate your commute, providing traffic estimates when you usually leave work, and can send you shopping reminders timed to when you arrive at the grocery store. As Brett Lider points out, “Computing is getting more human-centered. We’re getting closer to what people want as opposed to the constraints of the technology.” And yet, if designed poorly, newfangled interactions can be jarring, unsettling, even scary. It’s like design’s own version of the Uncanny Valley: smart enough to be freaky, but not good enough to be friendly…

What’s the Point?

It will be interesting to see if the focus on human interaction will continue to drive innovation at Google, or if the company will abandon the concept as it has abandoned so many projects and initiatives in the past. But if the technology never reaches a critical mass of users, will all of this design talk even matter? As Kuang explains:

For one, the company still has a broad, structural challenge in getting its best designs in front of its users. In fact, less than 10% of all Android devices actually have Lollipop, the first operating system to use Material Design—even though it was first released last fall. The countless devices and operating system flavors that exist out in the wild prevent Google from being able to push out updates to all its mobile uses, en masse. Perhaps in time, Google will solve this problem, by forcing greater adherence to standards in its ecosystems. And indeed, that seems to be the goal: one of Google’s top designers, Jonathan Lee, who served as the lead visual designer on Material Design, now spends a huge amount of his time educating app developers on how Material Design works, and how to apply in a million different ways. For any of this to be truly successful, Google’s commitment can’t waver. But Google’s designers also believe that Google’s culture has changed—and culture tends to last.

Regardless, at least Google is finally coming around to understand that computers and technology are tools to be used by humans, not the other way around.


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Image courtesy Wikimedia

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