Paper and ink

Everything starts with a simple sheet of paper and a pen, whether it’s a child’s first doodle or its final exam. Every idea, drawing, song, map, letter, book and even this story shifts from the mental to the physical world by putting it down on (digital) paper. Humans have been using it for ages and are familiar with its form, physics and boundaries. Oh, and it’s also the inspiration for Google’s new design.

Design also found its origin on paper, but in the digital age design often is interactive and limitless. How do you make sense of something that is indefinable? Obviously, some of the principals and elements of visual design also apply to software design. But designing software is not only about the way something looks, it also forms the technical aspect. It’s important that people understand your design, so it must be easy to use. Yet it also should please the eye. And if your platform is open to third party developers, it needs to have guidelines so the design is as consistent as possible.

For some time, Google didn't really care about design. There were lots of teams working on lots of different products. One of these products was Android. When Matias Duarte joined Google as a user experience designer on Android in 2010, there were no such guidelines. Google had to bring its phone OS to tablets, and Duarte and his team went for a new, holographic look with the release of Honeycomb in early 2011. Later that year the design was also brought to phones and was named Holo with Ice Cream Sandwich. But Holo was more about unifying the look and feel than visual appeal, although it didn’t look bad. In 2012 Google released guidelines for its Holo design, so third party developers also could implement it in their apps.

Gmail for Android

Finding a single design philosophy that works on a wide range of products and screen sizes, isn’t easy. Microsoft applied Modern UI to all of its products. Although a lot of people think it works best with touch screens. Windows 8 was released in 2012, but Microsoft is still adding features to it, because users don’t like the way it works. It was a bold move and it shows how hard it is u unify the look of all of your products.

Google’s web products went a different way than Android, thanks to Project Kennedy, although a very important element was firstly introduced on Android: the cards in Google Now. Google learned that these cards, containing bits of information, worked on a lot of other products as well, for example with Google Glass. They also started to implement them in other apps , like Google+. But Google reached a point where their mobile sites and iOS apps looked better than their Android counterparts, or at least cleaner.

Gmail on iOS

In the weeks before Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, Google announced that there was going to be a focus on design this year. There were some leaks and Google itself actually previewed the new Android design with the Google+ app. What we didn’t know then, was that the design would reach further than phones and tablets. Google found its philosophy, its own vision. They call it Material Design.
“We challenged ourselves to create a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science. This is material design.”

With Material Design, cards are not longer part of the interface, they are the interface. However Google design never was totally flat, drop shadows are now even more important. Animations should make sure the user always understands what’s happening on the screen. And they’re also eye candy. So it’s based on the physics of paper and ink, the real world. This way, people feel more sophisticated in their actions, because they know what would happen in the real world. But like I earlier said, software is not limited and so isn’t Google’s design: “Our visual cortices have no concept of the conservation of mass. What they have a concept of is objects and edges and surfaces. So you look at these things that logically, you know are impossible, and yet they feel right. They feel plausible. You might say, it feels kind of magical—you know, maybe it’s Harry Potter land—but it doesn’t seem implausible. It can be impossible, but not implausible. And that’s the power of it,” says Duarte, now VP of design, in an interview.

It shares some elements with Skeuomorphism, but it’s certainly not as drastic as Apple’s pre-iOS 7 design.

Google had a reason to rethink their design. They had to find something that would work on all screen sizes, as they expanded the Android platform to wearables, TV’s and cars. But with Polymer, Material Design is also brought to the web. The experience will be the same, regardless the device you’re using, because OEMs won’t be allowed to change the look and feel of Android Wear, Auto and TV too much.

Google found its own design in something we all know. And the first sketch was drawn with a pen, on a sheet of paper.
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