Google’s software design is reforming


Material Design was released in 2014, and it was primarily seen as a new design language for Android, although it later made its way to the web and iOS. He had a bold idea: there should be a physicality to software design that is reminiscent of the physicality of paper. It has to follow almost physical rules, with layers of magic paper and restrictions on the behavior of different software elements such as buttons and drawers.

“We came out with the original Material Design with a very fresh and very opinionated style. We wanted to attract attention, ”explains Matias Duarte, head of the Material Design group at Google. “And it was so strong and so stubborn and so successful, a lot of the designer and developer community took it as a ‘gospel’, maybe that’s the right word.”

Duarte, along with seven other Google designers, spoke to a dozen reporters about the future of Material Design, Google’s system for creating software design. It may be the (outdated) Lutheran in me, but calling the original Material Design a “gospel” struck a chord. It has been religiously respected by Android devotees since its launch. The applications that followed Material Design were sacred; applications that were not were anathema. I cannot count the number of times I have seen an app rejected by the Android community because it has not been updated for Material Design.

Matias Duarte on Google’s original Material Design

And to extend the metaphor (yes, please give me an indulgence on that), it was also a very restrictive doctrine. The tools offered have helped make many Android apps consistent, but it has also removed too much differentiation between them. They all ended up feeling the same. More importantly, many app makers didn’t want to abandon their brand to Material Design. It made too many apps the same.

Simply put, people were too dogmatic about the appearance of Material Design apps.

“We spent two years telling people, Here’s how to make Material your own,” Duarte says, “and it didn’t work. But he doesn’t blame the developers. The problem is, Google hasn’t provided the right tools. Specifically, he believes that Google’s guidelines did not separate the styling sound button function. Google wants apps job like other Material Design apps, but that never meant that all Android apps see like each other.

This is why, yesterday, Google unveiled the next step for material design. Explicitly not Called “Material Design 2”, it is rather a suite of tools and guidelines for designers to extend and extend the philosophy of Material Design with their own brand styles. In essence, Google wants to keep the functionality of Material Design to maintain consistency between apps, but give developers tools to tailor it to their design needs.

Google offers updated styling guidelines and a suite of tools for app designers to take the fundamentals of material design and customize them for their brand or product. There is a new material theme editor that designers can use to create their custom style in addition to Material and new icon packs and palette tools for choosing colors. Google started using this system itself, creating its own version of Material Design for the new Gmail and Tasks apps.

Rachel Been, design manager for the new Material Design, says the tools for building Material-based design systems are just as important as the basic design guidelines themselves, if not more. “We had to create the entire infrastructure,” she says. So there are palette tools and font tools to help designers create a version of Material Design that is native to their brand but also understandable to users.

“We like to talk about it as endless possibilities, with railings,” says Been. “We still had those basic elements of usability. Where a button really maintains the usability and understanding of a button. But now that button (in Android jargon it’s often a “Floating Action Button” or FAB) can be more than a floating circle. Lyft, for example, now uses a longer diamond-shaped button, but it still looks like a native Android app.

The material theme editor.
Image: Google

The theme editor allows designers to configure some basic design elements and then “cascade” them into their application, says Been. So, for example, if you had a certain curved corner that was important to your design, the theme makes it easy to apply that curve all over your app.

Duarte describes it as “a design system for creating design systems.” So, the original version of Material Design had a unique theme that was applied to all apps with minimal customization. The new Material Theme tools are intended to help developers create their own design systems, systems nonetheless based on the principles of Material Design.

The central idea behind Material Theming is that “we created a separation between style and function that was lacking in software development,” says Duarte. “Now we’ve created a model where these two things are separable. So that you can get the consistency, the usability, the discoverability, the expected components … and independently, we can iterate and express on the style.

If you read between the lines, you will find a radical rejection of skeuomorphism. In the world of Material Design, the appearance of a piece of software should not be slavishly tied to what it does.

There has to be a system for the operation of the buttons, sliders, and burger menus, of course, and Material is still a highly “opinionated” system in this regard. Been emphasizes that “uplifting” is always important: there has to be consistency in how items float over other items to indicate their importance.

The idea, then, is that users will build a mental model of how the software works in different applications. This template should give developers more freedom to interpret the scriptures – er, guidelines – of Material Design when they start choosing their colors and buttons and everything in between.

But don’t expect instant deployment. Duarte believes the first iteration of Material Design didn’t catch on across Google fast enough and is keen to see it happen faster this time around. The tools his team created should help internally with this and, theoretically, they should help third-party developers to do the same as well.

If that works, Duarte is hoping that its design language will be adopted by plenty of apps on Android, iOS, and the web, but none of them will follow as strictly the way Google does. To break down the metaphor: While the Protestant Reformation encouraged secularists to interpret the Bible for themselves, Google wants each designer to come up with their own interpretation of how Material Design looks.

When I asked if this new, more flexible system would mean Google would be more aggressive in asking developers to adopt Material Design, Duarte simply replied, “Yes. Please use it. It’s not as dramatic as hammering 95 theses on a church door, but it will be fine.


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