Material Design

With the launch of its new guidelines, will Google’s design finally catch up with the excellence of its products? asks AKQA’s Nick Turner

On initial viewing, Google’s new Material Design guidelines look impressive and are exactly what the company needs. They promise a consistent experience to users and developers that should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Apple’s iO; their presentation is dynamic and engaging, but also clear and concise, and points the way forward for online brand and UX guidelines. For me, Material Design creates a feeling of joy and excitement – the same feeling people had when they opened the BBC’s Global Experience Language (GEL) guidelines a few years ago.

Google explains the principles behind its decisions in the way that a designer would explain a concept. This helps designers believe and buy into the rationale, giving it real meaning and purpose. And one of the best things about Material Design is that the principles and theory behind it are grounded in tactile reality – based on studies of paper and ink. This gives it a ‘real’ look and feel, and invites the user to interact. Google says its guidelines enable a product to “feel and act real, whilst also keeping it open to imagination and magic”. This is incredibly important as it creates a consistent look and feel, while also allowing designers to add their own unique touch.

An impressive element of the new guidelines is the attention given to animation – usually the last thing that is considered when developing a brand’s design direction. In a digital experience, animation should have an equal weighting to the graphic look and feel. If an interface reacts to input in a logical way, it helps the user understand its perceived physical properties, builds trust and engages the user. The more natural the animation and motion, the more comfortable the user will be in using the experience.

Four sections in the guidelines – Authentic Motion, Responsive Interaction, Meaningful Transitions, and Delightful Details – draw parallels to the natural world, making everything more familiar and human, too. Google has explained that the user should be able to understand quickly how an interface works, understand the hierarchy of content and information, and navigate content through consistent animations and transitions that guide the eye.

However, one element missing from Google’s guidelines, that Apple covers well, is the need for rapid prototyping. There was a time when interface designers would conceive every element of an interface and hand it over to developers to build for six weeks, only for it to end up looking like a ransom note. Developers didn’t appreciate the value of design and it would always take twice as long in order to code to be pixel perfect.

These days, interaction designers, motion designers, developers and software architects are much more collaborative. We live in a world where we’ll go from UX sketches, initial creative direction and motion studies, to a working prototype within days, or even hours. This has enabled us to build and test new ways of interacting with content and to make sure that the look and feel of the interface is complemented by the way in which it behaves. Interaction designers have learned to understand and respect the fundamental principles of software development. Developers now understand and respect the value of design.

So how does Material Design compare to Microsoft’s Metro guidelines? Well, it has possibly done for Google what Metro initially did for Microsoft – made people take notice. To compare the two now is almost unfair, considering that design constantly evolves. Regardless, Material Design is Google building on a set of principles that users have come to expect from great interactive experiences.

But what about Apple? They have always understood the need to protect their brand and the need for simplicity and consistency. They have always provided simple and elegant tools for designers and developers to easily create beautiful experiences. Yet their current guidelines now look dated in comparison to Google’s. While they’re comprehensive, they feel like they are telling you what you can’t do, rather than what you can.

Now Google, Apple and Microsoft have their own modern mobile UI guidelines to take them forward. They’re all different, but they have also never looked more similar. They have all, to varying degrees, shifted from the stand-out skeuomorphic, to the restrained and elegant. We know this is as much due to the increasing sophistication of designers who are prepared to use more fluid mobile interfaces as it is to the simple changing of visual trends over time.

That said, there’s another reason why this shift has occurred – because it can. The resolution of mobile screens means that real typographic craft is now achievable and text can look good on its own terms; it can essentially be tracked and spaced with as much precision as print. Icons and other UI elements no longer need candy stripes or fake glossy reflections to make them look better at low resolutions. And while it’s good to know what best-practice is, it’s better to push the boundaries of what is possible, and even better to create a totally new experience that still feels completely familiar. Google has created a design direction that feels familiar, but hasn’t really created anything new.

Five years ago, Apple was untouchable and Google was consistently known for producing notable products but with significantly bad design. Material may be a catalyst for change.

Nick Turner is the ECD of ‘ideas and innovation company’ AKQA, akqa.com. Google’s Material Design guidelines are available from google.com/design/spec/material-design

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