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4 Key Insights From The 57-Day, Blitzkrieg Redesign Of Google+

The lead designer of Google+ shares the secret sauce and hard thinking behind its recent redesign.

After a mere 6 months on the market, Google released their first major redesign of Google+. If you check your profile now, you should see the latest version. And if your taste is anything like ours, you’ll agree that it feels better in just about every way.

So what did the designers at Google actually do not just to make their product so much more beautiful, but so much more beautiful than Facebook? Co.Design talked to Google+ lead designer Fred Gilbert to unpack the subtle brilliance behind their awesome redesign—a redesign that was completed in less than two months—and his notes are full of lessons that could hone the experience of almost any product.

Focus On The Core And Be Careful Of Data Overload

"This is probably one of the most unflattering images of our site," Gilbert tells me, referencing the old Google+ screengrab you see here. Gilbert had just snagged the image, literally as the company was pulling the aging pages from their servers. But it was worth sharing this unadorned before shot to prove a point.

The old Google+
The redesigned Google +

"There are blue links everywhere on the page. It’s very distracting. Also notice how all of our actions except for the +1 are all text. We’ve had users tell us, it looks like we’re doing math. It’s easy for the user and the content to disappear under all of this metadata."

So the team focused on the absolute core of the Google+ experience: the users and the things they share. That might sound like generalized corporate cheese, but their solution was tied intrinsically to these two topics. Everything on Google+ is now rendered in black and white, except for user avatars and their media. "The only things that are colored on the page are people and their content. They’re the only things that should pop out to you," says Gilbert. In this regard, Google+ becomes a tabula rasa for the things we value most.

Friendify The Brand, Without Being Kitsch

But you can’t just create a minimal interface that’s soulless—not on a site intended to be social. While the Google+ team was removing link clutter, they replaced a lot of blue text with iconography—all of which saw an overhaul to become more inviting than it had been in the past.

"You notice, all of our shapes, all of our logos, have been softened," says Gilbert. "There’s a difference between building something like an appliance and building something for people. For people, you want to build an environment that’s friendly. To do that we made icons that were fun." You’ll see it in more than the iconography, though. Even within the feed itself, Google+ created a subtle but powerful shift in tone by adding word bubbles around each story. They basically lifted an idea from comics, but presented it with enough formality that it’s casual without feeling hokey.

"You can go too far with this," warns Gilbert, "because you want it to be a space where people can share things that are good and bad. If someone wants to come on and share that their mom or dad has cancer, it has to work for that."

Limit Impulse Designs And Play To Your Strengths

The new Google+ has larger photos and videos than before, which span almost edge-to-edge across user posts. People like pretty pictures, so the idea works. But in light of that fact, why not go even bigger with images? Google’s servers could easily push 800 or 1000-pixel-wide photographs to users across the world. So why didn’t they?

"We mocked up column designs that are wider than what you’re seeing," says Gilbert. "There are problems with that. People write a lot on Google+, and when you pull text out too wide, it gets harder to read." In an oversaturated market of social media networks, Google+ only has a few core features that make it truly unique. One of those features is most certainly the option to share just about however much text you like. Facebook and Twitter both impose substantial character limitations, but on Google+, users can publish longer, richer content.

Google+ would likely be more beautiful with larger images, but preserving the integrity of a core experience (fast scanning of potentially vast amounts of information) was more important than layering another layer of icing on the cake. Or, as Gilbert explains, matter-of-factly: "To optimize for quick consumption, this is the size that works for us."

Don’t Fear Going One Size Too Big

No online product will look the same in a year as it does today. That’s a good thing: The digital space iterates quickly. But how do you manage users who will be perpetually upset by change? How can you manage comfort alongside progress?

In anticipation of more changes to come, Google+ has started buying pants in a size too big. With their redesign, they moved core navigation from a squashed bar at the top of the page to its own massive ribbon on the lefthand side. "We had like five things at the top. These photos, profiles, circles, there was no way that could grow across the page. We couldn’t add newer features, all these cool things we have coming," says Gilbert.

Yet, if there’s one thing that defines the Google+ redesign, it might be all this spaciousness—empty air—namely a massive, unbalanced void of white space on the righthand side of the page. "Yes it’s on purpose. Yes we have things coming," laughs Gilbert. "And we’re moving as fast as we can to make those things happen." In the digital world, there’s no reason to fear being incomplete. Because, if you’re doing your job right, your work will never be finished, anyway.

[Image: NatUlrich/Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Dawson_Rita

    I agree that the redesign is really good and it seems to gain popularity, but "So much more beautiful than Facebook" - I don't think so. G+ or Gmail or whatever, its a kind of similar to Facebook, but not exactly. As you say, I find it distracting more than interesting.

  • Miquel Mayol i Tur

    It is great this new design it is even tablet friendly or as I do like to say finger frindly but I want to make a suggestion:

    Pictograms in sub menus in a 3x3 array with the center button to close it, that can be embedded.

    But not only for G+ for G docs too -as an option.

    And OASIS embedded in PDF documents as default "save" and "load" for google docs. It is great for spreadsheets and other non text docs.

    And all the google services you put at the menu bar in text put at this vertical menu in this way - with nested 3x3 boxes.

    And when you arrive to the service, for instance G docs, at the other side, the G docs menu in this way vertical icons with pictograms and nested 3x3 icons/pictograms and subtext with a close central icon - or perhaps is better the close icon at a fixed corner.

    This will be tablet - fingers - friendly, even a big smarphone friendly, and even a child should know how to use it. And if any icon/pictogram, leads you to a box menu, make it fringer friendly, even if you are using a mouse, it is faster to use, and more productive this way.

    Hard work is done, now is time to go deep on it.

    i was yesterday, with Android 2 and Opera at a Airis Onepad 970 tablet - waiting for upgrade tp Android ICS, and It was almost impossible to share any post in mobile version or in desktop version.


  • Dave Sutton

    The whole update is bloody awful and they have changed a sleek good looking design into a pigs ear. Why the black background to any images posted, it a terrible contrast, the sort of thing you may find on websites knocked up in five minutes.
    The profile page now shows a even bigger mug shot and has reduced the scrapbook photos in size, who wants to see an ugly face like mine even larger? The previous layout balanced out so nicely.

    According to the comments in my circles this update has not been appreciated and activity in my streams has definitely decreased, maybe they have gone back to facebook.

  • Legacy

     I guess my taste is nothing like theirs. When I first signed up, I was
    instantly impressed with G+'s simple and straightforward look and feel,
    and it was so much more beautiful than Facebook. Now I see it looking
    more like Facebook.

    My best guess is that the "growing room" is
    for ads, and the strategy is to make the white space so annoying that we
    will welcome them. They could have just put the ads in without mucking
    up the whole format, and few will have complained - we know that Google
    pays for the services we use by selling ads.

    No online product will look the same in a year as it does today. That’s a good thing

    This either means that change simply for the sake of change is
    inherently good, or that all online products are currently defective and
    in need of change.

    One thing in the article I don't doubt is the
    assertion that the redesign was completed in less than two months, but
    it's not something I would be proud of - if I were part of the team, I
    would rather be able to say that we took the time to do it right.

  • Travis Washburn

    Wow. An excellent article. 

    They've done a great job. Article really made me appreciate it a lot more.

    Thanks for sharing!


  • Ed Buziak

    I know that a good number of photographers I interact with are furious about the awful "imprisoning" black sides to square, vertical, round, lozenge, and any image shape, ratio or proportion that appears to be different to the original analogue 35mm or APS-C digital formats of many serious DSLRs. I take great care with initial image framing and re-cropping if necessary in Lightroom, as I did in my traditional darkrooms for more than three decades previously. To have the immediate visual impression of images dramatically altered by such a poor design decision has already stopped me posting my work there. And considering the square Instagram photo format (which I hear is beginning to catch on, LOL), how are those users going to react to the black border ugliness?

    Whilst the gray text is a strain to the eyes, on my 5-year old MacBook Pro it is reasonably readable... in short bursts, but I suspect it is only my curious interest to get through reader's comments that has kept me going. I tried gray text a couple of times when I published and edited photo magazines for seven years... and whilst not a disaster, it simply didn't work at all (although I accept that here the luminance of a monitor screen is different to white paper).

    I would prefer images floating on a white background, with no borders - simple as that. Printed matter since William Caxton’s first published book in 1474 has been black text on white paper. Since the early 17th century all the world’s newspapers have been black on white. Also, the image should come first followed by a caption or title and an explanation below. As advertising guru David Ogilvy said, "Readers first look at an illustration, then a lead-line, then the copy. Lay them out in that order."

    I could go on; but end with two examples of more inattention to detail... there's no space between the Copyright symbol and the date (highly unusual) and the "duck's bill" arrow pointing at any commentator's portrait looks like a penciled-in afterthought. So no, I don't like the re-design one bit... and wait patiently for Apple to create a social-networking site of their own which no doubt be beautiful straight out of the box!

  • DH

    Are you sure you are looking at Google's design?  The hideous thing that looks like a phone designed for old people that took the place of possibly the best online interface ever?

  • Evan Jacobs

    I personally am not a fan of the redesign. I'm glad Google's moving toward a more responsive philosophy with their sites, but it's soooooo cluttered now. I can't find anything!

  • Kris

    "Be careful of Data Overload". It's ironic how those screenshots contradict the message. It clearly shows that the new design has more clutter than the old one.

  • Anita Loomba

    Moving towards larger photos and videos is very similar to the path Facebook has taken. The redesign of Google+ may be cleaner than the Timeline, but it's essentially the same idea... It will be interesting to see what new things they have coming.

  • Mark Rojas

    Nice insight on the redesign, I was a bit surprised when my G+ profile changed. Hopefully more people make use of G+ now

  • B. Mars

    Mostly, this redesign brings Google+ one step closer to Facebook agin: a left column to select the type of content, a big central one with the content feed and a right column with the chat. On top of that a search bar and access to user settings… It may be more beautiful than Facebook but first it is more similar to it.

  • Paul Nisson

    As the husband of the daughter of a Polish/Jewish survivor of the Nazi "Blitzkrieg", I'm personally offended by the casual use of the term in your article. The Nazis were infamous for their rapid military advance (Blitzkrieg) across Europe (not to mention their systematic extermination of the indigenous populations, e.g. 6 million Jews and an equal or greater number of Slavic peoples), starting with the invasion of Poland in 1939. There's an association with that horrible time that will not go away, at least not for the next century or so. A simple Google search would've told you that. Please be more sensitive the next time you consider using such a term.