Today, at the Super Bowl for Google news, Google I/O, the company rolled out the latest version of its mobile OS, Android L, which is almost entirely predicated around the final step in its amazing design evolution: a formalized, unified design language across all their products, platforms, and devices called “Material Design.”
Last year, we realized that Google had unofficially embraced the humble index card across their apps. This year, under their Material Design thesis, they’ve taken this idea to extremes. Cards are no longer just generic windows that fit inside any interface. Cards are the interface, sewn together like an elastic, patchwork quilt. They appear on screen with depth (thanks to liberal, but tasteful, use of drop shadow), and enable constant, seamless transitions to anything you want to do. Tap an email, a card grows. Tap it again, a card shrinks. And on top of all this virtual paper, Google has constructed precanned animations that sprinkle another layer of color and physics wherever you touch.
As Android lead designer Matias Duarte demoed it on stage, he explained that it moved with the physics of card stock, but also splash with your touch, like “ink rippling in a pond.” He clearly put it better than I can, though I’d add that Android‘s core UI has long been cleanly designed, but was always a bit cold. Material Design adds a bit of human warmth back to the equation.
What’s potentially most interesting about Material Design is that Google is opening up all of these tools and animations in their new Android L software development kit. That means, not only is Google using these cards for their apps like Gmail, any developer can adopt this interface technology into their apps. Elements like Android’s buttons will now have rippling ink effects built right in.
And furthermore, Duarte teased that Google’s software was smart enough to intelligently rearrange text and photo interfaces you may have already built, padding out white space, clarifying text, and even creating a UI color palette based around a company’s logo or photos an app contains. With a little human effort, these design principles can scale across devices*. (Though, it's worth noting, when Google actually showed off an Android Wear smartwatch on stage, a lot of the more beautiful card animations were missing, probably in favor of devices that have less graphics processing power than your phone or laptop.)
The software is just being made available to developers today as a release preview, and will be available to the masses in the fall. So just how smart Google’s design algorithms are, and how flexible Google’s Material Design thesis proves to be across apps beyond Google’s, is still unclear.
But one thing is certain: Google’s thesis on design is finally coming together. And even though Jon Wiley--lead designer for Google Search--told me that Google wouldn’t be presenting a design thesis for all developers to follow at I/O, that appears to be exactly what they’ve done.
To Google, Material Design is the new way to design.
* A previous version of this article said that Google's algorithms could automatically scale one app UI across multiple screens, which is not (yet) the case.