After reinventing itself around Material Design, what, exactly, is @google? by @ctrlzee via @FastCoDesign
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Google Is About To Take Over Your Whole Life, And You Won't Even Notice

Google's new design ethos, living on and beyond every screen, could make Google an amorphous problem solver of unimaginable scale.

"I have a weird question for you," I stammered, sitting in a hotel room across from Matias Duarte and Jon Wiley, the Google design leads for Android and Search, respectively. As a reporter, you tend to ask a lot of stupid sounding questions, and it’s generally no big deal. But I was about to ask an extremely stupid sounding question—the type of question that, just by breathing it into the air, might out me as actually stupid, tainting every future conversation we’d have to come.

"What is Google?"

Yes, It's A Lot Of Services

The question may have been stupid, yes, but it was apropos. Google had just announced a new initiative called Material Design that promised to unify all Google products (and even third-party Android apps) under a common UX tongue. Google seemed to be morphing into something, but what?

With Material Design, Google has become a second reality inside touch-screen devices—complete with its own rules of logic and physics—and if Google has its way, it will eventually break free of touch screens to quite literally reshape the world around us.

"When you make things, you inherit thousands of years of expertise. But software design is just getting started," Wiley had explained earlier. "We took a step back. We looked at all of the software and asked, what is this made of?"

A day before, as Google revealed its big plan at its annual I/O conference, it was overwhelming to conceptualize what this blob of digital services had become. Was Google a search bar that lived in a laptop web browser? Was Google a dashboard for your car? Was Google the Android tablet, being used to control an Android TV game? Was Google the system of white note cards, being sent from an Android phone to an Android Wear smartwatch? Was Google a magic blue button that lived on these cards, making anything possible with a tap?

In reality, all of these notions of Google are true. It's a series of services that have become our digital infrastructure. And in the very near future, Google will exist, not as something you need to understand as "Chrome" or "Android," but as a conduit of information that's on just the right screen at just the right time. When you check your watch at the train station, you'll see when your next train is arriving. But when you check that same watch at work, you'll see the most important email from your boss. That watch will unlock your computer—no need to use a password—and your email will be waiting. Walk away mid-response, no problem. Your phone has the email waiting on its screen, cursor blinking mid-sentence, as you walk to your meeting.

Luckily it's not all work. After five, on your ride home, every one of these screens will be dedicated to new tasks: picking up your kids, making your dinner, and showing you Game of Thrones reruns.

And Google is grounding all of these infrastructural services through a new approach called Material Design, which will be introduced inside their upcoming mobile OS, Android L. It's an impressive, underlying logic to Google's interface across all devices that I believe will not just unify their services across the digital world, but bring them into our analog world, too.

The Stuff Google Is Made Of

Material Design wants to add the intuitive feeling of physical objects in a purely digital environment. It renders all of the windows and buttons behind your screen as pieces of cardstock. Each piece catches light and casts shadow in a simulated 3-D space that meets your finger at the screen's glass, but this nanometer-thick wonder surface that's more capable than any material known to man. Where real cardstock would rip, Google's ambiguous stuff can balloon to double in size or split into two or three pieces and then recombine. Where real cardstock would appear dead white, Google's stuff can ripple with colors and animations.

Of course, the most impressive part of it all is that these physical properties feel almost as logical as dominos falling. Unlike interfaces where you tap a button while the rest of the screen sits dead, every action inside Android L seems to have an equal and opposite reaction. Tap a day in your calendar, and it grows while every other day around it is pushed away by its volume and mass. Read through your email as one long sheet of paper, tap on an individual message, and just that relevant thread is sliced out. Tap a circular play button inside the music player, and its colors echo forth into what becomes a fuller, rectangular control pad.

It’s in part the result of Google’s careful study of the way real paper works. The team went so far as to craft their app icons out of paper to see how light and shadow could interact with relatively flat (but real) material, and Wiley told me he became a bit obsessed with folding Post-it notes in the process, too. But it's also sheer wishful thinking of what our physical world could do if its rules could be cheated. Paper can't split itself and recombine, after all.

So to test if their designs pushed the limits of believable too far, the team stripped away all typography, photos, and colors from their interface during development, instead focusing on the way their wonder paper worked. One insight Duarte has is that you don’t need to be a designer to spot when a rule is broken in the physical world. Imagine if you dropped a piece of paper and it thumped on the table like a stone. This led the design team to agree it was easier to offer functional improvement of any Google product with the natural world as a point of reference for its digital concepts. It's what makes Material Design more than just a pretty aesthetic ploy.

Second Nature

With a solid enough universe of rules, Duarte added, it would be possible to bring other materials into the mix. Paper was the natural choice because it's relatively easy to render on a screen—its flat white surface doesn't have the complicated textures of bricks or treebark—but I begin to imagine cloth—from table linens to stains—and liquids that ooze and bubble. Sound cheesy? Quite possibly. But these materials would be a far cry from Apple’s last wave of skeuomorphic interface that included felt green poker tables and wood grain book shelves. They’d be borderline real, just rendered in a world on the other side of the glass.

Apple's skeuomorphism was a shorthand reference to the material world to make the digital world more approachable. Google's wonder paper also makes their interface more approachable. But it's not just an allusion to our physical world. It's more an explanation of what is happening when windows suddenly appear or disappear behind our screens. It's as if Google is reverse engineering magic tricks the industry has used for years to render interface, showing us the strings so that these animations make sense. If they're not attempting to write the language of interface, they're certainly trying to understand it in order to push the discourse forward.

When it comes to digital environments, there aren't natural, physical reasons to dictate the way objects and elements inteact and behave—for example, running an Android app on a Chromebook, or pushing a text message from your smartphone to your smartwatch. We've simply learned that these things are possible. So when we talk about interface, we stumble around words like "intuitive" that we'd never use to describe a chair or a table. Material Design is Google's synthetic explanation of what's going on between their screens and apps. The digital physics might not be real, but it provides a grounding to the virtual interface nonetheless.

Material Design is a way for Google to unify what it is—not just as a collection of similarly designed services for various screens—but as a real secondary world in which everything you see is a snippet of something tangible. So when you receive a push notification on your Android Wear watch, it's not just a dead bit of text unrelated from everything else, it's a bit of cardstock—a bit of itself, actually—passed from your phone to your wrist. Those same pieces of Google will pass between your watch and TV, your TV and your glasses, and who knows where else?

Our windows to that world may not always be the same—sometimes it might be circles on our wrists, other times it might be rectangles in our hands—but Material Design promises that we'll always have access to the same, inherently logical bits information regardless of what we're interacting with. And as content merges more and more between these screens, the feeling will be as natural as gravity.

But all of this is not simply a grandiose interpretation of Google's ideas. Google's ideas are actually that grandiose. Duarte points out that soon, our objects will reshape themselves—MIT’s Inform comes to mind—and at this point, Google’s big Material Design play can break through the glass of smartphones, tablets, and watches. Hardware and software will meld together, allowing interaction designers to step in and really work their magic. The object will become the interface, and the interface will become the object. In Duarte's mind, one can see Material Design powering a living infrastructure in a world where every conceivable surface glows, shifts, and ripples, quite literally reshaping the way we communicate, learn, work, and live. Whether we're interacting with a phone, a home, or a watch, Google will fulfill our needs ergonomically.

"What is Google?" I ask.

The team laughs nervously at the question. Duarte mentions company ethos. Interface speed. Simplicity. Wiley uses the extra time to collect his thoughts.

"We look for moments where we can use our technology, innovation, and design to give back time—to give people choice in how they spend their time," Wiley says.

In other words, any point of friction in your day to day life is an opportunity for Google. It's not any one preconceived thing, but a wide, opportunist infrastructure that can constantly conform to your life.

Google wants to be as amorphous as its wonder paper.

Add New Comment


  • The people put Google where it is! If they choose to move to Bing or another search engine..... That's their choice. Just remember once Google hits its peak the only way is down. Hope you gotta parachute Google because you have already let people down but you keep talking about providing quality. People are fed up with your BS results. I think money is the motivation of Google although they will never admit that! I used to respect Google but not anymore. It's all about money!

  • info

    Like all of Google's pie in the sky ideas this sounds good. Whether they can ship it and have it actually work is something else entirely.

  • Khrev Kingsley

    That's one of the cool things about the company. They don't fret about that when they start to research ideas. Out of this research may come several ideas that are of value, even if the end-game of that particular line of research never pans out.

  • info

    Like all of Google's pie in the sky ideas this sounds good. Whether they can ship it and have it actually work is something else entirely.

  • Couldn't agree more. What do they want me to focus on? The text or the damn gifs? At least allow the user to start and stop them.

  • singletracker

    Until they resolve fundamental fails in their core design related to multithreading, asynchrounous processing and UI hangs and fails, they will always be the second tier vendor. A not even two year old smartphone (that was at the time top of the line from the nations largest network, and still is not elegible for the upgrade) still hangs and wheezes like a sick chicken with UI hangs and "app not responding" dialogs. Very common and seldom resolved. I'd suggest they work on the basics and not the eye candy. Or is the simply the inevitible fallout from supporting too many hardware platforms without adequate software integration requirements?

  • singletracker

    NIce try but Google has problems with Android. Running on a on a newish smartphone (not even elegible for a 2 year upgrade) , that was top of the line and slick and fast when new and from the country's largest vendor, the latest version chugs and hangs on some synchronous events that create "*app is not responding do you wish to close" dialogs to no end. UI should NEVER hang. Such garbage is childish and incompetent in todays world. Such fundamental things a seamless performance should take priority of silly eye candy. Chasing what Apple is accused of. Until they resolve the multithreading fails in their core functionality they will always be the second tier vendor.

  • Khrev Kingsley

    If they focused on only one task at a time, the company wouldn't exist. Basically you are blaming Google for Moore's Law. If you want to run the latest version of an OS, you need the cutting edge of hardware nowadays. Not Google's fault.

  • sosa.r

    So, they're basically doing what Apple (starting with Lion) and Microsoft (starting with the Metro UI) already did? This seems to just be an attempt to control more of the experience on Android phones, rather than leaving a large portion of the app design up to Samsung/HTC/etc.; in this way the phones will be more in line with the Nexus and especially the Moto G/X.

    It will be interesting to see how they deal with the issue of hardware requirements, given the sheer variety of Android headsets. Personally I keep my phone (S4 Mini) and computer as divorced from Google as I possibly can due to their data mining practices, even when it's to my detriment -- I sometimes use MapQuest.

  • Great, more idiots on the way...............Nobody will ever have to think again. Wow, that's impressive. As long as the world satellites never break or have to read something, do people still learn to write..........? I won't go to talking when I am sure I must have meant texting.. How about training the watch to cure cancer by waving it over our breast? Can it tell us how many toxic emissions it uses at the server level, how much electricity? Not that anyone would care..........Do people really want to do nothing all day but sit and stare into a black box, or watch, ring, or whatever else it will be stuck to on a human being? Brilliance is not only tied to technology, which is great. I am reading this now over eating a slice. Than I will drive to work (GPS free because I can read signs and follow directions) and then go do some work. I have calls to make, customer calls; old fashion way of doing things or broader understanding of human behaviour? Cold world this addiction is causing.

  • Anastazia Hamilton

    Interesting. Looking forward. With the purchase of a Chromebook recently I found myself getting myself more absorbed into Google services....they worked....but the still felt very disconnected....sometimes I wanted to feel like I had the same Google experience when i am using my Android phone, and my chrome book or the Android tablet....this seems to be only for mobile devices...hopefully we can see it overflow into other areas...

  • Very cool! I know it's easy to be cynical or suspicious, but I really believe that the technology revolution is truly just beginning, and the best is yet to come! I'm excited! :)

  • bobmepp

    I will try to not be a total old cynic (although I am old), but I remember as a boy, being told that by the time I was grown up, energy would be free, that meters would be removed from our houses, thanks to the wonders of nuclear energy. I am wondering if Google will figure out how to virtualize and then safely compartmentalize, our growing pile of nuclear waste. Turn a 32,000 lb. nuclear waste container into a note card?

    My skepticism increases when I image all the data between my devices, encountering just a bit of friction as it detours through the NSA collection systems.