Google on its Material Design guidelines – “they’re a conversation-starter”

We talk to Google VP of design Matias Duarte about the Material Design project – Google’s bespoke set of guidelines that can be applied both to the company itself and to other design-conscious businesses. He speaks about how the principles can be applied to varying degrees, and the importance of starting conversations in the design community.

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When Google launched its Material Design guidelines last year, it aimed not just to create a coherent structure for Google design projects, but also to lay out a set of principles that could be followed by any company, whether they were aligned to Google or not.

Material Design is a constantly evolving resource, and Google says that aside from giving the company itself a valuable set of unifying principles, it has helped it to start conversations with other design-conscious businesses.

Matias Duarte, VP of Material Design at Google, helped to set up the bespoke “design language” last year, and describes the system as being composed of “different layers”.

“Material Design is a tiered system,” he says. “What we wanted was to provide a design framework for everybody that was trying to create any kind of digital experience – from big players like Tumblr to small Silicon Valley start-ups.”

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He says that the “bottom layer” contains general principles, collated from a collaboration of user research and cognitive psychology, alongside research into website and app development over the last 20 years.

The second layer is a more specific design guideline with a “particular grid”, he says, with suggestions and opinions on aspects such as type and colour palette, and how to use them.

On top of this, sits the “top layer”, which is the “Google expression” of this framework – how Google goes about applying the guidelines itself across its various touchpoints, from Google Search to YouTube to Maps to Gmail.

Duarte explains that there is a “gradient” of how a company can embrace the Material Design guidelines: they can be applied “strongly” for companies which are not design-led and want advice on particular typography, colour palettes, animations and imagery, or “lightly” for those with more experience in the field.

“If all companies invested more in design, the guidelines could be very light,” he says. “They would simply be about respecting the scale of the surface that someone is presenting on, or providing a type range, and everything else would take care of itself, and that would be a wonderful world – but that isn’t the case.”

He adds: “If a person or company is trying to do something quickly, or perhaps isn’t very experienced, they might use the entire stack of guidelines. But if they already have a degree of sophistication, they might just take some principles from the bottom layer and build whatever expression they want.”

The guidelines have been revised four times since being created in 2014, and are under continual revision. While small, specific design executions may change, the motives and ethos of the document stay the same.

“One of the big principles at Material Design is that we want to embrace the idea of ‘objectness’, to help convey what is actually touchable, draggable and interactive in the digital world,” Duarte says. “When I touch something in the real world, there is so much immediate feedback. When you touch something on a screen, it all has to be visual – perhaps through lighting things up, or creating rippling graphics.

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“The principle of giving that feedback is something we might keep – however the particular animation or style of how the feedback is conveyed, is something we might tweak,” he says.

Duarte says his ideals of “very light guidelines” have been applied to Google itself, with the “white, blank page” being an intrinsic part of what makes a web page “Google-like”. But other products from the company incorporate more creative license.

“Within the core Google brand, we’re very interested in having this image of a ‘blank slate’ that is open to the user’s input,” he says. “Even though there’s many layers of information that go into an application like Google Maps, we create the simplest presentation of how to recognise where you are.

“With something like Google Search, we use a colour palette that is mostly white, with accents created from the logo’s primary colours.

“In Google Play, we’ll tend towards, darker, more energetic colours, while with Gmail and Google Docs we’re more utilitarian in our approach. We try to convey slightly different characters for all the products,” he says.

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Ultimately the guidelines aren’t intended to teach others the “right” way to design, but more to enable Google to start conversations, Duarte explains. Alongside Material Design, he has helped to create a new Google team called Designer Relations, which organises events such as London design conference Span, that aim to create a “point of contact” between Google and other companies.

“We want to invest in being present to hear what the design community needs, and give them the space to have conversations about technology,” he says. “Even if it means they’re just talking with each other rather than directly engaging us within that conversation, it’s still a win for everybody.”

You can view the latest revision of Google’s Material Design guidelines here.

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