The biggest changes that Google used to have in its designs were changing the shades of blue of the links, which they did 41 times. After Larry Page became CEO in 2011, instead of continuing to make minuscule changes that no one would notice, Google started to design apps that looked attractive.
Traditionally, Google used to focus on A/B testing and tiny changes such as the shade of blue for links and did not have its designers focus on the creation and execution of an overall vision. Douglas Bowman, Google’s first virtual designer left in 2009 because of the “design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.”
These days, Google has changed from making tiny changes in design to instead devising apps that are drastically different. Most of these apps, in fact, are on iOS, a platform that does not even belong to Google. Unlike its former efforts and even Apple’s increasingly unenterprising offerings, these apps, such as Google+, YouTube, Gmail, and Maps are consistent and appealing. Not only have the aesthetics of these apps changed, but many new apps have been introduced, such as Google Now.
Reporters have gone to Google to find out who exactly is responsible for the new direction in design, and were surprised to learn that no such person existed. Instead, this revolution was due to a vision laid out by a small team of Google designers, where the teams in charge of each product were looking for ways to become more consistent and forward-looking in their design language. Their process was comprised of one major component talking to each other.
Despite the fact that there had previously been numerous attempts to unify the design language across multiple Google products, none of them had been very successful. Jon Wiley, the lead designer of Google Search, said, “Historically at Google there were pockets of designers that said ‘let’s bring all of Google together into one beautiful, amazing design’ but because of the way Google is set up – for speed – it was hard for any one team to push that Google-wide.” Even though there were designers at Google, they were not moving in the same direction and none of them had enough power to take control. Despite the fact that they had “always wanted to create beautiful applications, [their] priorities were different.” In Wiley’s opinion, a Google-wide design initiative “required the vision of a CEO who could rally the entire company to make it happen.” This was how Google’s new design direction, codename Kennedy, came to exist. The name itself was a reference to Larry Page’s now-famous “moon shot “strategy” for thinking up new products.
However, after Page took office, Google’s senior designers gathered in order to decide how they would apply a few design principles evenly and tastefully so that dozens of Google products would be used by over a billion people. They also received “outside help” from Google Creative Lab, a collection of top-tier designers in Google’s New York officers who are known for creating unique and emotionally compelling marketing projects. Because Page was willing to tap Creative Lab to work with the rest of the designers on creating the new vision, the creation of Project Kennedy, the project for a cohesive vision for Google, was possible.
Their focus previously had been on making the products as fast as possible, which resulted in these projects growing in their own ways. But after the implementation of Project Kennedy, they began to focus on making these products more beautiful and more consistent as a suite of products. The creation of a design vision – Project Kennedy – was the first step, but the second step was for the product designers to distill and implement it.
Every designer at Google said the same thing: “There’s not one person who’s the grand leader of design at Google. We don’t have a single mastermind designer.” Despite the lack of a leading figure in design, there is still a coherent process for laying out a design vision across all of Google’s numerous teams and platforms. Andrey Doronichev, Senior Product Manager for YouTube Mobile, said that Google’s design process was “all about teams working together and sharing information, and making sure they end up in a sweet spot where their design language is very similar, fits well into each platform, but at the same time keeps being Google.”
Google’s new design process didn’t naturally arrive out of regular collaboration around the office; they enlisted the help of a small group of designers in New York called Google UXA, a relatively secretive group. Although its web footprint is limited to just a few job listings, its presence at Google cannot be overstated. Google UXA, born out of the Kennedy Project, is set on “designing and developing a true UI framework that transforms Google’s apps into a beautiful, mature, accessible, and consistent platform for its users” and works on keeping that vision consistent across all of Google’s products.
Because UXA is small and has an even smaller public face, it was unique and therefore helped the core design team work better with the rest of Google. Basically, what UXA did was take the structure that was put together for the rapid, three-month Kennedy project and turn it into a Google institution. Like other Google institutions, the way its work turned into an actual product was a curious mix of informality and relentless work ethic. Wiley, describing the design meetings, said “We get together, we have lunch, and we talk endlessly.” Darren Delaye, the lead designer on Google Maps for Mobile, said that the designers for the various iOS apps have a “casual get-together, but on a very regular basis, to talk about feedback we have for each other and things they’ve tried.” These design meetings not only dictated the final look for apps, but also seemed to act more as guides. Wiley said, “Designers take the design language from cross-product initiatives like Kennedy and weave that together with the user needs for their particular product.”
By the end of June 2011, merely three months after Page became CEO, Google released new versions of Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Calendar. During the next year and a half, Google launched Google Now, a fresh mobile take on Kennedy ideals, and also a line of new iOS apps such as Google+, YouTube Capture, Chrome, and Maps that was similar to the previous versions, but more design-oriented.
In addition to the overall change in the looks of the various apps, another example of Google’s avant garde design process can be seen in the development of Google Now on Android. Google Now, an extremely ambitious product was initially, as Android’s director of product management Huga Barra stated, “a twenty percent project.” It soon, however, became much bigger.
Matias Duarte, the senior director said, “Google Now is a great example in so many ways to talk about design and the rise of design culture and the way that design works at Google.” What the Google Now team needed was to take many different Google features and combine them into an interface that could “feel like it’s a natural extension of Android without losing any of the Googleness.”
In order to accomplish this feat, the Android team followed the same process that the web team followed with Project Kennedy: they collaborated across the entire company. Google Now focuses on the use of “a lot of white space, not a lot of artificial, surface-like divisions.” The creators were “really counting on bold typography, white space, and big images to give emphasis, give character, and give hierarchy to the cards that they gave.” It was a brand new look for Google, and was a look that would soon grow throughout its mobile products. The cards in Google Now also show up in Google search, when it displays “Knowledge Graph” results on the web. These cards represent the information Google gives you directly instead of through a list of blue links. They are the digital equivalent to the traditional architectural concept of marrying form and function so that the way a thing looks is inseparable from what the thing is.
Google Now’s cards, as well as the original vision laid out in Kennedy, were what set the tone for nearly all the redesigns that occurred in 2012. Modern framers for content used clean lines, a vibrant array of colors, and highly legible fonts such as Helvetic Neue (iOS) and Roboto (Android) to upgrade their design.
The resulting effect from such changes is an interface such as the new Gmail web interface that “doesn’t show you things you don’t need” and instead chooses to focus on simplicity.
Google’s process is quintessential Google and happened in a quintessentially Google way. Larry Page mandated that there be a new design focus, but instead of micromanaging at every step, he let his employees do the rest. Instead of tripping in the rush, Google instead moves forward in triumph.