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Man in Screamingly Loud Paisley Shirt Explains Google’s Subtle New Design Language

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
June 27, 2014

Matias Duarte. (Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

SAN FRANCISCO — Yesterday’s keynote at Google’s I/O developer conference marked Google’s debut of an ambitious venture into interface concepts called “Material Design.” Google’s Matias Duarte, a vice president of design at the company, introduced it with some fairly airy language: “What if pixels didn’t just have color, but also depth?”

A few minutes of onstage demos weren’t quite enough to get really deep with this, so I sat down with Duarte this morning. He began by describing Material Design as some sort of sentient entity: “It’s very considered in how it thinks about motion.”

In plainer terms, Material Design — make that Google — wants to use understated depth and movement to suggest what an app does and how you make it do that. And it plans to apply those ideas across devices as diverse as watches, phones, tablets, Web browsers, and TVs.

Physical but not representative
Duarte demonstrated what this would mean on a phone running an early build of the next generation of Android software. He tapped the recent-apps button — a simple square icon has replaced the current overlapping rectangles — and instead of a scrollable column of thumbnail views of open apps, I saw something that behaved more like a stack of cards. As he swiped up, the lowest card slid below the one above it. 

The notifications list worked in the same way, and the artful effect looked likely to cut down on the amount of scrolling needed.

The recent apps screen in Android’s L version. (Yahoo Tech)

Then he brought up the calculator app. Instead of hiding trigonometric functions behind an “Advanced” menu item that, in turn, hid behind a vague stack of dots, a green bar at the right could be swiped left to plug in sines, cosines, tangents, and so on. That also seemed to be an improvement.

How an Android device reacts to your touch will also change: An onscreen tap will show up as a circle appearing around where you touched, instead of the entire button illuminating.

How deep will it go?
Many of the depth effects are exceedingly subtle. “We’ve tried to make everything feel like it’s happening in the thickness of the phone itself,” Duarte said, while noting that in TV apps the perceived depth would be closer to one foot.

In contrast, Apple’s recent direction is to make individual apps feel flatter, while yet adding a sense of depth to iOS’s home screen. I asked Duarte if Material Design was meant as a response to Apple’s work, but he declined my invitation to pick it apart beyond suggesting that Apple was correct to ditch its earlier infatuation with “skeuomorphic” design that had app icons drawn like real-world objects.

The Android L version phone dialer (left) and on-screen keyboard (right). (Yahoo Tech)

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years as a species,” he said. “On the time scale of all of these other problems that people have been thinking … how to communicate interaction is something that is brand new.”

One thing Google is still learning itself: how to keep Android manufacturers from ignoring its design directives. Duarte didn’t have a great answer when I asked if, for instance, phones running the upcoming L version might have things as basic as the lineup of system buttons switched around.

“It is something that we talk about a lot internally,” he said. “It is not a simple problem to address, but we know it is an issue.”

Android L version pulldown notifications and settings (left) and live lock screen notifications (right). (Yahoo Tech)

Design vs. style
Finally, I couldn’t help noticing that Duarte’s personal style was less than subtle: The man was wearing a loud paisley shirt under a checked jacket. He replied that he knew the difference between solving problems for people and doing things to your own taste: “I am an exuberant dresser, and I enjoy it, but that is a personal choice that I would not impose on everyone else.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.