What web designers can learn from Google’s Material Design

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October 27, 2014
What web designers can learn from Google’s Material Design.

Material Design is Google’s new visual design language. It was introduced at the 2014 I/​O Conference in June, and it’s beginning to find real traction in all areas of the design community. This new visual language is fascinating because it systematically addresses a lot of issues we, as designers, face on a daily basis. At the same time, it’s both surprising and refreshing to see a giant such as Google publicly announce its new design direction. The free online documentation is available for everyone and it offers so much insight into what Material Design is and how it works. More importantly, it offers plenty of design lessons for us all; it’s interesting, informative and innovative. There are guidelines on what to do, and what not to do, for just about anything you can think of, from button size and placement, to animations.

The 3 principles of Material Design

Material Design’s core values are more than just a progression of the current design trends. 

  • Material is the metaphor
  • Be bold, graphic, intentional
  • Provide meaning with motion

Sure, it makes sense to think it’s a step forward from flat design but I think it’s so much more than that. Because Material Design is a metaphor it provides new ground for design that is similar in roots to skeuomorphism. But because Material Design focuses on physics of the real world it doesn’t replicate the horrors we’ve seen in, for example iOS8. On top of that, the bold, intentional and deep graphical components give the design language a signature look. Better yet, they provide a clear aesthetic. But, there is more…

Unifying screens and products

Material Design is a great solution for unifying the various products, and more importantly screens, that Google has on the go. Let’s be real here, devices and screens will only keep on changing and diversifying. In order to address the variations Google now has a language that clearly defines how it can be used on various platforms like web apps, smartphones or smart watches. 6 There are limitations that designers need to observe in order to keep the design style similar from one app to another. This is good because it will brand all Google products clearly. No other company has such unity among its various apps or OS’ right now. Creating and implementing Material Design shows that Google is trying extremely hard to find a design language that works on any screen or device, no matter what. Whether it’s going to be successful is still hard to tell, but at least it’s clear what Google is attempting.

It’s flexible

Additionally, Google’s Material Design has enough flexibility for designers to address various devices and screens. There are guidelines that allow adjustment to specifically cater to a small or large Android display. This too will make the life of designers easier as it doesn’t pose restraints but solutions and tools instead. The provided structure will help in adaptating to the various display sizes for sure. After all, that’s the whole idea. 4

A new direction for Google

Google has never been known for its design approach. Over the last few years they have started to implement a lighter cleaner design aesthetic but it was still a subtle approach. Therefore, it’s interesting to see Google take the design bull by its horns to create an impressive design language. With Material Design Google is becoming a design leader. They may not be there yet, but they have stepped up their game and shown they are capable of creating great visual design. 5

New hardware capabilities

Think back — way back — to how computer interfaces looked back in the 80’s then 90’s. Compare that with how the first iPhone looked and compare all of those to any given device today. Technology evolves and it allows better digital display. You couldn’t show off shadows on a DOS screen way back when because the hardware was incapable of rendering such a thing. The first smartphones were terrible at rendering animations of any kind. 1 Think of Material Design as an extension of the capabilities of current technology. Material design relies on physics to display animations, movements or shadows. It can do that because the technology today allows it. It’s unlike most other design languages out there because most design languages were developed for older technology.

More than just flat

Another amazing thing about Material Design is its dedication and inspiration taken from the real world. Legitimate materials influenced how Material Design was created and developed. (Hence the name.) This is huge because technology can start its track of no longer feeling like technology. Because our hardware is becoming more advanced, the digital world can now slowly start to blur the lines between the real and digital world. 

User Interface is heading towards unity with the natural world. If this trend continues, and as technology evolves, we may soon witness a world where UI is so intertwined with our surrounding that it is indistinguishable from the physical world. — Andrew Coyle

Affordance is key

Perceiving an object’s tangible form helps us understand how to manipulate it. Observing an object’s motion tells us whether it is light or heavy, flexible or rigid, small or large. Motion in the world of material design is not only beautiful, it builds meaning about the spatial relationships, functionality, and intention of the system. — Google

Motion is a fundamental part of Material Design. Thanks to physics and high quality hardware and software, Material Design can improve affordance within digital designs. This is in fact the key to eliminating the gap between real objects and digital ones. If motion and animation now provide meaning, interfaces can be significantly easier to interpret, understand and use. This will allow technology to be accessible by a significantly higher percent of the population than it is now. What makes this an incredible and important aspect of Material Design is the fact that no other common design language places so much emphasis on affordance through motion. It’s a fairly new proclamation. The overall intent is to make life easier for the users and doing so through motion is simply innovative. 2

Paula Borowska

Paula is a freelance web designer who documents her travels with photos and words. She works with small companies to help them create products that change the lives for their customers all in the hopes of gaining more customers and retaining their current ones longer.

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