”Material design is a visual language synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.”
Google uses material design to guide the interaction and interfaces in their apps, mobile and web-based, and makes the standards available for other android app developers. Material design was unveiled in summer 2014 long with Lollipop, Google’s new android operating system. Since then Google rolled out redesigned apps, Gmail, Maps, and more, using material design principles. Google designers made physical prototypes of their icons before designing the digital counterparts, to capture the correct, real-world dimensions.
There are three main principles to material design: material is the metaphor; bold, graphic, intentional; motion provides meaning. Material is so called because the design and interaction within an app mimics that of the physical (material) world. Two windows within an app cannot occupy the same space: this is a law of physics. To design this, Google provides shadow specifications which separate levels, as shadows do in 3D space. Elements also do not pass through each other – “cards” in the Google Now interface behave as index cards would in the physical world. The motion between the elements and their real world-bounded interaction provides meaning in that a swipe in an app does that a hand swiping cards across a table would do in the physical world. Designers also aim for the user experience to be relevant to the individual and, a word that appears frequently in the documentation, delightful.
The use of graphics and color are also important in material design. Stickers, provided by Google, are meant to remain consistent across apps. A messaging icon in Google Now would be the same as the Google Hangouts icon, to make clear the the connection. Color palettes are also specifically chosen, and generators exist on the internet to aid designers. Colors should be limited, and the choices bold. Google’s apps rely on large, color-blocked headers, with buttons in an accent color. Font is also consistent.
Material design may be a Google standard, but other company’s designers may resist. The documentation is extensive and prescriptive, and as Carrie Cousins questions on Design Shack whether “experienced designers need this level of guidance.” She suggests playing with the concepts, but not marrying oneself to them. While Google designers are required to marry into the family of material design, others do still have a choice. Google would like to make material a standard for all android pps, but while their influence is great, and it may not be that great yet.
I find material design to be clean and pleasing to look at, but I think that it sells digital space short. Bounding digital space by physical space’s rules is unnecessary. Digital space exists part from the laws of physics and literally any experience can be created. Objects passing through one another is of course not possible in the physical world, but limiting in the digital world is unnecessary – they can pass through each other with few lines of code! Using physical specifications can increase usability, I believe, as these are laws we already understand. Someone not familiar with a digital environment may find an interface that behaves as they expect their Moleskine day planner and pencil to function is easier to adapt to. This raises the question of who the user is. re designers creating an app for a user group that is more comfortable with physical tools? Material design could be a selling point for this user group. Is the app going to be used by digital natives who have never had a physical address book? Will the concepts of material design be lost on those users creating a clunky experience?