Google, No to Design?
March 24th, 2009 by Lex

In the recent days, a story about a particular Google designer resigning spread quickly around the web. The decision to leave was driven mainly by the glass ceiling in the design department, and a general lack of perceived value in design expertise overall. Specifically, Google has a phenomenal and closely guarded brand, which is controlled with hyper sensitivity by the very few at the top. Such an approach is potentially damaging over the long-term, and at least comical in the short-term. As per Douglas Bowman:

Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

So what is the role of design in the development of technology? Information designers would relegate the visual to the background completely, as did Google, opting for clean fonts and easy indicators based on primary colors. There is a fundamental difference between “ease of use” and aesthetic beauty. Google the website holds no aesthetic value–at most it does not detract. Like Microsoft’s Excel, it is highly functional and concise, but woefully lifeless.

Should technology solutions be full of life, though? Even a tasteful beauty pulls aways focus and determination. But then, is life and work merely a functional, tasteless experience? Do we not deserve an environment that nurtures creativity and expands our possibilities? The cost-benefit analysis is not won by productivity alone! Design and aesthetic pleasure contribute to one’s quality of life, and to strip them out as distraction is fundamentally disrespectful to the self. It is a sign of incompetence and narrow-sightedness to do so.

The company on the clear opposite side of this spectrum is Apple. This is an easy example, and could thus be seen as frivolous. But it isn’t! Nothing could be more true than Apple’s, and specifically Steve Jobs’, fascination with the aesthetic. But what a mission–to make the everyday more useful, enjoyable and beautiful than the last! We may not even realize the quiet revolution of design in our gadgets, but it is everywhere. It is in those transparent shadows in ITunes, and the way that objects are moved through space, and elegance of transparent windows. The effect of Apple on computing is not simply within its own products, but in every Windows, Palm, Blackberry, Facebook, Nintendo product on the market. Here is an example of the invisible as highlighted by Steve Jobs:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts, and since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

So, where are the design visionaries for the next epoch of technological evolution?