More on Google’s Graphic Design

March 21, 2006 - by jason

The word “design” means so many different things to different people. I should have thought more about this before writing The Non-Design of Google’s Software last week, and emphasized just which aspects of Google’s software “design” I was criticizing.

Most people seemed to get my point, but clearly many missed. To be clear: In no way am I arguing that Google puts no thought at all into their user interfaces. To the contrary, clearly, they put an enormous amount of work into keeping their UIs clear and simple, and this work constitutes “design” in several ways. Simple UIs are much harder to design than complicated ones. (This is why nearly all consumer electronic remote controls suck—it’s easy to design a complicated remote with several dozen poorly-sized and -shaped buttons. It’s hard to design a remote as nice as TiVo’s.)

Design is not merely decoration, but decoration is a part of design. And that’s the part that Google seems to take little to no interest in.

Jonathan Brodsky, in a comment on my original article, pointed out Adrian Shaughnessy’s excellent March 12 post at Design Observer, “Google and Tyranny of Good Design”.

Shaughnessy makes several of the same points as I did regarding Google’s rather glaring institutional disregard for graphic design, and just how out of the ordinary that is for a company of their size and stature. After dissecting Google’s “corny” logo and un-graphic-designed home page, Shaughnessy writes:

And yet, I think there’s something magnificent about Google’s lack of design. There’s something defiant, almost obtuse about its reluctance to indulge in the sort of oleaginous branding and design that is now the corporate norm. We’ve reached a point, in the homogenized West, where good graphic design is everywhere. The battle has been won: every business knows it needs good design – you don’t have to tell them anymore. It’s enshrined in the business schools, established in the corporate HQs. Even small businesses understand that good design is good for business. It’s a universal truth, like “customer service” and “value for money,” and all the other boardroom nostrums that drive modern commerce.

But the consequence of all this feel-good business is that design has become, more often than not, a badge of mediocrity. The old Modernist dream of good design standing for rationality and human values has been flipped. Today, good design is little more than a cosmetic agent, an obscuring agent.

These are insightful observations. And, perhaps, this suspicion that good graphic design is an “obscuring agent” explains why so many people react so vicerally when Google’s design is criticized.


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