Is Google’s New, Universal Design a Great Step Forward?

Google’s always had a minimalist design, one of the simplest designs on the web. And for the most visited website in the world, that’s provided a very user-friendly approach making searching somewhat of a breeze. The problem is, Google is no longer about search since, with the arrival of a plethora of additional services, that part of Google’s business has become so much less significant.

As Google has added new products, services and apps, they’ve featured their own unique interface so, while the main search page became refined, the other sites got left behind. However, Google has recently started a full, unified redesign process across their sites connecting them all up with similar design trends: a modern, minimalist red and white scheme.

It started with Plus

Google’s redesign started out with Google+, their social network. Google took a completely different approach to Google+’s design, and it turned out much cleaner than any of their other sites. My first impression was of shock since the new colour scheme was quite a deviation from the norm for Google, and I wasn’t it’s biggest fan. Nonetheless, the clean design with a generous use of negative space won me over.

Interestingly, Google+’s design is credited in part to Andy Hertzfeld, who, before working at Google since 2005, worked for Apple’s original Macintosh team. And with the colourful design with use of standards-compliant animation, it certainly feels inspired by Apple.

But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.” In any case, Google has recently tapped Hertzfeld as the design leader of the Emerald Sea team. [Steven Levy]

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Then onto Gmail

Following Google+’s release, Gmail followed suit with a similar design. This brought a little more unity to Google’s ecosystem as was nothing but a welcome change, but it meant that the custom themes that many users utilised were no longer compatible. Nevertheless, the clean design meant it was a worthy sacrifice.

And Gmail followed...

Finally, the other apps

And then, the other Google apps followed. Google Docs was one of the apps that got the redesign, and this was one of the few redesigns that I was a little skeptical about. Docs looks very much like Mail, but I can’t help think there’s too much negative space in this one unless you’re a really heavy user of Google Docs.

Then, YouTube has a new design, codenamed Cosmic Panda, that turns YouTube into a slick new viewing environment. It’s darker than YouTube’s normal design, but it’s not exactly like the new look of Google’s other apps. It is closer, though, and almost any change to YouTube’s design is welcome.

Nonetheless, the universal design approach is a worthwhile addition to Google. It makes everything feel like they’re connected and integrate together, and not completely separate services.

Focus, Elasticity and Effortlessness

In their blog post, Google mentions three reasons for the new approach: focus, elasticity and effortlessness, and that’s really what we want out of a service like Google. At least in their search product, Google is nothing but a middleman to help you get to the content you want, meaning that focus (Google’s word for “minimalism”) is really vital to a product like Search.

Likewise, Google recognises elasticity as one of the reasons for their redesign. Their point of Google being used on a ton of different platforms and screen sizes is, again, worthy and is evident if you’ve used Google’s new design on another platform like an iPad. Unfortunately, services that we’ve wanted on platforms like the iPad (such as Google Docs) are not yet compatible, which is disappointing since the redesign offered a great opportunity.

Finally, effortlessness is something Steve Jobs would have been proud of: Google uses standards complaint HTML5 meaning that browsers can work with Google fast, and without plugins.

To sum up, and answer the initial question, I think Google has taken a big step forward. In the majority of their services, the redesign offers a clean, minimalist look that is very straightforward to use, and, for the most part, can be picked up from any platform you choose. It’s just unfortunate that the opportunity offered by the redesign wasn’t taken to enhance some functionality, like Google Docs in a touch-based browser.

Have you used on of Google’s redesign previews? Share your thoughts in the comments.