I’ve articulated a problem I’ve had with Google to friends for a few years. I think it deserves an essay to help me clarify my position on a major deficiency in Google. Here it is. Google will never be a state-of-the-art company (like Apple) if it doesn’t embrace visual design in a serious way.
I was reviewing successful logos with a client for a brand ID job and he suggested that in many cases it’s the success of the company that influences the perception that it has good branding. We discussed the mediocre Verizon logo which is now very iconic and we both agreed that for our branding project the goal was to make something great irrelevant to the success of his start-up. With Google even this reasonable point is a stretch. Google’s ‘branding’ and UI has always looked undesigned and amateurish. I interviewed with Google six years ago and it was made very clear that this was a company run by engineers who were uninterested in incorporating professional UI and branding skills into their products. What did they want from me? PowerPoint templates. I didn’t get the job and I’d like to think I wouldn’t have accepted anyway. It’s a tragedy to work below one’s capacity.
It is a real cause for concern that Google has (seemingly) deliberately excluded visual creatives from it’s massive workforce of nearly 30,000. To me this is the height of arrogance (or at least short sightedness and lack of imagination) to operate as if the left brain didn’t need the right.
While Google’s core product is search which by necessity requires minimal design they have made huge sums of money in selling advertising. The default styling of Google text ads that many sites allow in the hopes of earning clash for clicks look so terrible they are the equivalent of visual repellent to me. Google’s amateurish branding infects all the sites proudly using their undisputed useful services.
I’ll go so far as to say this absence of real design is a contributor to the slew of recent failures in Google product launches: Wave, Buzz, Google TV. I believe strong visual thinkers and designers in collaboration with talented engineers could have intuitively anticipated the shortcomings of these now failed products. While I consider Gmail an essential product it still seems lacking and often infuriating in its implementation. We had wanted to use Picassa to embed slideshows in our travel blog of 2009 because of its ease and accessibility but the skin of the slideshow was so truly ugly that we happily invested in Flickr which had a good solution for the time (we desperately need Flickr to upgrade their slideshows to Jquery out of Flash!).
I’m slightly glad that Facebook will likely eclipse Google as the leader of the web on purely visual grounds (Facebook UI and branding is better although not by much—another topic). A web world where Google is our portal to the web with their un-stimulating iGoogle delivering visually neutered RSS is actually bad for our culture and even a kind of evil by apathy.
Until Facebook’s meteoric rise Google was on it’s way to ‘becoming’ the web. Most people don’t think about design but all people respond to it. A web landscape with almost no design values conditions the majority to see the world in awful bright blue and white in mostly drab Arial text. The only uglier major Internet entity on the web is Craigslist—but they are allowed as they haven’t crept into every aspect of our daily online experience. It’s not good for people to literally see the world in blue and white. It’s sinful for one of the largest and most influential companies in the world to keep designers, who have so much to offer, on the sidelines. Technology and art evolve together.
I wonder what top branding and advertising professionals think of Google’s shrugging of their professions. I doubt Google ever hired a branding company for at least a brand assets audit and it’s even less likely they’ve used an advertising agency. If they did they would probably learn something important about the crucial importance the visual appearance of a company has on customer perception. Some might suggest that Google now has too much brand equity invested in their rudimentary image. That would be a load of crap. If they rebrand correctly they will only gain equity.
The Google founder Larry Page will become the new Google CEO. They are hoping this will reinvigorate Google’s innovation drive. Many articles have suggested Page will need to become like Steve Jobs. I have no doubt Larry Page is a visionary and I am a fan of the brave futuristic ideas he represents. However, in the last decade Google has shown little respect for aesthetics so it’s doubtful Page has learned much about this crucial component of running a state-of-the-art technology business. To contrast, Steve Jobs has impeccable visual taste and I believe this attention to detail is what has set Apple above all of it’s competitors and established it as the premier tech company. All indications suggest that Larry Page does not possess this intangible quality of great taste. Many engineers admit that they don’t have an eye for design and wisely seek professional help.
So here’s my prediction for Google if they continue down their narrow and arrogant path of rudimentary design. They will certainly be eclipsed in the social arena (if this has not already happened). They will continue to release beta products that are interesting but will have a high ratio of failure because their rudimentary designs will make customers less likely to take them seriously perceiving them as toys. Their advertising business will decrease drastically as much more effective social marketing will dominate. They will continue to have great search technology, their original product, which doesn’t require superb or creative design. However, they will have to play by Facebook’s rules to ensure that Google bots can crawl the more relevant data in Facebook’s possession.
So the training wheels are off? Time to look the part. My design studio Trasaterra specializes in brand ID, site design and all forms of graphic design. Get in touch with me and let’s talk aesthetics.