Google Must Embrace State-Of-The-Art Design or Fail

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.

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  1. Pingback: I am Jason Paul

  2. Simon Carr says:

    The framework seems to be a lot more important then the design. Also, less design elements = less complicated. Probably smart to keep it simple until it catches on.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve got no problem keeping it simple. I’m all for that. But I’m suggesting that Google’s simple design does not equal good design. Compare that to Apple’s simple design. Apple is quite good at evoking a feeling of real quality. When I use Google’s products I more often than not feel like I’m using junk. That’s the exact feeling I have when using Microsoft products which are still designed better than Google’s.

      • Guest says:

        I love Google’s design. Simple, easy to use, and looks good. Apple looks good, sure, but when I use Google or Google+, I feel like I’m actually getting stuff done. More often than not, that’s more important.

    • Jamil Evans says:

      Less design elements doesn’t equal less design.  Design doesn’t come in amounts.  The design is always there, and it has a huge effect on most people, generally influencing the subconscious mind more than the conscious.  That’s when design is best, in my opinion.

  3. Joël / jjwa says:

    It feels like you are posting this pretty much at the same time that they are starting to improve it. Google+ looks better to me than their older products, Gmail has improved as well. (Functionally speaking, I dislike the Calendar’s new look.)

    (BTW, I am personally very much not a fan of a lot of things in Apple’s design :P.)
    But I do agree with the article in general :). I like the very basic engineer’y design, but it doesn’t have to be as ugly. As long as the focus functionality is kept, there’s room for a lot of improvement.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks! I did write this in January so I am minimally impressed with some of the Google design improvements of late. I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough progress on the design front as I’d like to see but I do see a glimmer of hope there.

      • I agree. First with your post, secondly with this comment. Google is losing ground and “sex appeal”, for lack of a better term, in the consumers eyes. I’m a huge Google advocate and used to hold them on a pedestal against Apple. Granted Apple clearly put a lot of design into their product, it’s Google’s openness and fluidity across multiple hardware that I enjoy and admire. Google’s recent upgrades to their UI in conjunction with the launch of G+ is better, but clearly still “design by engineers”. Android is Google’s best UI and I actually prefer it over iOS, which feels cheap in comparison. I don’t hold them as high now because of the failed projects and the fact they are late to develop in the social world. 

        I would like to pose the question in light of the number of “geeky” post that seems to be flooding G+. Is Google’s brand that way because it’s built by engineers for engineers? I would argue that Google touches a much larger population than that, but not everyone uses it. Older generations, GenX and older, still use AOL and Yahoo homepages. GenY and NextGen are using Facebook and Twitter for news and search. Will a facelift really convert?

    • Jim Hebert says:

      Actually, he posted it January 25th.

  4. Guest says:

    Framework and functionality is far more important than design. Additionally, I’ve found Google’s UI for search to be fantastic; minimal is much better than complicated.

    As for Google+, I’ve found the UI to be far ahead of Facebook’s. Blocky blue with numbers everywhere. Google definitely has a minimalistic design there, which I find to be superior.

    • Anonymous says:

      I completely disagree with you about everything you’ve said. The reason I wrote this essay is to fight against the sentiment you have. You seem to be in the engineer camp and engineers seem to have a natural contempt for design whether they know it or not. Design is equally important to framework/functionality. As a person who uses Google search a thousand times a day I find the UI severely lacking when you want to do more advanced search. I’ve learned to work around it to get what I need but it shouldn’t have to be that way. I won’t defend Facebook to Google because even if the UI is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye the UX absolutely stinks.

      • Exactly. That is the case specially with those Linux geeks/developers/whatever you can call them. For them UI is not at all important it seems, and they seem to think that everyone will think the same as them, and go and use the command prompt/Terminal. 

        • Anonymous says:

          I find it really impressive that engineers can live in the Terminal. But guys who can function without a UI probably shouldn’t be designing one . Completely agree with you. But I do want to give respect to those Terminal guys/gals. I wish I could live there too.

          • Exactly. I would love to be a dev/engineer too who can do all that wondrous stuff using the Terminal, but it’s a common problem with these people. They seem to think everyone has to be as brainy as them/be comfortable with typing stuff into the Terminal. Most don’t understand that there are all kinds of people in the world, people who can never be as good at computers/technology as they themselves are..

  5. Adnan says:

    This is an eye opening post. 
    And coming from someone whose expertise in design and aesthetic is so evident given the well aligned text, the unique color scheme, the clever use of a unique font, the amazingly placed share buttons right at the top before the content of the post and the simply brilliant logo, I’d say this was extremely arrogant on Google’s part to not use your Powerpoint templates. 

    • Anonymous says:

      ouch. I think you completely missed the point. This is just a beta WordPress theme I’m testing out. This blog is unbranded (hence the title). I’ll design it one day if I ever get the time. My design work is not showcased here in any capacity because that’s not the point of this blog right now. It’s just about writing and archiving. I think any real designer who looks at this blog knows exactly what it is and would see that your comment is trolly and totally irrelevant.

    • TonyTooCool says:

      lmao

  6. Anonymous says:

    In terms of visual style, I don’t see much of a difference between Apple and Google: both have the same kind of minimalist, somewhat anal Helvetica style.  In terms of user experience and functionality, I find Google’s designs to be easier to use and altogether a better experience (just look at iTunes!).

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s more to design than the sum of those elements. It’s really in the subtle details and in this regard Apple gets it. I do agree with you totally that iTunes is a bad/confusing experience. I’d like to clarify the difference between User Interface and User Experience. UI deals more in the graphic design details (color, type, iconography), UX deals more in the interactions. Google is often weak in both. While Apple doesn’t always hit a home run with design (iTunes) it is usually very strong in both areas (iOS is the best example of good UI and UX).

  7. I agree. Google has a way of making their products feel like “junk” and with (for example) Apple you get a feeling of  superiority just because everything looks “good”.  With that said, I think in some areas Google needs to step up their approach to design.  Google search is fine and I wouldn’t change a thing, but with other products ( voice, music beta, mail, etc.) the minimalist approach needs to be abandoned for a more futuristic design.  Of-course geeks and nerds like myself will deal with a poorly designed UI because in reality it doesn’t matter what it looks like aslong as it works, but with common people like my wife if the design looks bad they probably wont stick with it because they will associate “bad” design with bad products. Just my opinion!

  8. Jon Farmer says:

    Interesting thoughts. You need to proof read and spell check please.

  9. kc says:

    I can’t take your critique of web design seriously when your personal website looks like this. Black…white…gray…more gray…10 pixels of color provided by a handful of disproportional and badly aligned social networking buttons…are you trolling?

    • Anonymous says:

      Sorry you feel that way. This site is totally unbranded. I use it for writing and archiving. Design is a major work initiative for me and I keep that elswewhere. I didn’t feel like it was necessary to invest that kind of time in this blog which will always be evolving. I’m actually testing out a beta of the new WordPress theme which is the design you’re unimpressed with. Definitely something I’ll note that you feel the new default WordPress theme looks trolly. The social networking buttons are just plugins which most blogs use, so if they’re misaligned your design beef is with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Addthis, Socialize…well you get the point.

  10. I was never a fan of good looks as long as the functionality was good, but you are right, Google does seem to ignore it too much. Or did, nice thing they are improving, cos many people go for looks rather than functionality.

  11. Have you tried google+? It has a simplistic design that I find soothing and easy to work with but yet good-looking. I do personally think that many of what you call google’s design issues are originally rooted in the “search-engine mentality” that started the Google company. No one is interested (at least I assume) in a search engine that is a work of design art, you want functionality and speed. Ideally you will want to spend as little time as possible on that white simplistic page and be taken to where you’re originally headed.

    However, as you mentioned, I do think that with Google becoming so much more than a search engine (in terms of functionality and products) and one of the vastest IT companies in the world, they should start focusing on design too (once the functionality is flawless!), and with google+ they do seem to be moving in that direction (though not as fast as you would probably like.)

    Everything is two-sided though, the simple Google UI as we know it has got to be the most user-friendly web portal I have ever used!

  12. Dean says:

    “To me this is the height if arrogance” – typo – “of arrogance”

  13. Josh W says:

    I find it horrible the idea that Larry Page should behave more like Steve Jobs. Delusion and megalomania mitigated by a willingness to take on others ideas (so long as you can claim them as your own)? Ugh, no thanks.

    One of the amazing things about google is the way that they go for throwaway products that come back in other forms, that they let people go for weird projects other people wouldn’t even attempt; like people off their own bat deciding to build a replacement for email or to open source phones, or turn their browser into an operating system!

    These projects come from people having an idea and going for it.

    I love that google hasn’t gone for the basics of branding, that they’re not forcing people to try to see them as a single monolythic identity. Does anyone notice that they are using google maps? Does that give them a feeling of the “google style” that they also see in gmail, youtube, or even their android phone? I doubt it. Unless they have finely tuned design senses the tools do a better job than apple’s stuff of fading into the background, being ubiquitous, or rather, just being about whatever it is you are doing at that moment.

    And loads of teams are out there putting their own stamp on the services they make, picking up and suggesting patterns of user interface design and not having to worry about producing a monolithic “look”. Am I talking about teams inside or outside google? Both. Because people don’t have to make it look a certain way. You have youtube looking totally distinct from the others, and even then allowing people to take the branding off it’s videos.

    Yes, the most effectively branded of google’s services is taking it’s branding off, to improve user experience. People want it, because they want it to be their video, expressing their ideas and branding, not google’s.

    Now here’s where I agree with you.

    Google has to be open to the contribution of interface designers, and artistic people. People should be able to shape their user interfaces as they want, to suit them, and designers should be there helping that to happen. To be able to make systems that allow the unexperienced to customise their stuff well, you have to have a lot of experience, to not just artificially limit the things that can be done with it.

    Your problem with picasia was an example of this, too much “character”, not enough getting out my way.

    Secondly, some of google’s interfaces have just been crap, like google wave, which I would have loved, had they been quicker at implementing one of the basics of experimentation; undo. Or had they put visual cues for some of the many ways you can put stuff in.

    A freind of mine who’s been using email IM etc for years was intimidated by it, which is rediculous. She was scared like old people are when using windows!

    So they do need some more visual designers there, they do need some more user experience guys there. I don’t think they need it for “clear branding” or any of that stuff, they need it for more effective UIs, but also more open visual branding, more transparency. Their “brand” will still be strong, it just won’t be a primarily visual one. And the web will be more diverse and better for it.

    • Anonymous says:

      I really like your comment and I think we most likely agree more than disagree. I have huge issues with Apple (but they’re not design issues) and I definitely don’t want Google to become Apple in terms of products/services. I really respect the spirit in most of Google’s projects. I don’t want Google to fail in these unique and forward thinking endeavors. So yes, the point is that the best idea in the world will fall flat if it’s not well executed which Google has been guilty of many times. I don’t like Google’s amateurish branding either but you’re right in that good UI can/should transcend branding in favor of more personalized products. It appears that there’s a shortage of visual thinkers at Google and by having more respect for design they could solve a lot of their problems.

  14. cjschris says:

    Says the guy with a broken header image.

  15. Mike Rees says:

     I dunno. I land firmly on the side of “engineer” in your binary view of the world. I really like Google’s design for its efficiency, and I dislike Apple’s in kind. This article strikes me as being as biased and arrogant as those at google who wanted you to make presentations for them.

    This is simply because, the majority of users are neither engineers or designers. The vast majority of non-tech people I talk to like Google’s design because it’s simple, unobtrusive, and above all, it’s not in your face and consequently confusing you. Plain white with a simple header’s like the real world documents they’ve been using for decades, they understand it already. It just works, which at the end of the day is all that matters.

  16. Uictamale says:

    I’m glad Google didn’t hire you.. you think Steve Jobs has great taste?? I’m glad google sticks to the basics and ignores all these things you think it’s missing. I just want a functioning product.. not layers of obfuscation, colors, halting animations, and other distractions.  Using an Apple product always feels like I’m playing with a toy designed for children. I don’t want to use that every day.. I love the laser-like focus of google products and I hope Larry helps to keep things that way.

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