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Joshua Topolsky, writing for The Outline: The stuff Google showed off on October 4 was brazenly designed and strangely, invitingly touchable. These gadgets were soft, colorful… delightful? They looked human, but like something future humans had made; people who’d gotten righteously drunk with aliens. You could imagine them in your living room, your den, your bedroom. Your teleportation chamber. A fuzzy little donut you can have a conversation with. A VR headset in stunning pink. A phone with playful pops of color and an interface that seems to presage what you want, when you want it. It’s weird. It’s subtle. It’s… good. It’s Google? It’s Google.
It was only a few years ago that Google was actually something of a laughing stock when it came to design. As an aggressively engineer-led company, the Mountain View behemoth’s early efforts, particularly with its mobile software and devices, focused not on beauty, elegance, or simplicity, but rather concentrated on flexibility, iteration, and scale. These are useful priorities for a utilitarian search engine, but didn’t translate well to many of the company’s other products. Design — the mysterious intersection of art and communication — was a second-class citizen at Google, subordinate to The Data. That much was clear from the top down.
Enter Matias Duarte, the design impresario who was responsible for the Sidekick’s UI (a wacky, yet strangely prescient mobile-everything concept) and later, the revolutionary (though ill-fated) webOS — the striking mobile operating system and design language that would be Palm’s final, valiant attempt at reclaiming the mobile market. Duarte was hired by Google in 2013 (initially as Android’s User Experience Director, though he is now VP of design at the company), and spearheaded a complete reset of the company’s visual and functional instincts. But even Duarte was aware of the design challenges his new role presented. “I never thought I’d work for Google,” he told Surface Magazine in August. “I had zero ambition to work for Google. Everybody knew Google was a terrible place for design.” Duarte went to work on a system that would ultimately be dubbed Material Design — a set of principles that not only began to dictate how Android should look and work as a mobile operating system, but also triggered the march toward a unified system of design that slowly but surely pulled Google’s disparate network of services into something that much more closely resembled a singular vision. A school of thought. A family.