Bones

The Gospel According to Material Design

I love Material Design. I hate Material Design.
 


This is an excellently crafted video about Google’s Material Design. If you’re unfamiliar with Material Design, I’ll attempt to provide a distilled description: Material Design is Google’s uniform approach to information and interaction architecture. For more on that, visit Google.com/design.
 
As a graphic designer who works to communicate messages in compellingly effective ways, I am both wildly impressed and mildly unsettled by Material Design.
 
Designers love systems. Wim Crouwel and Josef Müller-Brockman shared the commandments of the holy Grid. They reminded emerging practitioners of late twentieth-century graphic design that they could organize information the way architects organized space. These men and other followers of de Stijl, the Swiss, and the Bauhaus were reinterpreting the methods of the monks who created illuminated manuscripts, and prophet-printer Johannes Gutenberg and the printers that followed.
 
Material Design and its acolytes are following a footpath trod by earlier designer-philosophers. Google’s designers are applying the methods and ideas of their predecessors to modern communication and graphic design. Not longer tied to the page – information, images, and text, are being organized for delivery on screens. Google reconnects to the page by conceiving of paper that isn’t static, but is responsive, with the ability to take on other predetermined forms. The paper planes and cut paper objects move to reveal and present new information prompted by user-initiated actions.
 
As I indicated in the first line of this post, I am of two minds regarding Material Design. I am swoonfully enamored with its ability to create an entirely Google way of packaging information. I applaud their embracing the animation of interaction design as a component of not only user experience, but brand identity. My friend Mark Kingsley has long been an advocate of broadening the scope of brand identity beyond the visual. Mark would suggest that instead of a logo, you might be better served by a sound or rhythm. When someone visits XK9.com, why don’t I greet them with a three-note signature? Note to self, call Matt Sessions.
 
Material Design is a beautiful, thoughtful system. It makes effective use of modern communication devices and their ability to present information in a confined, often small space. The colors, layers, interaction, and logic behind Material is smart, and plainly well-considered.
 
And then there is my polar reaction to Material Design – frustration. There is something uncomfortably dogmatic about Google’s adherence to Material Design. I joked with a friend that Google is both self-congratulatory and reverential about the presumed success of Material Design. Thus Google spake, “We have solved graphic design. And it is good.”
 
If you can determine a way to make a thing look consistently good in its myriad variations, it will be perceived as uniform and well-considered. But that uniformity can also whitewash all of the various components of the information you collect and present. It will be familiar. But will it be interesting? Will it still have the capacity to make a lasting impression, or to inspire action beyond a click?
 
Celebration, Florida is a planned community envisioned and developed by the Walt Disney Company. It was a vision of Walt himself that wasn’t realized in his lifetime. But beginning in 1994, Celebration attempted to make real Walt’s dream of a utopian community, complete with a community-wide graphic design created by Michael Bierut and Pentagram. In truth, Celebration was ultimately just a dogmatically conceived suburb that applied Disney aesthetics to urban planning. Twenty years after its start, the facade of Celebration’s utopian ideals has worn so thin that it’s transparent. Real living and real communities are marked by dirt, noise, nature, flawed humans, and uncertain economies. You can’t keep human frailty hidden behind colorful paint and quaint storefronts. Because Florida.
 
I think Material Design and its ideals are like Celebration – a sincere, yet dogmatic attempt to control an environment. Change is inevitable – and change defies control. I think Google’s designers might want to dwell on that as they evolve and adapt their beloved Material Design.
 

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