Why Google wants software designers to think like Hollywood

Matias Duarte GoogleScreenshotMatias Duarte, Google’s VP of Design, Materials Design

The software industry needs to take a cue from Disney movies and stop hand-drawing everything said Matías Duarte, Google’s VP of Design, Material Design. Otherwise, design is not going to scale and is going to be buried under the avalanche of smart products coming our way.

“We’re obsessed about every pixel, every screen and every interaction. The way we go about them is hugely manual,” said Duarte at Bloomberg Businessweek Design. “All those animations and all those in between states have to be animated and they all have to be manual.”

It’s a problem that the animation industry faced in the beginning days of Disney.

Movies like Snow White were created out of beautiful watercolors — that lasted on screen for all of 20 seconds. Now, CGI can produce the leaves on the trees in the background while the designer focuses on the main characters. “The artist is now more like the gardener,” Duarte said.

The software industry, though, hasn’t caught up, and designers still animate each pixel, swipe, tap and interaction. Multiply that by your phone, tablet, your thermostat, your smart watch, and it’s clear that design hasn’t scaled at the same way that the products have, Duarte said.

That doesn’t mean getting rid of good design, but industrialising it.

To scale design, Google created “Material Design”, or a style book for why every Google product kind of looks similar.

Duarte explained that it creates a framework so that designers at Google focus on the same three things — surfaces, motions and interactions — and don’t get bogged down by making a new design decision for each pixel.

“Material is very much a style guide, but its not autocratic,” Duarte said. “One of the things we do is keep [the team] small enough so we can’t design everything.”

Bloomberg Digital Editor Joshua Topolsky argued with Duarte that this approach actually limits designers. Once you apply style guidelines to industrialize a design ethos, are you limiting creativity?

Duarte, though, saw the opposite. Once designers stop worrying about the leaves in the background, they can focus on the more important interactions and then apply that design to every phone, watch, car, thermostat and all of the other products in the Google pipeline. It’s not quite assembly line design, but it’s Google’s form of design industrialisation.

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