What is material design?

Material design is a concept and practice that marks Google’s entry into the design arena. The search giant is well-known for its interest in user experience and how we use multiple devices to access information. These two concerns lie at the heart of material design. Far from remaining a corporate project, however, material design has something to say to us all and interest in it has already drifted far from San Francisco and is starting to reach wider shores.

Example of Google’s Material Design

Whilst on the one hand material design is a visual language that Google developed in 2014 and is busy rolling out across all its platforms, on the other hand it looks set to leap beyond the confines of its originator and become a major design trend for the year ahead. It’s time to get to grips with it.

What is material design, and why should it matter. Let’s take a look at its principles, some examples of it in use, what lies behind it and what the future may hold for it.

Material Design Manifests Itself

Material design was launched, not unlike a revolutionary art movement, complete with manifesto and microsite at the 2014 I/O conference in San Francisco. Despite its claims to be the world’s most intuitive design language its explanatory material is replete with allusive, dense and pretentious language. But we won’t let that put us off.
OK. We can have a quick snigger at this:

“Material design is the synthesizing of classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.”

So it’s designed for web-enabled devices, right?
It certainly is, and at its heart lies a principle that certainly can’t be laughed at. (You can get a much more accessible, visual introduction from this Google video.)

User experience

The user has sat at the heart of Google’s project from its very inception (as known as when Larry met Sergey). The first tenet of the “Ten Things that We Know to be True” proclaims that Google will: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. … When we build new tools and applications, we believe that they should work so well you don’t have to consider how they might have been designed differently.”

The primary thrust of material design is to meet the needs of the user: in particular the user who accesses information across a variety of devices. It aims to provide a unified user experience regardless of the device, platform or screen size. As a general rule mobile functionality (such as swiping and tapping) are primary, but as a general principle keyboard, touch and mouse are never forgotten.

The Background of Material Design

Clash of the Titans
Two dominant trends have informed material design, not so much as influences but as the traditions that inform its development. These are skeuomorphism and flat design. It simultaneously defines itself against them, borrows from them, bounces off them and it even tries to do the impossible in merging them. You can hear both flat design and skeuomorphism battling out underneath the measured tone that Google uses to introduce “material as a metaphor.”

“The material is grounded in tactile reality, inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic. Surfaces and edges of the material provide visual cues that are grounded in reality. The use of familiar tactile attributes helps users quickly understand affordances. Yet the flexibility of the material creates new affordances that supersede those in the physical world, without breaking the rules of physics. The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts.”

It’s a bit like a juggling act going on in the background. At one point the desire to make something artificial appear real asserts itself, at another the technological features of the flat screen, or the properties of paper and ink, are dominant. It is flat design which has the upper-hand in the world of design at the moment. Since the introduction of iOS7 designs which aim to ape life have been largely junked as just too much monkey business.

Yet, flat design has its fair share of critics too. In its quest to strip the real from our electronic devices it is often in danger of losing the user in its desire to honour the screen. Buttons can disappear into the background and elements can appear undefined and unidentifiable. Material design could have the answer to this. It relies on surfaces, edges and lighting to provide visual cues that may be grounded in reality but never subsumed by its demands.

This tactile environment helps root the user and offers clear understanding of the relationship between an object and its surroundings. It also insists on bold solid colours, edge-to-edge imagery, large-scale typography and white space to create an immersive environment but its handling of actions ensures the user is never lost. Actions are always controlled by the user and continuity is always maintained even as the experience changes.

The Google material design website contains a great deal more information, examples and technical instructions on how the concepts can and should be applied.

Watch this space!

Material design with its renewed focus on the user, its development of elements of flat design, its acknowledgement of the centrality of a multi-device environment and its re-positioning of ‘real’ effects to differentiate objects could well be an emerging trend in design this year.
And another feather in Google’s cap.

About the Author

mat fidge-1Mat Fidge works for Nexus Design & Print Ltd where he tries to marry up user experience, design and development with client satisfaction.

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