Why Material Design Didn’t Achieve the Grand Unification it Originally Aimed For
The Ideology Behind Material Design
Material Design’s ideology centers around the user, synthesizing a visual language by combining the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science. The Google Design team aimed high, with a vision that most designers would deem impossible, but Google’s very philosophy is centered around moonshots and that’s exactly what the team dreamed of. The goal was to find middle ground between the waning skeuomorphic design and plateauing flat design, and simultaneously unify a multitude of screen size and platform design languages in the process.
It’s been nigh on two years since that fateful day in June 2014 when Google’s VP of Design, Matias Duarte took the stage at Moscone Center to unveil what was to become a revolution in the design sphere, and while it’s done just that, has it been as spectacular as its projections?
The Adoption of Material Design in and out of Android
On handheld devices, Material Design has seen a remarkable growth within the confines of the Android ecosystem. The introduction of the AppCompat support libraries, and a host of tutorials from Google as well as third-parties allowed developers to transition from Holo to Material effortlessly, and with minimal hassle. However, outside Android, Material Design adoption is close to non-existent, with the only products that unwaveringly sport the style being those from Mountain View itself.
On the web, Google has gradually rolled out the Material metaphor to its entire suite of products, but that’s about where it stops. A few products have joined in on the revolution, but a vast majority of them continue to shun it, with “Google’s branding” and “mobile design language” being the words whispered whenever the topic is brought up.
How the Language has Evolved
The initial release of the Material Design spec, while extremely well met, was stifling, with the rules cracking down on basic implementations like typography and enforcing somewhat strict guidelines on areas like iconography. However, the front page of the website states that “This spec is a living document that will be updated as we continue to develop the tenets and specifics of material design”.
Google stayed true to their word, executing cycles of introduction, validation and iteration, with new patterns first appearing in their apps, and then making it to the official spec if the response was deemed satisfactory. One such notable evolution was that of typography – initially, Material Design guidelines limited the usage of type to the font families of Roboto and Noto. That backfired quickly, since type takes center stage in various products’ branding. The spec was updated in April last year, with the new rules not only allowing custom fonts but going on to present a typography award at I/O 15. Other such significant pivots were the introduction of launch (splash) screens and bottom tabs to the spec, both of which got their own subsections after being strongly opposed by Google earlier.
Factors Preventing its Dissemination
One might wonder, that despite its beauty, simplicity and overall delight, what was it exactly that stopped the Google Design team’s brainchild dead in its tracks? The growth spurt following its release at I/O 2014 showed a steep slope in terms of adoption, but gradually, it lost steam and plateaued owing to multiple reasons, but one among them played a paramount role.
The ‘paper and ink’ metaphor grew increasingly popular as its adoption spread, but due to Google’s mobile-first introduction of it as a their tremendous push for it on Android coupled with their omnipresence across the tech sphere, made many products shirk Material Design, citing its reputation as Google’s branding, rather than a new approach to design. Owing to Material Design’s rather restrictive rule-book back at the time of its release, this rang true since most products that took the leap ended up “looking like a Google product” instead of standing out from the crowd.
Even with some products ready to accept that the “Google product style” tag, the Material Design spec started out at a restrictive and to some extent, stifling set of rules to follow. The lack of flexibility in basic implementations such as typography severely compromised its reputation and saw its advent checked.
Material Design’s Limitation to Android
The lack of a framework, as well as the Material Spec disproportionately favoring smaller screens resulted in websites and web apps – even those directly or tangentially related to Android – to favor their own take on design as opposed to Material Design. While the introduction of Google’s Project Polymer and Material Design Lite web frameworks, the introduction of template projects like Material UI and Mocha and , as well as the increase in guidelines for larger screens have increased its adoption considerably, paper and ink on the web is light-years behind what Google envisioned it to be.
Areas that the Material Design Spec Can Improve Upon
Despite numerous updates, the guidelines for the Material metaphor, like all evolving technology, have room for improvement. The elephant in the room when it comes to implementing Material Design layouts is navigation. With the introduction of bottom bars, designers now have the drawer, tabs, the overflow menu and the bottom bar to choose from and properly employ, with no official guide and sample scenario set on what should be used where. The given rules are vague, and lack definition, and with navigation being a crucial springboard for the entire product, its rules and recommendations could use an upgrade. Color is another sector that fails to communicate the spec’s intentions clearly, with a copious number of designers interpreting it as a set of predefined options to choose from, rather than a launch pad of samples on which brands can develop their own color palettes.
While these small changes will make a significant difference in the implementation of Material Design, they do little to provide the surge in adoption to achieve the goal that Google envisioned. To accomplish that, the visual language needs to shed its “Google branding” tag, establish itself as a universal style rather than an Android one and simplify its implementation across platforms similar to the treatment that Android and the web deserved.