The SPAN Reader, a book released by Google Design in conjunction with its SPAN conferences in New York and London, is an eclectic collection of design thinking that investigates a variety of contemporary issues, such as the ethics of interface design, the implications of smart homes regarding privacy, the nature of time in digital space, the WYSIWYG paradigm, handmade computing, the haptic joy of contemporary stonecutting, and even the architectural implications of burglary. The book features original writing as well as several reprints, and many of the authors featured are unexpected (at least to me)—it is one thing to read Keller Easterling’s critique of intangible architecture and power structures in its original context of the theoretical contemporary art journal e-Flux, and quite another to read it within the pages of a Google publication.
As a glimpse into the thinking behind Google Design, the SPAN Reader seemed a good place to start when trying to understand the culture and philosophies at work in the office. This post begins with a short interview with Rob Giampietro and Amber Bravo, creative lead and editor of Google Design NY, respectively, discussing the editorial mission of Google Design, the ever-evolving metaphor of “material,” and the process of creating the book. Finally, Rob and Amber respond to a number of excerpts from the book (a reading of the reader?), offering us a chance to understand why these issues are important, and how they fit into the larger framework of Google Design. Many of the individual texts are available to read in full online, so please do click through.
Emmet Byrne: What is Google Design?
Rob Giampietro/Amber Bravo: Google Design is a cooperative effort led by a group of designers, writers, and developers at Google. We work across teams to create tools, resources, events, and publications that support and further design and technology both inside and outside of Google.
EB: One theme that resonates in the SPAN Reader is the idea of integrating digital design thinking with traditional modes of physical design thinking. Is this something Google Design takes to heart?
RG/AB: Digital design has benefitted tremendously from what’s come before it—print design’s focus on highly controlled and comprehensively specified modular systems, environmental design’s capability to compress, augment, and orient space, product design’s focus on the user and the affordances of a material, motion design’s ability to make information come to life in time, and so on. That said, today’s technology is really challenging the parameters between the traditional disciplines of design. When the interface becomes three dimensional, as is the case with VR, you need to completely reframe your thinking. Material Design mixes media in its framing as well—it thinks about how to make interfaces more immediately graspable, by playing with the dimensionality of light and shadow and thinking about how objects and surfaces like paper behave in the physical world. So we’re certainly interested in all kinds of design and what we can learn from them in our work and the field of digital designer more broadly. We also do a lot of non-mediated things like conferences and events, and in those cases we’ve had to think about how Material Design translates to other contexts—how it works in print, or how it works in space. Lance Wyman spoke at SPAN in New York about the design of urban iconography. As a team tasked with streamlining and evolving the company’s graphic language, we find ourselves often collaborating with teams on all levels of design, down to the tiniest details, like helping to refine product icons. So we really look up to and stand on the shoulders of Lance and others’ work in this field. If we do our jobs well, it’s a symbiotic approach, design and technology co-evolving, and highly attuned to the nuances of a user’s context in all cases.
EB: When did “Material” come to represent something virtual instead of physical?
RG/AB: Google originated the name “Material Design” for the design system and always intended for it to be a broad, open-source initiative for the design community. We continue to lead and push the system forward, both visually and conceptually, so that it’s best-in-class and up-to-date, and we also rely on the community to push it forward and adapt it for their own uses to really bring it to life. Last year, we even established our first-ever Material Design Award, to acknowledge all the great examples of material design being produced by third-party product teams.
In terms of the “virtualization” of material that you ask about, Material Design is a system for thinking about our digital surfaces that uses the traditional tenets of graphic design to suit this new context most appropriately. So, for example, with mobile devices, once you remove the mouse or other pointing device, then you are actually interacting with a surface, and the affordances of that surface—its materiality—become critical. So while it is virtualized, it’s also being touched. It’s still mediated, but less so. And that closer proximity to the interface offers a new set of opportunities. The floating action button (FAB) in Material Design rises up subtlely to meet your finger when you tap it. The number of layers in Material Design cannot exceed the device’s actual depth and fade into illusory space. It’s probably important to note that almost all GUIs have been metaphorically-driven. The desktop metaphor was one of the first, but following that were spatial metaphors (GeoCities, Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator), and more heavy-handed physical metaphors like bookshelves, dashboards, etc. These metaphors often build a bridge to make a technology more familiar to new users, but, as these users become more accustomed to the technology, this metaphorical layer can be lightened and the technology can become a bit more true to itself. A last word on metaphors: it’s been interesting in the last few years to see the directionality of these metaphors reverse, so that instead of digital technology receiving metaphors from the analog world, it’s actually starting to provide them. In the last few months we’ve been interested to hear phrasing like “paintings as social networks,” “buildings as operating systems,” and so on. (more…)