A curious thing is happening in the world of digital design. Skeuomorphism, the art of translating real-world design cues into the virtual sphere (e.g. concepts like the “desktop”, “folders”, and, recently, faux-leather stitching in previous versions of Apple apps for iOS and OS X) has been shunned in favour of a flat, clean, colourful aesthetic that aims to convey a more honest-to-the-cyber-world user experience.
This is a good thing. It means that designers are starting to push new thinking into the highly volatile world of user interface design. Android has been doing the “flat dance” for a while, and Apple has only recently joined the bandwagon with iOS 7, and its decision has indeed catalyzed much of the developer community still holding-back to be swept by the Apple-effect of cascading influence.
Google just announced “Material Design”, a new design language set to rival iOS 7’s flat UI, and which aims to bring more user experience consistency to the highly-fragmented and popular Android OS. Android has long since faced the challenge of scaling with its rapid growth. It is the most popular mobile operating system by far, and its open source nature means that it is susceptible to modifications. Samsung and Amazon, for example, both re-skin the generic Android interface with their own variants. Amazon goes as far as calling their theme an “OS” – Fire OS.
What does this mean for the end-consumer? Well, consumers are more concerned with hardware than software; fancy features like fingerprint scanning and more megapixels are what drive sales, after all. But design fragmentation means that the user experience of a particular app across various Android flavours is unsteady. A user that jumps from one Android phone to another may experience subtle design changes that make for slightly jarred experiences. Apple’s iOS is designed in-house by a tightly-integrated hardware and software team, so the hardware-to-software experience is quite consistent. Android, by contrast, is nurtured by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, but hardware companies like Samsung and Sony implement it as the soul that gives life to their hardware creations – the Galaxy range, the Xperia range, etc. Each manufacturer makes it seem like there are a multitude of operating systems out there that are kind-of linked, when in fact there’s just one powering all their devices: Android.
What Google is doing with Material Design is a huge deal: they’re giving developers a comprehensive design guideline, from the ground-up, to ensure that their app designs, and by extension their user experience, remains consistent across the multitude of Android flavours out there.
Material Design is just another step in this new Age of Flat Unity: utilising flat design elements to rapidly unify disparate experiences. By alluding to real-world experiences through the implementation of physics-based effects (like the Parallax effect in iOS 7) and nature-inspired animated cues (Material Design’s abstraction of natural effects), designers can skip skeuomorphism in favour of an experience more intrinsic of the digital age. Google describes Material Design as:
“a unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion.”
Material Design will be rolled-out across Google’s services and platforms (Chrome OS and Android being the major players). The Verge has a good breakdown of everything you need to know about the new design language; check it out by clicking here.
Material joins Microsoft’s Metro Design and Apple’s iOS 7-esque flatness; I’m really interested to try out Material Design-inspired interfaces, and welcome this as a great addition to the Age of Flat Design.