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Comments (56) Posted 03.12.06 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Adrian Shaughnessy

Google and the Tyranny of Good Design


The Google logo — that scrap of oddball typography — is perhaps the most famous piece of graphic design in the world today. Milton Glaser's "I 'Heart' New York" may have a prior claim, and the Coca-Cola script, the Nike tick (or swoosh) and the Mercedes roundel undoubtedly enjoy greater global "penetration" (to use the aggressive language of marketing), but for the web-surfing millions, the Google logo occupies a position of unrivalled prominence.

Google's corporate value is staggering. Despite a recent dip in their stock-market value, Google's financial gigantism places it alongside some of the biggest corporations in the world. Odd then, that it should have a folksy logo that looks more like a school project than the mark of a global corporation. And a logo that changes with astonishing frequency, too.

I began to think about the Google logo (having previously, and with a good deal of superiority, dismissed it as hopelessly amateur) when I noticed clients mentioning it, and telling me how much they liked its frequent graphic makeovers. These comments usually came from hard-nosed business people who'd no sooner allow their own logos to be messed around with, than turn up at a board meeting wearing only a loincloth. Something about Google's playfulness was getting through to these sober business types.

Even The Times recently ran a half-page story on the mutating Google logo: "The Google masthead is altered to mark special occasions about 50 times a year, with the chosen subject brought to the attention of millions during its 24 hours of fame." The Times' story was prompted by Google's use of a Braille rendition of its logo to commemorate the birthday of Louis Braille: for 24 hours, the letters in the word "Google" were replaced by dots.

The article goes on to describe the work of Dennis Hwang. Dennis is a Google webmaster, but he is also the "Google Doodler," and the man responsible for the graphic transformations of the logo. The Times credits Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as the originators of the idea of a transforming logo: "They posted a drawing of a Burning Man to alert Google's then-modest band of users that they would be at the festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and would not be in to answer the telephone if the website crashed. Mr. Hwang has since adapted the logo to mark everything from World AIDS Day to the Transit of Venus."

The Google website gives great prominence to Dennis Hwang's graphic endeavours, but fails to mention who created the original logo. The font is Catull, designed by Gustav Jaeger for Berthold, and is described as "a display face with a strong calligraphic influence. A large x-height and well-defined contrast make this face most suitable for advertising and display work."

Catull's calligraphic origins are only faintly discernible in the Google logo: the use of a soft-drop shadow, and the chamfer-effect on the letterforms themselves, turns it into a DTP classic: the sort of hybrid creation that tech-heads choose for the front covers of reports. In truth, the logo is weedy, corny and ill-conceived. It's the same with the Google homepage — a brutal display of functionality. Clearly, no graphic designer has been near it. Compare it to the home pages of other large corporations, and its obvious that Google has avoided hiring slick design companies and serious branding consultants. It looks like they've just gone and done it themselves.

And yet, I think there's something magnificent about Google's lack of design. There's something defiant, almost obtuse about its reluctance to indulge in the sort of oleaginous branding and design that is now the corporate norm. We've reached a point, in the homogenized West, where good graphic design is everywhere. The battle has been won: every business knows it needs good design —you don't have to tell them anymore. It's enshrined in the business schools, established in the corporate HQs. Even small businesses understand that good design is good for business. It's a universal truth, like "customer service" and "value for money," and all the other boardroom nostrums that drive modern commerce.

But the consequence of all this feel-good business is that design has become, more often than not, a badge of mediocrity. The old Modernist dream of good design standing for rationality and human values has been flipped. Today, good design is little more than a cosmetic agent, an obscuring agent. When I see my favorite sandwich bar introduce a slick new fascia and smart window decals, a little wave of disappointment runs through me. You don't see the work of sign writers any more; it's hard to find handmade signs and ramshackle window displays. The urban environment is now over-designed. It's all too branded, too inhuman.

So, Google, you might be behaving disgracefully over your willingness to acquiesce to China's demands for censorship, but keep your wonky little logo (and for that matter, your austere, ad-free homepage). In its own small way, the Google chameleon has become a little beacon of insurrection, a symbol of strength in a world in which graphic designers have become the agents of conformity.
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I don't know what urban environment you live in, but mine is certainly not overdesigned. Disney World is overdesigned; suburban housing pods are overdesigned (while overlooking serious design flaws like the oil addiction that makes them possible).

Frankly, I think our cities could desperately use a dose of good design -- in the Google, tech-nerd, engineering/infrastructure sense.

On that note, we must draw a distinction between design and styling.

The Google homepage is definitely designed; it's just not styled at all. It's brutally functional, but you could say the same of Flickr (which is only ever-so-slightly more styled) or any major portal page like Yahoo, BBC News, or even CNN. It wouldn't be designed if it were missing links, or failed to adhere to proper web standards, or didn't adapt to the needs of its users.

Corporate literature, homepages and headquarters in pod-people office parks certainly can be said to have been if not designed, then certainly "styled by committee" into homogeneity, and that's what you're really complaining about.

Good design is not therefore a cosmetic agent - bland styling is. Good design is making things that work well, anticipating needs and putting the answers before you before you even need to ask the question.

When it comes to the styling of corporate identity, it takes leaders with vision and cojones to avoid blanding out into yet another globe-with-swoosh in Pantone 072.
aj
03.12.06 at 08:00

Your mention of your favorite sandwich bar reminds me of when I was first physically affected by design. I wrote my grad school thesis for the most part in a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass., and the cabinets behind the counter, as well as the entire upper wall, was painted with blackboard paint--it's where the staff hand-wrote the menu and drew caricatures of each other so customers would know their names and some little detail of their personalities. Then I moved to a new neighborhood, where a new coffee shop was just being opened. Everything about the new shop was immaculately thought-through. It was beautifully done, with matching tile tabletops, a stylized and elegantly lit sign out front, and laminated menus. And I hated it.

When I had a chance to move apartments again, part of my decision was based on being close to the first coffee shop. It felt human, malleable, a little flawed. It clicked with me--I kept thinking, "This place is loved."

That's how I feel about the Google logo. It's not merely the face of the company. It's like their baby.
Andrew W
03.12.06 at 08:53

I have yet to see evidence of the "abundance of good design" in any urban environment I've lived in. London, Vancouver & San Francisco perhaps less guilty than others; Phoenix & Orlando clearly on death row (although for different reasons.)

Any design serving a corporate agenda without consideration of real world consequences is necessarily a bad idea and perpetuates "the lie of typography" Design as camouflage. It turns out that sometimes everything isn't OK. You'd never know it from the tasteful stylization presented on the website, press releases or annual report, etc... Just business as usual. For example, to judge by aesthetic criteria of the propaganda, the military is apparently a great place to be right now! And selfishly conceived gas guzzling vehicles apparently symbolize innovation, freedom + respect.

Personally I celebrate Google's un-design, although my preference would have been to see logo alterations for both the Chinese debacle as well as the recent stock market dip. These issues are hardly secret after all, and Google is about disclosure if nothing else. Still, in the big picture, Google represents design not as solution, but as solvent, and I respect the visual/functional choices the company has made supporting this principle.

Millions of times a day, the site becomes an empty vessel for desire. The sheer scope of what is potentially there is served well by absence of what is explicitly there. That is to say, the most significant elements of the layout are the returned search results. Arguably the simplification could be taken further - just a dynamic logo, textfield and submit button. I'm sure many have seen John Maeda's comparison of Google & Yahoo home page interfaces over time:
http://weblogs.media.mit.edu/SIMPLICITY/archives/000263.html
Gary R Boodhoo
03.12.06 at 08:56

"Personally I celebrate Google's un-design, although my preference would have been to see logo alterations for both the Chinese debacle as well as the recent stock market dip. "

I think if ever there was an application for realtime, animated avatars with artificial intelligence, that would be it. Logo as avatar or "mood ring," and replacing the need for shareholder reports and corporate brochures. How's Google feeling? Ask the logo....
aj
03.12.06 at 10:19

Irrelevant to the topic on hand, to be sure, but there have been cases of men in loincloths managing to change the destinies of entire empires.
niti bhan
03.13.06 at 01:32

A short article on uigarden.net by Don Norman: 'The truth about Google's so called simplicity'.
jbucks
03.13.06 at 03:39

"graphic designers have become the agents of conformity."

Black rimmed glasses everywhere just got a little steamed.

excellent.
Alan Ivester Spach
03.13.06 at 08:30

Craigs list www.Craigslist.org (16th most visited english language, on the net according to http://www.alexa.com/) is another 'un-designed' masterpiece of immense popularity.

"You don't see the work of sign writers any more; it's hard to find handmade signs and ramshackle window displays."

On a recent trip to Brazil it was lovely to see in the smaller towns a wealth of hand painted signage with logos and modern typefaces warmed up by the hand and brush.I wish I could see more of that in the UK.


Leon
03.13.06 at 08:50

Maybe this was the point of the article but, I think that actually the Google identity (logo, page design, etc.) IS good design because of what Google is about.
When most people use the Google search features they are using it to eliminate the complexity of the World Wide Web. Sites that add complexity, Yahoo, AOL, etc., are over designed.
I use Google primarily for that service. Simplifying finding on the WWW or other "nets" of complex and massive information. It has expanded into other areas but even in other realms, the goal is making management/finding of data simple. Even the email service gives the user the option of finding old emails, in theory, going back decades - some day.
For many people, it is hard to loose the Dewy Decimal Classification System filing mindset. Humans love to categorize things and place them in arrangements. They love to design. But technology can sometimes improve upon that and offer alternatives. This is necessary since data is becoming impossible to categorize due to size, type, and crossover of categorizations.
So, from a design perspective, Google is all the bad things noted. But designed is the last thing massive data wants to be. Like other methods of finding information from complex and massive data, having minimal steps and the simpler the better is the way to go. Brin and Page knew this. They probably deserve a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for helping more people find things world wide than probably all the catalog, book, directory, and form designers ever have.
I do not own Google stock.
jc
03.13.06 at 09:10

Interesting that you should mention the I(heart)NY logo...somebody thought the same about Google...

Google Fan Logos

(Sorry for using Tiny URL - oddly enough the comment system blocked me from using the Google(dot)com link...??)
Ryan M
03.13.06 at 10:51

The google logo is revenge of the nerds, maybe it's data, maybe booger. I say triumph because it is the festering sore of logo-land, it looks like clown make-up, like a baby store in a mall, or something that a computer science professor would put on handouts. If you've ever had to put the rainbow google logo on a design (no matter how small), I'm sure you've made the same face that I have. If you disagree with me, send me your best design, I'll put the google logo in the bottom right corner, send it back, then have someone take a picture of your face.

However, it is strong, recognizable and most bizarrely-- beloved by users and CEOs alike. In fact business owners love it so much that it makes me slightly worried. Google's motto is famous, " don't be evil". And its logo is an extension of that. It's unpretentious, harmless and well - goofy. Who could be mad at google with a face like that? It is for this reason that the google logo will be scarily influential. Monstrous conglomerates like Wal Mart would love to appear so nice and innocent.

Designers will oblige of course. And I shudder to think that talented designers will be feigning ineptness in order to make their clients appear more harmless than they are. So I don't think the google logo is a breakthrough for design, as much as it is a breakthough for CEOs.

zander
03.13.06 at 10:53

No doubt trend setting design communities, will see this as a post-post-modern slant on their discipline. Embracing 'it' with all out vigour, for about ten minutes, until the next exploitative subject rears its ugly short-lived head and renders this discussion extinct along with last weeks office virals.
wans
03.13.06 at 11:24

Trying not to get frustrated by this article. Rather than being amateurish, surely the Google front page is an example of deliberately "sachlich" handling of basic structural HTML. In the UNIX circles in which I used to hang out, it was extremely common for programmers to write web pages which used HTML entirely as structural markup, without decoration, as a point of principle.

Don Norman may be right that the page is slightly simpler than would be useful. This is another attribute of the products of the UNIX culture. See this famous article by Richard Gabriel:

Worse is Better
Theo Honohan
03.13.06 at 12:39

AJ: The Google homepage is definitely designed; it's just not styled at all. It's brutally functional, but you could say the same of Flickr (which is only ever-so-slightly more styled)

I feel the need to step in and point out you have to be very careful making these kinds of statements about web sites. You may think that Flickr is only "ever-so-slightly" more styled, but a look at its source code and nearly 1200-line stylesheet(and this is after most style rules have been compressed to a single line), says quite the opposite.
You may not like the end result, but it is most certainly not unstyled.

If you don't like how something looks, you're free to say so, but don't translate that to an unqualified claim that design has not occurred. A timeline view of Google's homepage(and Yahoo's) might be instructive here. Not only is that page not "not designed," but its has very deliberately been simplified over time. Color(other than the logo) has been consistently removed. Also note that the logo was not always as it is now.

The Google homepage may be ugly, and there may not be much on it, but every single one of those things is where it is because somebody put it there for a reason, and that is still design.
Su
03.13.06 at 02:02

Design is not so much about artistic execution as it is simply taking the time to think something through.
Alden
03.13.06 at 04:37

Most "good" design will never be placed on the cover of Print, in the annuals of Graphis, or win awards. We do that for ourselves. Good design is when you've answered the problem that was laid before you and let the chips fall where they may. My black rimmed glasses remain steam-free.
James D Nesbitt
03.13.06 at 04:51

Most "good" design will never be placed on the cover of Print, in the annuals of Graphis, or win awards.

...which is okay. a lot of the stuff most design pubs consider "good" i consider merely pretty. aesthetics are nice and everything, but i think they've spent a little too long masquerading as "good design."

i would go so far as to say that i think ugly but well-considered work is perhaps important to make. i don't know of many designers who can actually do that.
pk
03.13.06 at 06:06

Good point pk. While there is indeed a certain magic that happens when we solve the problem and create something aesthetically beautiful, I find that we, generally speaking, can fall prey to what is pleasing to the eye rather than what works best. Personally, I have to remind myself on a daily basis of that fact and remember that I'm here to solve a communication problem. That, at it's core, is the designer's function.
James D Nesbitt
03.13.06 at 07:34

God really!? How dull. If that's true I'll pack up my studio and go back to driving forklifts tomorrow... when you're talking to someone at a party is that "solving a communication problem"... maybe that's why you end up sitting on the couch on your own while everyone's having fun (relating to each other in natural and intuitive ways) in the kitchen. Don't you sometimes feel like Graphic Design is the loser sitting on the couch at the party? And don't you think Adrian's text kind of testifies to why?
Design Wolf
03.13.06 at 08:03

I think you're actually describing bad design. The educated and trained in all professions are often poor practioners yet quite capable of consistent mediocrity (a good way to make money). Even more problemaic, poor clients force lots of mediocre design ("make it more like the google logo" is going to make some piss poor logos!).

Lots of people have written about some of the issues you bring up (for example Maud Lavin's excellent book "Clean New World" is all about using design to "cover up").
jaywar
03.13.06 at 09:00

Su, in response, I wasn't dissing Flickr at all. I *love* Flickr. I know people who work at Flickr...and they're smart folks. "Brutally functional" is meant as a compliment. And yeah, it probably takes a 1200-line stylesheet to make it look simple :)

Of course it uses lots more AJAXy interface tricks that don't show up in static screenshots (those attention-drawing yellow 'flashes', for instance) but it still has the same philosophy of great information architecture teamed with great presentation of visual information, in the correct hierarchy from most-common to least-common task.

I like to cite the German audio recording software Ableton Live as a similar example - no flashy chrome, no Aqua or Windows XP glassy pseudo-3D elements, not even pretend "real" mixer knobs: everything's mostly just abstract representations - but it's functional and easy to grasp and easy to use, and still nice to look at.
aj
03.13.06 at 09:51

...for example Maud Lavin's excellent book "Clean New World" is all about using design to "cover up"

i know, and i think that's true. which was why i said i thought ugly but well-considered design might be called for. just a stripping away of that line of defense.

Don't you sometimes feel like Graphic Design is the loser sitting on the couch at the party? And don't you think Adrian's text kind of testifies to why?

no. i think that graphic design is left sitting on the couch because it has spent so much time looking at the surface of what it makes and so little time with the content. as a discipline, i think graphic design is pretty much bankrupt.

sorry. just saying what i think. take that how you may. not trying to start a fight.
pk
03.13.06 at 10:15

wait. no. clearer phrasing. i think graphic design operating under the current model (aesthetics in service to commerce) is bankrupt.
pk
03.13.06 at 10:17

When I taught graphic design at one of the shareholder-driven "Art Institutes", we spent half a semester on the genius of Paul Rand. My students thought I sucked. I thought they sucked, too. At his best Rand used humor to "communicate" to millions (and charged millions to do so!) Let's eliminate stress and turn our frowns upside down. Google's logos, like Rand's wit, may just be the medicine we need. Woody Pirtle, help?
Darlene
03.13.06 at 10:31

...the current model = aesthetics in service to commerce

That's a huge simplification, a sweeping generalisation, of what is an extremely disparate and dislocated thing...

And if that is the "current model" why does no one ever talk about it? I'm asking this very honestly... cause all I ever see here is people whining about the superficial nature of graphic design, and doing there best to pretend to be something else.

Why wouldn't just do something else if you weren't that interested in the way things looked?
Design Wolf
03.13.06 at 10:39

Actually pk I agree with you about the bankruptcy... just it doesn't worry me because I never put any money it anyway. I don't know why anyone did? I like how Stuart Bailey refers to graphic design as a ghost.
Design Wolf
03.14.06 at 12:10

That's a huge simplification, a sweeping generalisation, of what is an extremely disparate and dislocated thing

yeah, i know. i think it's a huge oversimplification. i probably shouldn't talk about where design's been because i'm a terrible historian.
pk
03.14.06 at 12:45

Design appears to be an evolutionary thing. I think the fact we are reading/discussing design on this platform is the real genial stroke.
We have all produced something which has been either good or bad and in that turn we open ourselves to the wider public for the affirmation of our talents.
This google discussion is probably the scratch that is needed to reveal something altogether different, inexplicable, which we will embrace and scratch at until we can find another question to look at and interpret. In the context of things this google debate is exactly what it should be. No single person has created design, its a collective achievement, perhaps unwittingly so, but nevertheless a collective subconcious achievement. This is regardless of whether it is deemed 'good' or otherwise.
wans
03.14.06 at 04:48

AJ: I didn't think you were slamming them per se, but there was a large error in your statement that was compounded by the situation of contrasting Google(which is largely unstyled) with Flickr(which is extensively styled). Calling either ugly has to be approached from a significantly different approach than the other.

Something that I cut out of my previous was that I saw yours and Adrian's comments as leaning a bit toward the belief that these sites were not designed because they're not particularly attractive. Given how bent out of shape designers tend to get over their job being reduced to pretty-making despite the deeper information design, etc., I found it ironic to see something like the same prejudice occur in reverse.

I'm not sure I'd even agree with "brutally functional," to be honest. Flickr's design is simple, sure, and there aren't rounded corners on everything, but it's still fairly pleasant. Now, the Craigslist homepage... Seriously, there's absolutely no reason to show me every single city they cover, at all once.

(If it seemed like I was totally laying into you, the second part of my comment when I got back to Google was actually directed more at Adrian. I'd thought it be a bit ambiguous shortly after posting, but I kinda hate it when people make immediate follow-ups to correct minor errors, and hoped intent would come through.)
Su
03.14.06 at 05:12

wow.

what a discussion - and great article! - could not read all of it - so probably it has been said before:

the google guys are well advised to use this "naive", "amateur" and "enthusiastically unprofessional" approach

... dressed in innocence ... so to say

one of the companies that look much better when they are smaller, with less classical management, with less industry dominating interest etc...
(... quite the opposite of the original internet 1.0 brand rhetoric btw)

is going to be interesting: will they keep the innocence?.. or the innocent dress?... or both of it... or none... ?

and why and when... ;)
jens
03.14.06 at 07:28

Wolf,

All design solutions should solve the problem, however, they must also be appropriate to the situation if they are to function at maximum capacity. If Google's homepage were extravagantly designed and took 15 seconds to load, they would have folded long ago. The solution as it stands, although sometimes referred to as "un- designed," serves the company's specific needs. In fact, its an interesting design problem since it has such restrictive parameters. What can one do within the confines that have been established? It would be an excellent competition to see what the community could come up with, yes?
James D Nesbitt
03.14.06 at 10:50

Su, thanks, but just to clarify, did I call either of these sites "ugly?" Ok, "brutally" functional is maybe a bit much when applied to Flickr - they went the extra pixel to make it well-proportioned and aesthetically pleasing *and* simple at the same time. When compared to many of their flashing-banner-ad-laden, broken-liquid-layout competitors, they're downright beautiful...
aj
03.14.06 at 11:45

Google is pretty much, for the moment, in a power position. As long as they keep that position and their competiton doesn´t do any smart moves design-wise they could (and they already does) change the standard of aestethics at the web by doing whatever pleases them.

Graphic design is a lot about conformity to visuall standards. It is no wrong with that. No more wrong than writers has to follow certain grammatical rules. If you got power you can shape those standards and current graphic design WILL follow. Good/bad aestetics can thus be seen as a relative thing.
Daniel Emanuelsson
03.14.06 at 12:16

the google guys are well advised to use this "naive", "amateur" and "enthusiastically unprofessional" approach

... dressed in innocence ... so to say

there's been a lot of rumbling about companies dressed in innocence over the past few years, as huge corporations dress themselves in pretty little harmless identity packages: unilever, AT&T, GE are a few examples of Die Neue Cute. (ha.)

i think the important difference between google and these companies cuteness is:

1) the examples above use cuteness as a strategic, disarming factor to create a disconnect between their histories and what they'd like the consumer to think. wildly deceptive (to me), and i think an appropriation of design for the web. also not most use kind of playful logotypes, usually puffy. v. webby.

2) google's cuteness is also strategic -- but because their customer must use it intimately every day. not because they're trying to trick the audience.

(sort of a side conversation, but one i don't recall having seen frequently.)
pk
03.14.06 at 12:59

James,

finding "appropriate" "solutions" to "problems" is not why I became a graphic designer (I've never been very interested in saving the world)... it's such a contrived way of thinking about design, its a very small part of what most graphic designers do but its pervasive in the discourse. I think Adrian's post here actually speaks to that... it's why lots of engaging 'images' are made by people who aren't primarily graphic designers... why the graphic designers get left sitting on their own at the party. If you can't see what you do (as a graphic designer) as going beyond problem solving you'll never have natural intuitive 'conversations' with your audience.
Design Wolf
03.14.06 at 04:07

Reason to go google because of the logo ? Definately not for me.

look fr studioLDA
look
03.14.06 at 05:20

Wolf,

Indeed. I am speaking to the core of providing solutions, not whether it can answer the question and be wonderful at the same time. It can. And the most successful design acheives both in tandem. I am simply concerned with the rush to aesthetics without thought and research. A beautiful mark is a wonderful thing only if it functions as well. Otherwise, its a cream puff: tasty, but only empty calories.
James D Nesbitt
03.14.06 at 06:03

There is a lot of talk about the
solutions to problems, but I think
a big part of design for the web is
that the problems that need solving
are different than in other media.
Loading time was mentioned above,
but I would imagine there are other
things to consider as well.
I have just started designing for
the web, but I have already noticed
that establishing a personality is
crucial. In cyber space it seems
like you have to compete as much or
more ideologically than visually.
mykal white
03.14.06 at 08:07

Yeah, but the perfect cream puff... now there's something to strive for! Obviously I have my own agenda here, and I apologise if my comments are repetitious and/or tangential, but I'm trying to figure out why, as a designer, I don't really engage with much of the rhetoric that appears on this blog. I'm not talking about aesthetics sans thought/research... rather the opposite... I'm particularly interested in 'research', but in fundamentally different ways it seems. I'm not really interested (directly) in how work engages an audience, more in how it engages the practitioner. Not because I don't think that's necessarily important, but more because it's been done to death ...in various psuedo-scientific ways - like how do you tell exactly if a logo functions well? Doesn't this post kind of make you a least a little suspicious about the whole "problem-solving" thing?
Design Wolf
03.14.06 at 08:19

The level of interest the Google identity has conjured up in the design community I find very interesting. But I would have to agree with Shaughnessy that every slick modern graphic pasted up in our urban environment replacing the hand, and humanity for the sexy, the slick, the ephemeral - I already forgot what it looks like - is kind of depressing. Design does not have to be such, design does not always have to be hip, sexy, and slick to connect with people, it just needs to be true.

A while back Wired had four individuals redesign the Google home page, Shepard Fairey, Jenny Holzer, Ideo, and Joshua Davis. None really succeeded in creating anything better than what existed already and fail to realize the sheer simplicity of the design is what makes it good design, albeit not a very attractive one.

Fairey's design embodies his strong graphic style, but results in empty form, even though he is emulating the current interface design. In the end he candy coats the interface with no real improvement on the «brutal display of functionality.»

Both Holzer and Ideo's designs are not even note worthy in that they do not begin to address the issue of interface, yet Holzer's design is interesting in its conceptual angle - though I am biased, I have always liked her work.

Davis's design completely fails to embody the simplicity of the original Google interface. While interesting in its access to all facets of Google information, you look like you are at a Mission Control counsel tracing a space shuttle not trying to find a casserole recipe or porn. To much information, to many options. I have a hard enough time finding the information I am looking for without having to decipher the main page.

+ How Would You Redo the Google Interface? . via Wired

In the end we are left with the Google that we love and hate. We complain now about the shortfalls in their design, but if they changed it, we would all complain about them falling prey to the dark-side of corporate modernism and the desire to look hip and sexy.
Kieran Lynn
03.14.06 at 10:08

That Wired piece ended up being little more than a bunch of artwank barely worth mentioning as anything other than what not to do when trying such an experiment. Some of them were maybe visually interesting, but nobody in their right mind would seriously even consider them a redesign of Google. I like Jenny Holzer, but come on. If you're going to pull a stunt like that, then bother getting at least one actual interface designer in the bunch.

Andy Rutledge recently had a more sincere go at at it. Funny enough, as much as people like to complain about how ugly Google is, I seem to recall an uproar when he posted that. (For the curious, he's also taken a stab at eBay.)

And, since Craigslist has been mentioned, it was the topic of a panel at this year's SXSIi. The results will eventually be posted at DesignEye.org, but you can have a peek at this location.
Su
03.14.06 at 11:25

Kieran - Thanks so much for introducing the Wired article into the discussion. I wasn't aware of it. It's fascinating. But it helps make my point, I think, that the Google home page has a sort of raw perfection that can't be bettered by current design strategies (or 'styling', as a number of commentators have rightly referred to it as.)

To go back to points made earlier, I don't doubt that the Google home page has been 'designed', and I'm sure it is the subject of constant attention and research. But my point was that, so far, Google has resisted the sort of slick graphic makeover that all big corporations seem to think is necessary.

Many good and interesting points have been made above - perhaps the most pertinent being James D Nesbitt's observation that if the Google home page didn't load quickly they wouldn't be around today.

Adrian Shaughnessy
03.15.06 at 01:37

Did anyone note that Shepherd Fairey doesn't know there's a difference between Google and a googol? Thanks for making us graphic designers look so smart, dude.
Leslie Kuo
03.15.06 at 02:08

Why do we call Google's display of functionality a lack of design? Shouldn't functionality be a major part of the designer's goal?

Regarding the wonky logo. I am glad that it is possible for a logo that doesn't meet traditional expectations to prove successful in the internet environment. Hopefully this will encourage the business world to loosen up and we will see less vanilla swirls off-line.
Kristin Johnson
03.15.06 at 02:15

Getting back to Shaughnessy's "raw perfection" comment, Google has a wonky logo, and a very simple interface. This may not be ideal under the stipulation that design must reside in some hollow slick and sexy make over, just look at the Shep Fairey design. But the Google interface works. I agree it lacks the authority of a logo for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, but this too works. As designers we are fed the eye candy from magazines like CMYK, Print, HOW, you know them, the next sexy annual report - you know, the one that looked exactly like the one before it, Helvetica, and some glossy paper.

A great recent image are Larry Page + Sergey Brin - Google founders - at NASDAQ the day Google went public, standing under a massive Google logo. It looked like they were standing outside of a daycare, not a stock exchange.

Graphic design can strive to be more than our current definition of corporate modernism. I too miss seeing the hand painted signs and the trace of the hand that built our city, but in this too I we can find the median. Look at the typeface Bello from Underware.

Thinking back to "problem solving" always reminds me of Mr. Keedy in his essay for Emigre #64 entitled RANT, « Modernism may be good enough for corporate branding, globalism, and cultural institutions, but is is pretty crappy for people. » Problem solving is the epitome of modernism, and it assumes that people are automatons, and ignores the true chaos of the world around us. And in chaos I am not at all referring to violence, or anarchy, but to the seemingly infinite breadth of possibility.

I agree with Wolf in saying « finding "appropriate" "solutions" to "problems" is not why I became a designer. » This is business speak, so intricately tied to the world of business that we serve. But once we stop questioning and start relegating ourselves to the profession of "problem solvers," you remove the heart and soul of what design can truly be; beautiful, chaotic, unassuming, transparent, and so much more. Yet, these are not the stories being told in ComArts! I also agree with Wolf that this is why some of the best design does not come from designers.
Kieran Lynn
03.15.06 at 05:45

And to Kristin Johnson's question « Shouldn't functionality be a major part of the designer's goal? »

Yes, it has to be, but we should not confuse functionality/well designed functionality with the idea that it has to be encased in some slick looking layout. Someone mentioned Craigslist. They have a well designed interface, it functions well, it just is not very "pretty."
Kieran Lynn
03.15.06 at 05:52

I think somewhere, someone missed the point. The Google logo isn't amateur, it's immature - and on purpose. It's simple, it's playful, it's friendly and the changing of the logo with 'cute' drawings only adds to these ideas. Think of Susan Kare and her Mac icons. Although the design was not on the same level, the concept was still the same - creating something approachable for a new group of users. Google started in 1995 when more and more people were just beginning to surf the net and for someone who may not be experienced using the internet or computers it was much more approachable than Yahoo! or Infoseek's cluster of disorganized and overabundant information and options. MSN, AOL, and Yahoo! are still plagued by these problems. Google tried to make searching the internet simple and fun. Sometime's the least complex solution is the best solution. Look at Google's success, clearly they must be doing something right. I actually think that their site is refreshing. I'm not being bombarded by information and links that I don't care about. I'm not being distracted by unnecessary graphics. I don't have to wait for the page to load. Google invested their time and finances in developing a better search engine, rather than extravagant graphics, that would only slow the page download. Perhaps instead of bashing Google, you should consider how the user interacts with their site, their target audiences past and present, why they chose an extremely simple design, why their logo is playful, and why so many people trust Google as their search engine of choice.
Heath
03.15.06 at 06:00

I've been away of the flash/designers comunity for awhile and taken good web standards. Then today I came back and encounter this. Between the web of the flash. The web so well designed that it's only readable for people with good eyes and macs, and clever people that know to guess where to click. Oh you forgot what is made a web business of. Make it usable everywhere even on a toaster with linux or a... palm. Make it so you do not waste your dolars on you server traffic (those machines where these letters come from). And make it the way software engineers work, so they can repeat the cicle and continue improving the service. Don't believe me? So who is making the good money?
Kloft Kroft
03.16.06 at 05:50

I always get a little nervous as a designer when people start championing crap design. Google could have had any logo and it would not have mattered. A great service is what drove the brand. Now people see that logo and make a postive association. Now it's a staple and they are stuck with it. Saying that logo looks good is like saying ebay is well designed.

Below is a link to a good article that about design driven brands and it's worth taking a look at.

https://www.howdesign.com/db/features/successbydesign_1.asp
kbarrett
03.16.06 at 05:03

Good branding is strong branding, not pretty or graphically professional branding. Look at the Coca-Cola logo. It's is totally unprofessional from a typographer's point of view to create such a swirly hard to read thing.

But as it is unique and strong, it is as a matter of fact good branding.

(I am not talking about the latest alterations of the Coca-Cola logo (the yellow and the silver stripes and the cola splash etc). They are a mere nightmare, in terms of branding: A clear mistake. Not because they add to the unprofessionalism and uglyness. No, the problem is: Those alterations make it too complicated and thus hard to recognize).
Oliver Reichenstein
03.27.06 at 08:10

The Google logo is a fairly brilliant piece of branding. The fact that it encourages so much commentary the world over as well as analysis by designers everyone is a tribute to the magic that it possesses. I think the playfulness and innovation of the changing logo is also a critical element in its branding. It signifies a lack of taking itself too seriously, and its constant development and introduction of products. People log on to see the logo on special occasions and comment on it to friends and so forth.

However, the lack of design overall is where Google takes the hasty step off the curb for me. I think that Google may hit a design wall. I can't say I am sure when or where, but I see instances of some of the new interfaces that make me think the under-designed approach will become a bit of a mess -- and actually I think it already has in a few places.

Web design is the latest buzz. "Everyone" does it or says they do or has a friend or relative who does, but the fact remains that very few do it really well. The thrill of being a web designer will eventually wear down, leaving only the usual suspects. However, the lack of good design and consideration for the user could potentially force everyone, including Google, to regroup.
Jennifer
03.30.06 at 05:00

I happened to be reading David Vise's The Google Story, which is obsequiously and Google eyed admring of everything about the company. For the record, it credits Brin with devising the design using the program GIMP. "GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages."
Phil Patton
04.11.06 at 08:35

I only made it about halfway throught the posts before I had to stop and write this. I think many of you miss the point because you may not be the "geeks" that were using google years ago. When internet access was not as speedy as it is today, yahoo or msn could take quite a while to load. However Google was up and running in a second or two. That, combined with better results, is why I started using Google. The simplicity might have tons of meaning to you guys, but to us early users, it was just faster.
Mark
10.30.06 at 06:12

This article hits the nail on the head, with all this emphasis on "good design" and concern about making things "perfect as possible" with all these words the average person don't have a clue about (such as kerning,allighnment,logotype) and this endless pursuit to have everything "correctly designed" , Google is refreshing.

So many times graphic designers make a huge complaint about a simple small error in a logo that the average person wouldn't even notice, that in their endless pursuit to be "fresh and contempoary" they lose that human touch and end up making everything they touch bland and udderablly predictable.

In graphic design NO ONE embraces a mistake and almost everything looks "just right" but absolutely forgettable.

When people strive for precision and perfection when designing they lose that uniqueness that provides a peak of interest in people.

Frankly I could care less that a webpage fits 'design rules' set by 'the professionals' and am more concerned about the content it has.

IMHO Ebay doesn't need some "extreme" makeover it already serves it's purpose for searching for rare stuff etc.

Do I care that Google lacks of other features? No. Do I care that the Google logo isn't the greatest? No. Am I concerned about it following the 'rules of design'? No. Do I care that it has results of what I am searching for? Yes.

Frankly I'm tired of all this 'design speak' from so-called 'designers' that talk about their latest 'trendy designs' and how 'great they are', if you're reasons and jibber jabber can not make up for such bland and conforming designs, you might as well not be talking to me.

The same goes for companies with their 'new logos' if their so called 'vision behind the new logo' sounds more inspiring than the actual logo itself and if the actual logo itself is a step down from the previous one, they might as well be congradulating themselves for the 'revamp' which comes off as a negative in consumers minds.

How about companies focus a little less attention on "how pretty we look" AND a bit more on the quality of service they provide for consumers.

Many times companies try TOO HARD with adding seemingly unnecessary touches to their designs like the lastest effects (3D,blur,flare,gradients) or latest trends (swooshes,balls,swirls,all-lowercase) that the vision behind logo itself becomes distilled in 'how cool it looks'.

A given example compare AT&T with the Google logo.

In both caes they are aiming to look friendly but which one actually does?

AT&T pulled out all the stops on theirs: lowercased the type,changed the logotype, 3D'd the globe,switched the colors,made it look a bit smaller,and changed the POV of it.

Does it look friendly now? No. It still looks like the logo for a big telecom industry (a-bit basterdized) and this is not help with it's dual advertising as a service for the largest companies worldwide.

Now Google does it look friendly? Yes. Why you might say? Well the text is multi-colored (very child-like), its font doesn't take itself absolutely seriously, and GASP it's SIMPLE!!!! there's no little symbols next to it,nor any swooshes, nor does it exaggerate it's 3D effects that much,even though it has some.

It's personable,attractive,and approachable words not spoken by the Google CEO but by me myself a Googler.

But some might say Mark, you're comparing a telcom company to a search engine,companies that have nothing to do with each other.

In responce to this I'd offer another comparison to AT&T,Cingular.

Does Cingular's logo look friendly? Yes. why? because the little Cingular guy next to the name (Jack),he's cute.How so? well he's orange,he's simple,orange (an odd color for such a company) and lacks any swooshes,noticable gradients,or overbearing attributes. Things that the AT&T logo could only dream of being.

(one flaw AT&T might have is that it's symbol is too big in comparison to the name and another thing the logotype still looks too corporate looking for it's 'freindly' image.)

On another note the Bellsouth name and logo will be phased out for the AT&T logo ;P

What the hell is the committee that decides and approves mergers completely invisible? What the hell happened to the commitee that took a bold move to devise the AT&T monopoly in the first place???
Mark
01.03.07 at 08:49

Just be glad they picked Catull and didn't stick with what they had in the first place:

http://web.archive.org/web/19990504112211/www.google.com/google.jpg
John Coulthart
01.21.07 at 09:46

Thanks to the editors or webmaster Ruby : ) for the corrections
being made. Here's another one for you. On far right in list of
Greatest Hits you've got this post titled “Goggle…”

10.01.08 at 01:06


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer based in London. In 1989 he co-founded the design company Intro. Today he runs ShaughnessyWorks, a consultancy combining design and editorial direction. He is a founding partner in Unit Editions, a publishing company producing books on design and visual culture.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Adrian Shaughnessy

Supergraphics
Unit Editions, 2010

Studio Culture: The Secret Life of a Graphic Design Studio
Unit Editions, 2009

Look at This: Contemporary Brochures, Catalogues & Documents
Laurence King Publishing, 2006

Graphic Design: A User's Manual
Laurence King Publishing, 2009

Cover Art By: New Music Graphics
Laurence King Publishing, 2008

More books by contributors >>

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