Don’t judge Material Design by its style

I’ve been reading and hearing things about Material Design lately and I couldn’t quite agree with it.

The it being people talking about Material Design as nothing but a design style that is in trend and trends are ephemeral. There is nothing wrong with these statements but to think of Material Design as just another style is… badddd (don’t wanna sound mean).

So, here’s a piece of my mind about Material Design.

My first encounter with Material Design

I found Google’s Material Design documentation on the internet back in 2014 when I was working as a Visual Designer. It wasn’t as well documented and defined as it is today, but still, I got a feeling that they’re on to something really huge.

It then formed part of my research materials when I was preparing for my design essay back in Jun 2015.

My essay was titled “Intuition in Digital Design: Can intuition be evoked by design?”. The essay seeks to understand the definition of “intuition” and whether or not intuition can be evoked by design. Ok, the latter was pretty self-explanatory.

Why would I want to write something like that?

I worked as a visual designer prior to enrolling in an undergraduate’s programme. I’ve had a lot of questions about using animation on interfaces. I’m not sure how exactly it’ll benefit users. Yes, besides the “it is nice” and “cool” factors, I also feel that animations can sometimes direct or inform users about a particular functionality of an application. I don’t know how and I don’t know why.

On the other hand, intuitive seemed to be a trendy hit word for laymen these days. It’s the word people use to describe digital products.

This is really intuitive to use” = good.

This is not very intuitive” = bad.

Luckily we can pick these things (what went wrong) up while observing user’s interaction with the product. The not-so-good thing about the word intuitive is that it’s not very helpful at all. We know something is wrong, but it’s vague and even dictionaries have a problem defining its meaning.

So, I brought these questions to school and it became the topic of focus for my essay.

My findings in a nutshell

The first fact that we’ve to establish is that intuition is not the same as instinct.

Instincts are innate behaviours and we can understand that by observing the many things an infant can do without learning.

Intuition, on the other hand, can be learned. In fact, the more experienced you are at something, the better you intuit at that something. A doctor can be intuitive about identifying symptoms but absolutely clueless about robotics. To dig a little deeper, let’s take a look at studies from different fields.

The Neuroscience guys over at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute studied the brains of both professional and amateur Shougi players. During the study, the team has identified the region of the brain responsible for intuitive thinking, this same region was less prominently activated by the amateur players compared to the professionals. Blood flow in this region increased and the performance of these amateurs improved over time as they accumulated practice time.

On the other hand, psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman has divided the way we think into two parts, namely System 1 and System 2. You can find out more about that in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Basically, System 1 handle and assess our daily activities and it is then passed on to System 2 when activities get increasingly difficult. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is usually in a comfortable low-effort mode. The systems worked dependently on one another to be efficient. Ideally, System 1 should be sufficient to use products that we‘ve designed.

In a nutshell, intuition is a learned process; it draws on one’s past experience to make quick second decisions and logical assessment of an impending situation.

So what’s your point?

Now that we have come to an understanding that intuition is a learned process, we can then apply this understanding to our design process.

How do you tap into the users’ mind and design something that is intuitive for them?

Heck, how do you even know what’s inside their head? I mean there are so many different countries and cultures and we are all unique in our own way.

The late American Industrial Designer Henry Dreyfuss addressed this issue by applying what he called “Survival Forms”.

By embodying a familiar pattern in an otherwise wholly new and possibly radical form, we can make the unusual acceptable to many people who would otherwise reject it.

Remember the first iPhones? Skeuomorphism?

What do all these have to do with Material Design?

Material Design was created to achieve Google’s goal of creating a single visual language system to unify the experience across all its products. You can read more about it here.

One of the most important aspects of Material Design is its heavy reference to the physical world. Instead of literally replicating a button, it looked at the qualities of what made a button look “pressable”. In a world governed by Material Design, an object moves naturally. It accelerates and decelerates. Its behaviour is also affected by the notion of gravity.

Using Material Design, Google is creating an environment set in the digital world, in which most of its objects follows a set of rules inspired by the physical world.

We might not understand physics the way a physicist does, but we are all familiar with what we can do in the physical world.

By referencing and applying the traits of our physical world on to the digital world, it is subtly tapping into a common understanding we can all relate to. This gives users a sense of familiarity and gives its products an “intuitive” edge before the start of any actual product related design.

Think of it this way. Material Design is the world, and within this world, there are many different stories (e.g. Gmail, Google Drive, Photos). Each of these stories is different and unique in its own way, but the rules that govern it is the same. Just like how we’re all very different but we all adhere to the rules of physics.

But it’s not the kind of visual direction we’re looking for…

Yea granted it might not be for everyone. In fact, it would be rather bland if all digital products started looking the same, as though we’re all aboard the Enterprise.

My point is Material Design is more than just another style or trend. It is much bigger than that. It has created a world for us to create stories in. It is subtle, believable, coherent and overall very well designed. Material Design allows us to be as imaginative as we want to be as long as we understand and respect the rules that govern it.

George R.R Martin created the fictional world of Game of Thrones. To create a fan fiction based in… the Shadows of Asshai, set 20 years before the current timeline, the foundation of your story must adhere to the fictional rules within the world of Game of Thrones.

Alternatively, you can look for other worlds to create your stories in and if you’re confident enough, you can even create your own world for others to create their stories in.

I believe that with Material Design, Google is pioneering another breakthrough in the digital world. Beyond Material Design’s simple looking facade, the level and amount of thoughts that went into creating something of such epic scale are truly inspiring.

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Designer. SWAT Mobility. Cats. Sports. People don’t take me seriously because of my profile picture. https://www.leonardgoh.design/

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Leonard Jolly

Leonard Jolly

Designer. SWAT Mobility. Cats. Sports. People don’t take me seriously because of my profile picture. https://www.leonardgoh.design/

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