March 11, 2006 - by jason
Earlier this week, TechCrunch published a bunch of pre-release screenshots of Google’s purported calendar app, code-named CL2. If you didn’t know better – by which I mean having any familiarity with other Google-developed apps such as Gmail and Google’s flagship web search – you’d think these screenshots showed an app in such an early state of gestation that visual designers hadn’t yet been added to the development team.
But, knowing the look-and-feel of Google’s in-house software, we know otherwise. The screenshots of Google’s calendar strongly resemble Gmail and their other software, and regardless how much longer we’ll have to wait before it actually ships (as a public beta, no doubt), this is, I think, almost certainly pretty much what it’s going to look like. Which is to say: dowdy.
Yes, yes: calendaring and web mail are essential components in Joyent’s web platform, and so at least in some measure a calendar app from Google will be something we’ll be competing and judged against, and so as the guy charged with directing and defining the Joyent user experience, I’m rather patently biased with regard to my opinion of Google’s UI. And, further, yes, Gmail is extremely popular and Google is very profitable and their stock is doing very well.
But I’m not saying their design is bad, or even ugly. It’s more like it isn’t really “design” at all. It borders on non-design, and I’m not sure how anyone could argue with this.
I’m not saying they ought to make it fancy, gaudy, or trendy. One of the core tenets of Google’s brand – which brand is undeniably powerful, well-defined, and well-known – is the simplicity, bordering on austerity, of their interfaces. They’re right to focus on that. All things considered, simple is better than complex.
My point is that there is no reason that simple can’t also be beautiful. Simple and beautiful is better than simple and plain. The best examples I can think of are Apple’s iPods: they are both simpler and more beautiful than competing gadgets. The iPod Shuffle, in particular, epitomizes both qualities.
So why do Google’s apps look like this? It certainly isn’t for lack of resources. A small team of a half-dozen or so kick-ass designers is all they’d need. (It’s also worth noting that the software they buy, like Blogger and Measure Map, is usually very nicely designed.)
My only guess is that their executives lack taste. (The sample is small, but evidence to date points to a strong correlation between software monopolies and poor taste in UI design.) If you have no taste – or no faith in your taste – how can you judge whether a design that strives for elegence actually achieves it? In Microsoft’s case, what happens is they fail much more often than not.
Google’s visual design strategy, on the other hand, seems to be not to try at all.