Immaterial Design: Harsh Notes on the New Gmail Design

Posted inDesign Criticism
Thumbnail for Immaterial Design: Harsh Notes on the New Gmail Design
How Design Live

The new Gmail design impacted 1.4 billion users worldwide last fall. From the new design’s large, bubble-shaped attributes and “intuitive” (or maybe intrusive and patronizing?) additions – like options to snooze or nudge, and smart replies – the overhaul was dramatic. The immediate proliferation of guides instructing users on how to disable as many of the new features as possible to recreate Classic Gmail may offer a telling critique of the ‘update.’ Here, one writer and design lover wades in and sounds off about all aspects of the redesign.

New Gmail is slow, unwieldy, and riddled with connectivity bugs – an affront to the supersonic speed with which the Classic version had become synonymous. Admitting that Gmail is a “productivity tool,” lead designer for Gmail Jeroen Jillissen said, “You never want to break people’s workflow.” Yet, the cartoonish redesign did just that, reducing countless users to tears of anger, anxiety, and despair at their workplaces. (Writer’s Note: I was one of those countless users.)

The new Gmail design stirred up some feelings.

Bungled Visual Hierarchy in New Gmail Design

Software design succeeds when its aesthetics enhance, not hinder, usability. A 2010 study demonstrating that clear implementation of visual components can improve user performance on websites with poor functionality still holds true. Given that New Gmail violates the most fundamental design principles, the ensuing widespread decrease in productivity is inevitable.

User interfaces should emphasize the most important design elements on the page. Typography and effective use of white space provide the foundation for creating a coherent visual hierarchy. Instead of the standard Arial font, New Gmail uses Product Sans for the interface and Roboto for emails. These font sets, developed by Google, appear a bit smudged and messy on the screen.

Moreover, charcoal gray replaces black as the color of the text in New Gmail. The new font color significantly decreases contrast with the background, and makes the text difficult to read (let alone scan). Chris Gieger (user experience director at UX Team) explains, “The text should be the star of an email application.” But the new self-referential typeface diminishes legibility and straight up annoys by calling attention to itself. To the surprise of no one, numerous users have been complaining about headaches,

blurred vision, and irritability.

Too Much Separation and Not Enough

In an article delineating key design mistakes in New Gmail, Gieger observes that the icons on the left-side bar are unduly large. Quite so. The increased space (“27 pixels”) between the folder name and corresponding number nullifies the latter’s function of telling the user how many unread messages (or drafts) exist within each folder. The resultant bungled visual hierarchy leaves the user without clear focus points, compromising the email platform’s usability.

The new Gmail design functionality has caused some controversy.

The redesign abandons the use of clean lines and demarcations to blend previously well-defined segments together. In the email compose box, the addresses at the top, the subject line, the body text, and the action buttons (send, attach, fonts, etc.) at the bottom bleed together without any separators. The excessive fluidity marks a radical departure from Classic Gmail’s structured rhythm, again undermining the principal purpose of using an email service.

An email client should allow the user to identity the primary actions buttons with ease. New Gmail drowns an oval and white-colored “compose” button in a sea of white space. The exaggerated search bar on the top and widened right panel (featuring redundant icons next to the folders) also abuse the critical aesthetic notion of negative space, thereby introducing more imbalances into the design. Each email occupies oddly large spaces that further distort screen symmetry. Opting for the “compact” display density only slightly improves the default layout.

The new Gmail design functionality has caused some controversy.

How Did Google Go So Wrong?

Gieger suggests that Google may have prioritized focus group response while not conducting sufficient task-driven usability tests. The latter empirically measures the impact of design changes on usability.

Further, visual marketing and brand identity based decisions do not necessarily translate well when designing software. With this dramatic makeover, the new Gmail design aligns with the guidelines of Google’s Material Design ecosystem, which seeks to simulate material surfaces and textures (like paper) in graphic design. As part of a rebranding strategy, Google is using the new visual framework to unify user experience across its platforms and products.

In a behind-the-scenes video, Google designers discuss the strategies they employ to “communicate surface” in the digital realm. These include elevation, layering, shadows, gradients, and plentiful rounded contours.

Material Design’s Identity Crisis

MK Cook at Digital Telepathy describes Material Design as a marriage between the real and digital worlds. However, the practical applications of this conceptual union are confused, counterintuitive, and inconsistent, which rob the software design of value. This identity crisis underpinning Material Design litters the new Gmail design. For instance, New Gmail highlights the reply box with shadows, providing a gratuitous three-dimensional effect. Such depth-creating gimmicks, made worse with Fisher-Price color palettes, clutter the screen and distract from the content.

Questioning the premise of infusing natural world materiality into graphic design, tech writer Emin Durak indicates that we perceive information on paper and on screens in different ways. He adds that we do not cut and stack up pieces of a newspaper when we read it. Nat
urally, we do not expect a laptop screen to possess the dimensions of a book in hand. Thus Google’s new visual language amounts to calisthenics in graphic design at best.

At worst, Material Design represents a narcissistic impulse to disrupt the user interface, simply because the tech leviathan possesses enough monopolistic power to do so. A guiding tenet of this deliberate disruption is to divorce aesthetic form from its inherent function. New Gmail design’s white, floating compose button and the recently launched pill-shaped Google search bar (the corners of the iconic rectangular bar are now acutely rounded) are notable exemplars of Material Design’s odd, new world.

The new Gmail design stirred up some feelings.

Function imbues design elements with meaning, and meaning is closely tied to perceived appeal and value. Therefore, disconnecting form and function ultimately renders the design useless. New Gmail contains no aesthetic merit and represents a colossal fail in ergonomics. As Google remakes its products in the shifty image of Material Design, expect your online productivity to suffer and your virtual reality to become inundated with ugliness.

Article by Meg Hansen, a Vermont-based writer and design aficionado.