Google Searches for the Human Touch

A few days ago, I posted “Google & the Non-Human Touch,” about In the Plex, which I’d just finished. In it, I quoted a Googler who a few years back was charged with preventing the company’s products from having too much of an editorial look, one that would suggest the products were designed by actual humans. The rule: No animations, nothing too … designy. “Google products are machine-driven,” she told her staff, implying that the design should say as much. (Voicelessly.)

It’s interesting to consider that previous strategy in light of Google+, the giant’s new go at a social network. One look at the site and it’s clear this has been art directed with an attention not bestowed on, well, any of their other products. Wired’s exclusive look at the project’s creation and launch chronicles a bit of that shift in strategy. It turns out Google’s finding some redeeming qualities in humans after all. From Wired:

[Larry] Page, however, seems to recognize that this project [code name: Emerald Sea] in some ways requires a different approach from the Google norm. One variation that users will notice comes in interface design — conspicuously, in Circles. With colorful animations, drag-and-drop magic and whimsical interface touches, Circles looks more like a classic Apple program than the typically bland Google app. That’s no surprise since the key interface designer was legendary software artist Andy Herzfeld.

The former Macintosh wizard now works at Google — though he loves the company, he had previously felt constrained because its design standards didn’t allow for individual creativity. But with Emerald Sea, he had a go-ahead to flex his creative muscles. “It wasn’t a given that anyone would like what I was doing, but they did,” he says.

Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. He feels that it such frills slow things down. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.” In any case, Google has recently tapped Hertzfeld as the design leader of the Emerald Sea team.