How Google Surpassed Apple in Design -- and How Apple's Coming Back


When Larry Page became GoogleCEO in early 2011, one of his first moves was to implement Project Kennedy, a companywide effort to redesign all of the search giant's most important products under a cohesive and unified new design language. Up until that point, the look and feel of Google's services was largely disparate and usability differed dramatically among apps.

Google focused first on its four most prominent services: Search, Maps, Gmail, and Calendar. Over the past two years, investors have seen a steady stream of beautifully designed apps for both Android and iOS, all of which share common aesthetics and interface metaphors. In some ways, Android is now more intuitive than iOS thanks to Big G embracing innovative new gestures.

Source: Behance.

In no uncertain terms, the key was a serious focus on collaboration between product groups. Google recently posted some of its graphic design guidelines on Behance (Part 1 and Part 2), illustrating a very distinct style and conveying detailed principles.

From leader to laggard
For a company that really taught the market how much design truly matters, Apple has admittedly lagged its mobile rival in some respects over the past couple years, most notably in the iOS user interface.

The 2007 look and feel of iOS simply wouldn't cut it any more in 2013, and Apple's dramatic overhaul of the core interface is an important risk that the company must take. Apple is now doubling down on design, even though that has always been one of its core values.

It goes beyond iOS. Apple is reaffirming this to the world and launching a new ad campaign that shows how serious it is about strengthening its brand. One clip outlines the underlying philosophies that drive each product.

Another drives home the emotional connection that Apple wants customers to make with technology. The first word in Apple's "signature" has always been "Designed" for a reason.

At a time when rivals are increasingly hostile with their ad campaigns, Apple is putting the focus back on the consumer and emphasizing how it can design products to improve people's lives.

And back to leader again
Much like Google, this renewed shift is being facilitated by Apple's own structural shift toward increased collaboration under Tim Cook. This is perhaps one of Cook's most important and underappreciated moves since becoming CEO, perhaps because it is only now starting to bear fruit. Steve Jobs had set up an organizational hierarchy within Apple that favored departmentalism due to his obsession with secrecy, even internally. That reduced the chances of leaks, but also arguably hindered Apple's ability to collaborate.

Previous iOS chief Scott Forstall was notoriously difficult to work with, and his ouster allowed all of software engineering to be consolidated under Craig Federighi. Jony Ive taking over all interface design is paving the way for a more coherent look between hardware and software.

iOS 7 icon design. Source: Apple.

Given the magnitude of the iOS 7 overhaul, there's already much debate regarding the new look. More important than individual nitpicks about some ugly icons or unfamiliar elements (things that can be addressed or updated in future releases), Apple is signaling the start of a new era of even tighter integration between hardware, software, and services with a greater focus on unified design.

As Ive puts it:

We brought together a broad range of expertise, from design to engineering. With what we've been able to achieve together, we see iOS 7 as defining an important new direction, and in many ways a beginning.

Apple is coming back with a vengeance.

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