Are Google’s nerds destroying design?

March 21, 2009, 12:30 AM UTC
A departing designer claims data too often trumps art. Image: Google Sketchup logo

On his way out of Google, Douglas Bowman has posted  a blog missive that might haunt the company one day. Bowman, the (now former) visual design lead, accuses the company’s culture of relying too much on numbers, to the point where creativity suffers.

“Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better,” he writes. “I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that.”

It’s hard to get on Google’s case for loving data; after all, expertise in number-crunching algorithms and attention to user behavior are a big part of what’s grown it into a company with a $104 billion market cap and nearly $16 billion in the bank. Google’s data wizards have humbled Yahoo , and set Microsoft on its heels in the online game. If that’s where data gets you, well, then, more data for everyone. Right?

Maybe not. When I read Bowman’s post, I immediately thought of Apple – a Silicon Valley company that has a very different relationship with numbers. Unlike Google, which is (if Bowman is to be believed) running online focus groups to choose among 41 shades of blue, Apple hates focus groups. Focus groups trigger Apple’s cultural gag reflex. Where Google leads with the left brain, Apple leads with the right. Sometimes Apple’s attitude yields products like the Flower Power iMac and the G4 Cube. But sometimes you get the iPod or the iPhone. Apple’s attitude is that sometimes, to truly innovate, you’ve got to go beyond giving people what they say they want.

Who knows if Bowman has an ax to grind with Google – but I still hope Bowman’s criticism at least gets some attention at the Googleplex. As Google has grown, so have its ambitions – it wants to expand beyond the number-centric search ads game into brand advertising, operating systems and phone design. And those are areas that favor Apple types – the right-brained. (Don’t believe me? Think about how well Apple does in all those areas.) Perhaps search optimization can be boiled down to finding the answer to very complicated math problems, but these are design problems that are more subjective in nature. It’s a different thing than online apps. You can’t soft-launch a phone to the public, get feedback, and tweak it endlessly in public beta. You have to design a phone based on a bold vision, and try to release a product that wows people. Try to imagine a focus-grouped iPhone; it would have been a clunky thing with a slide out keyboard and pretty-good software. (Kind of like the first Google phone, which is due for a software update any day now.)

This is not to suggest that Google is lacking in right-brain skills. Fantastic designs like its search pages and maps prove it can do art, not just numbers. But if Google wants to be as successful in other areas as it has been in search, it may do well to heed Bowman’s words. It may well have to develop more of an artist’s arrogance – that quality of being able, in the right situations, to put aside its beloved data points and do what’s best, even if it’s not what users say they want.