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Why everyone’s so angry about Google’s new app icons

October 30, 2020, 12:56 PM UTC

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Earnings and mergers and lawsuits, oh my. But this Friday morning, let’s turn the lens around and consider big tech from a more personal, day-to-day perspective.

When the pandemic hit and collaborating remotely became critical, Google was well positioned. It had the leading email service, popular productivity software with realtime collaboration built in, and a variety (some would say too much variety) of text, audio, and video communications apps. But it wasn’t Google that grabbed the big spotlight. It was mostly newer players like Zoom, Slack, Asana, and even Microsoft Teams.

Back at the Googleplex, however, big changes were afoot. Javier Soltero, brought in last year from Microsoft, was overseeing a reimagining of Google’s productivity and communications line up. Unveiled a few weeks ago but not yet fully rolled out, Soltero’s effort to modernize and better integrate all the apps is called Google Workspace. Eventually, you’ll be able to start a new document from inside the Chat app or go the other way around and kick off a chat or video conference while writing a document. Soltero shouldn’t be underestimated: He was one of the brains behind the brilliant Acompli app that Microsoft bought and integrated (sort of) into Outlook.

One part of Soltero’s latest effort has ignited some controversy, though. That was the decision to rebrand all of Google’s mobile apps with new multi-colored icons. I found myself nodding in agreement with some of the Twitter outrage over the confusing and similar-looking new icons. The somewhat satirical account Killed By Google may have had the most succinct summary of what was wrong:

Ars Technica reporter Ron Amadeo offered a simple solution: Just use the icons from Android 6 Marshmallow, circa 2015. “Every single icon here is an improvement over the current icon. We need to go back.”

There were also some fans. Stockholm designer Daniele Tottle loved the consistency and visual linkage of all the apps. Brand adviser Jennifer Volmer praised how the similarity of the new icons hints at the collaboration capabilities among the apps. Google says the new designs were developed via “a rigorous process” that included tests “specifically for findability and contrast ratios.”

I also checked in with some top design and usability experts. Former Twitter principal designer Josh Brewer, who’s now making design app Abstract, was pretty harsh in describing exactly what my brain was feeling. The new icons are “lacking in differentiation to the point that I now have to pay more attention to make sure I am launching the app I think I am—aka increasing cognitive load,” he says, adding that the changes throw out years of accumulated brand loyalty.

But Jared Spool, who co-founded the Center Centre design school, predicted it would all blow over. “Designers like to have opinions and changing icons is a great way to get them to share opinions,” he says. “But, in the long run, it won’t make a difference in the actual usage of the products.”

Maybe my weekend project should be figuring out the new way to change icons on the iPhone in iOS 14? We’ll all adapt sooner or later, both Jared and Josh predict. In the meantime, reduce the cognitive load on your brain, and have a great weekend.

Aaron Pressman



Stock reports hey, the milky way. Earnings? Did anyone mention earnings? It was a mostly disappointing tsunami of quarterly reports from our top tech targets on Thursday. Apple sold fewer iPhones than expected (which seems dumb and obvious since iPhone sales were pushed to October, but whatever). Apple's stock price, previously up 57% in 2020, dropped 4% in pre-market trading on Friday. Facebook brushed off the big ad boycott but conceded that it lost 1 million users in the U.S. and Canada. Facebook's stock, already up 37% this year, fell 2% in pre-market trading.

Amazon said pandemic buying boosted sales and its revenue shot up 37% to over $96 billion. But a conservative forecast for the fourth quarter spooked investors and the e-commerce giant's shares, up 74% in 2020, lost about 2% in pre-market trading. Twitter had it worst of all after it added only 1 million new users in the quarter, short of analyst estimates by about 8 million. Its stock price, previously up 64%, dropped 15% in pre-market trading. Google was the lone bright spot. With ad spending on the rebound, sales rose 15% to $38 billion. Google shares, up 16% in 2020, jumped another 7% on Friday morning.

It's good to be the king. Streaming giant Netflix announced YAPH (yet another price hike). Standard service goes up $1 to $14 per month and premium rises by $2 to $18 for new and existing users.

Cell tower power. While we all fret about our 5G coverage or lack thereof, T-Mobile and Verizon are doing something about it. T-Mobile said it added about 200 more cities to its mid-band 5G network, the most usable fast flavor of 5G. And Verizon added four new cities to its home Internet 5G program: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, and San Jose.

Born of sweated genius and collared by a clown. In an interesting weighting of its results, Consumer Reports said Tesla's autopilot was the best automated driving assistant on the roads, narrowly beating out GM's Cadillac's Super Cruise system. But the magazine said the Cadillac system was far superior in safety by reminding drivers to maintain their attention. So Super Cruise won the top ranking overall.


Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has been one of the sharpest critics of big tech and her perspective on the big tech CEO hearing this week, The Problem With (All) The Tech Hearings, is definitely worth a read.

We don’t need to keep up these charades. We need to start getting our act together, as a society, so we can tell tech companies what to do.

Of course, the challenge is that these tech tools further break our public sphere and our politics, making it harder to fix all this. But that’s where we are.There is no avoiding this dilemma. I don’t want to hear another apology, another ‘we willdobetter’ promise from any CEO. The real problem is that these men testifying today have emerged as unelected, unaccountable referees of our public sphere,.Until we address that, until we take back our power as the public, we will be left with more rounds from the World Wrestling Federation.


A few great long reads I came across this week:

After Going All-In on Amazon, a Merchant Says He Lost Everything (Bloomberg)
Barak Govani says he was kicked off the site after being falsely accused of selling fakes. Accounts like his prompted a House panel to accuse Amazon of mistreating its merchants.

What next for Uber? Inside the fight for its future (FT Magazine)
As the company faces a critical public vote, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on cleaning things up and the challenges of a gig economy revolution.

The Fall of Best Made: Why the Enigmatic Axe Company Was Sold for Parts (Inside Hook)
What’s left of Peter Buchanan-Smith’s trendsetting outdoor brand?

World Series 2020: The oddest of World Series ends with the most 2020 moment of the season (ESPN)
In this oddest of years, this most peculiar of baseball seasons, there was perhaps no more telling snapshot of the United States, circa 2020, than a COVID-19-positive man sitting on the ground, maskless, next to a cancer survivor, maskless as well, with indelible grins spread across their faces. Sports is and always will be a metaphor for society.


Twitter and a Supercell billionaire are backing a new A.I.-focused venture capital fund By Jeremy Kahn

The second most important executive at Airbnb? By Lucinda Shen

Netflix is testing an audio-only feature that’s similar to podcasts By Jonathan Vanian

Jiko raises $40 million to become a most unusual challenger bank By Robert Hackett

The U.S. economy just grew at its fastest quarterly pace ever—but doubts loom about the rest of the year By Lance Lambert

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


Beth Harmon is the fictional creation of novelist Walter Tevis from his 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit about an orphan chess prodigy. But, wow, has actress Anya Taylor-Scott brought Harmon's character to life in the new Netflix mini-series adaptation of the book. We have not quite binge watched to the end, but highly recommended.