Google’s Material Design will Mean Big Changes for Apps and Their Icons

October 8, 2014 - Written By Phil Bourget

Material Design.  The idea and aesthetic that has garnered not only many developers’ attention but also a hashtag (#materialYOLO, if you were wondering) and many icon packs that hail it as the next great step forward in shadowed icons and deliciously colorful app interfaces.  But want to know something?  It’s not for every app, and not for every app icon for that matter.  Let me first explain what Material Design means for an icon that matches say the theme of holo blue from Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) back in late 2011, when it was launched on the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung and Google.

The big fad among developers and themers for a long time, years now in fact, have been something called ‘drop shadows’, which just means that the icons have their icon looking slightly raised, with an unseen light source (supposedly) casting the icon’s shadow onto the background circle, square, or shape the icon itself ‘lays on’.  The problems with this, however, are two-fold.

Primarily, the issue lies in the option to go for style, rather than realism for certain apps’ shadows being cast the way the themer or developer chooses.  Many many many drop-shadow icon packs include icons for the most popular and staple/Google apps.  And some of those have some sharp corners, or a shape that curls around itself or has more than a single layer between the center and the outside of the app icon.  The issue with that is the dual-shadow effect.  That sounds cool, huh?  Well, if you are in it simply for aesthetics, not caring much or at all about the realistic nature of the shadowing effect, then it should be fine and stylish.  But, you see the issue arise with two shadows, one darker and one lighter, that end up in the same amount of light but are not the same lightness/darkness.

And secondly, there is the fact that the colors are changing massively.  Ice Cream Sandwich up through Jelly Bean (Android 4.0 – 4.3.1) featured a departure from the lime green of Gingerbread (Android 2.3.5) and the odd blue of Honeycomb (Android 3.0), unifying them into one single ‘holo blue’ color theme throughout, held against the blacks of Android’s menus.  It was great, and I still go back to holo blue parts of my Galaxy Nexus, since it looked so good.  But, Kit Kat brought us the faded out-ness of greying out most (but not all?) of the holo blue of Jelly Bean so that there was a colorful app experience, while the system itself was a plain and clean grey and black behind the scene experience.

Material Design, however, challenges both of these.  The MD portfolio features natural, realistic light casting on the new ‘quantum paper’ material that all apps and icons will resemble (according to Google’s new design guidelines that make up MD).  The new look will also force Google and any other developer wishing to update their theme or app to change colors.  Again.  But this time, it’s starting from scratch.  Google’s MD guidelines lay out the necessity to choose a color and use its derivatives to theme and design the interface within an app.

The changes coming to Google’s apps (and hopefully many developers’ apps and themes) are huge, and they look amazing so far.  If you don’t have the Android L developer preview installed, or have a Material or Android L theme installed, you can see the MD shining bright in a handful of Google’s apps (most recently the Photos app attached to Google+, and it looks cool for sure), so you can get an idea of what your phone may look like once the new version of Android come out this fall, L-clad or not.  Google’s MD updates to its apps are coming slow, and building tension for us diehard fans, but they aren’t only going to come in the L version of Android.  And Google said ‘Let all have the MD’, and it was good.  I can’t wait to be able to say that after L comes out… Anyway, are you looking forward to more MD everywhere, or do you prefer the Kit Kat grey, or even the good old holo blue, lime green, or another design entirely?  Let us know down below.