Form follows feeling: How Google is making digital experiences personal

Google’s new design system update Material Design 3 puts control in users’ hands, allowing them to design their experiences, pick colour schemes and express their own personalities through a series of features called Material You.


It’s Nice That’s 2022 Forward Thinking campaign is supported by Material Design, whose latest design system update, Material You, signals a radical new way for the tech industry to think about design. Material You foregrounds a humanistic approach to design, celebrating the tension between design at scale and individual preference. Click here to find out more.

“Despite technology becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, it’s been pretty monotonous aesthetically,” says Google product designer Tyler Gough. “Until recently.” He’s right. Up until this point, the tech industry has focused more on offering tailored content and information to consumers, rather than personalising the experience itself.

Google’s latest design system update, Material Design 3, puts control in users’ hands, allowing them to design their experience, pick colour schemes and express their own personalities through a series of features called Material You. The culmination of many years’ work across several Google teams, Material You provides users with an abundance of choice and new ways to customise their devices, whether through function, colour, icons or design. “Different people have different wants and needs, and those can be incredibly diverse,” adds designer Karen Ng. “One low vision user’s needs may be completely different than another's. Personalisation puts agency back into the hands of people so they have the freedom to pick the best, most suitable experience for themselves.”

Here, we speak to a number of Google designers to find out how Material Design 3 caters to consumer needs around personalisation, adaptability and colour, introducing a more humanistic approach to digital design.


Copyright © Google, 2022


With insight from Michelle Gong, Alexandra Hays and Karen Ng

For years, the focus for brands has been on personalising consumer experiences, but according to Google’s Material and Android design teams, implementation has been very much rooted in the delivery of products or services, rather than in restoring agency and choice to customers. “How we use our devices is very different to how someone else uses theirs,” says Michelle Gong, visual designer on Android. “All of our options are personal to us and that should be reflected in our usage.”

Offering truly custom experiences that go beyond the basics – like uploading your own wallpaper – has stumped brands and marketers for some time due to the inefficiencies that arise when trying to create bespoke experiences for many.

“Designing for the masses was a logical approach, it's efficient and operates on economies of scale,” says Karen. “However as design in tech continues to mature, we're learning that designing one solution for everyone isn't necessarily great design.”

This latest release addresses that challenge, creating experiences that are holistic, beautiful and scalable, while allowing individuals to adopt features suited to what they’re doing on their devices. “We want to provide features that say something plural about people and don’t just offer a static look at human behaviour; that shifts throughout the day like our condition and correlates with our desire to adjust,” says Alexandra Hays, content design lead on Material Design. “We want to design for spectrums of change rather than binaries. And that’s never been easy.”


Copyright © Google, 2022

“We want to design for spectrums of change rather than binaries.”

Alexandra Hays, UX writer at Google

Material You allows users to fine-tune new devices to feel instantly like their own. The biggest obstacle – and one that will be discussed in more detail below – was around colour options, because we all relate to colour so individually. To accommodate this, the Material Design team introduced dynamic colour, which enables custom colour schemes for each individual.

Most of us are aware of the importance of contrast for pairing colours that look good together, but it’s also crucial for readability. To create a colour system that allows for both, the team relied on tonal palettes based on luminance rather than hue. This ensures that all colours maintain consistent contrast, satisfying the user’s functional needs – while also providing aesthetically complementary colour schemes.


With insight from Andy Stewart, Ryan Kiley and Matt Asato-Adams

Adaptive design has long been foundational to the Material Design system, offering a library of components that can be scaled across screen sizes. But as new devices continue to emerge – take, for example, smart watches and cars – the team has doubled down on this approach.

To make sure that everything translates appropriately from mobile to tablet, desktop to beyond, the team put together new guidance for foldable devices, large screens, and type, which employs the latest in variable font technology.

People use their devices for a range of activities, so the team worked to build a system that is flexible by default. Providing choices that can be activated in different modes, like running or driving, the system reacts to context and aims to reduce friction. Handing off music from a phone to a home speaker or car is one such example where the team envisions the need for this type of adaptability.

As visual design lead Andy Stewart puts it: “We’re preparing for a new future and creating a design language to account for new experiences.”


Copyright © Google, 2022


Copyright © Google, 2022

“We know that if you can’t see it, you don’t necessarily trust it. But with Material You, what you see is what you get.”

Andy Stewart, visual design lead at Google

This design system creates a less formulaic experience, one that’s modelled on human behaviour and can be more readily reactive.

Personalised features can also be preset and activated to reflect a current mood, say winding up or down at either end of your day. “Adaptability plays into personalisation,” adds visual designer Matt Asato-Adams. “On one device, you might feel like you want to have a certain voice or personality expression and something completely different elsewhere.”

Transparency is another critical component. By elevating these choices to the forefront instead of burying them in a settings tab, the team wants to make it easier for those using the system to adapt it to their changing needs. For instance, when activating the microphone or camera feature, an image will appear as a way of notifying the user. “We know that if you can’t see it, you don’t necessarily trust it,” Andy explains. “But with Material You, what you see is what you get.”


Copyright © Google, 2022

“Colour choices really reflect personal expression.”

Tyler Gough, product designer at Google


With insight from Javier Lopez, James O’Leary, Tyler Gough and Ayan Daniels

Colour is the element that Google’s designers have been most excited to speak about. When it comes to colour choices, there is a lot of baggage. “There were a lot of opinionated views on colour, because it’s such a big part of how we express ourselves,” says Tyler Gough. “Colour choices really reflect personal expression.”

Associations with certain colours across UX design are rife. Take functional associations – like green for affirmative, red for negative – and then also account for cultural, even personal connotations. The consequences are extensive. Allowing users to personalise colours for themselves paved the way for new forms of visual expression, and with it, naturally, a host of new challenges.


Copyright © Google, 2022

In digital design, light and dark surfaces with contrasting colours for actions or text are necessary for enabling accessible and legible experience. But, this has perpetuated a glut of similar-looking interfaces. Tyler continues: “Our goal was to find a way to think about colour differently” – specifically considering how, unlike print, digital affords limitless iterations of a design.

“Colour contrast has been the one thing that has restrained digital design,” says James O’Leary, software engineer on Android. “There is a standard for measuring the lightness of a colour; there has to be a relationship between the lightness of two colours for them to be distinguishable.” This comes into play when trying to read text or identify a button or icon. Contrast is key to making sure that reliability and accessibility standards are maintained.


Copyright © Google, 2022

Figuring out how to break traditional digital rules around colour required diving deep into the colour science to develop an algorithm that could reliably output accessible palettes.

“Historically, as designers, we’re used to having control over every design decision, colour relationships, but we had to cede some of that power and create a system of dependencies,” says visual designer Ayan Daniels. “Everything in Material You is negotiable – that’s how we built the system. No colour is static; so different hues and tones can be decided on by the user.”


Copyright © Google, 2022

Users can upload their own wallpaper to systematically generate colour palettes, select the scheme of their choice, which are then reflected across their device. Material You invites the user to participate in the design process and express themselves through colour while keeping visuals clear and readable.


Copyright © Google, 2022

“Material You doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all approach; we aren’t looking to build a homogenous colour system,” says Ayan. “It’s really up to the user to figure out what they think is beautiful and become a part of the co-design process.” The available designs are limitless and the team knows that the product and its features will evolve through consumer use.

“A predefined direction isn’t important for us,” says visual designer Javier Lopez. “We want to react in real time to where users are, and to be able to experience co-creating with them.”

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Further Info

Click here to find out more about Material Design, whose latest design system update, Material You, signals a radical new way to think about design for the entire tech industry.

About the Author

Olivia Atkins

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