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Google Design’s Best of 2018

Our annual review highlights the year’s noteworthy design projects

This was a big year for design at Google—our biggest yet? We launched a series with People + AI Research on designing with artificial intelligence, the Google Hardware team celebrated their Milan Design Week debut, and projects by Creative Lab, Daydream, GSuite, the Expression team, and many others made our noteworthy list. We even got kudos from the likes of AIGA and Fast Company for the work Google put out into the world. As we wave 2018 goodbye, we’re taking a moment at Google Design HQ to reflect on some of the year’s emergent themes, and the programs and products that deserve your attention. We’ve organized our retrospective into three categories and there’s plenty of design to enjoy. So without further ado…

Everyday Excellence in Machine Learning

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Overhead shot of the NSynth Super developed by Google Creative Lab and Magenta

NSynth Super
This open-source musical instrument turns heavy math into music, by using neural networks to generate entirely new sounds. It’s built using TensorFlow and openFrameworks, and grew out of a collaboration between Google Creative Lab and Magenta, a research project using ML to make art. Starting from 16 original source sounds across 15 pitches, the NSynth algorithm generated 100,000 new sounds for a musical instrument prototype: The visually arresting NSynth Super. Dig into how it works (🤯) on the Magenta blog, or build your own using the source code, schematics, and design templates available on GitHub.

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Google Fonts Korean Minisite, Black Han Sans, designed by Jess Type et al

Google Fonts +  한국어 소개
Great typography makes the web more beautiful, fast, and open—but only if it’s available to everyone. This year, Google Fonts unveiled an innovative new delivery system for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) character sets. By scanning language patterns on the Korean web, their ML-powered smart API “slices and dices” incredibly large font files (the complexity of the Hangul script for example, requires thousands and thousands of glyphs) into smaller “byte-sized” chunks, delivering only what you need, when you need it. The result? Faster page loads all around, and a roadmap for expanded support in the near future (not to mention a gorgeous site that showcases the open-source Korean fonts available).

People + AI Research (PAIR) Collection
Neural Networks. Teachable Machines. The UX of AI. No longer relegated to sci-fi movies, these terms and the concepts behind them are increasingly part of our day-to-day experiences. For UX designers and the people building this tech, it’s mission-critical to understand the field’s challenges, the effect of bias, and how to use a human-centered design process. Enter People + AI Research (PAIR)—the Google team focused on surfacing articles, resources, and frameworks that do just that. We’re especially amped about their new collection on Google Design. As a resource, it’s one of the only places you can find practical insights on designing with ML, and case studies that unpack the thinking and design decisions behind real products—like Google Clips and Emoji Scavenger Hunt (🕵️‍♀️). With a throughline on building more inclusive tech, this collection is particularly resonant in 2018. We’ve bookmarked it and so should you. 

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The Google Lens in action—revealing fun facts about the Shiba Inu

Google Lens
Who’s that doggie in the window? Whether you need the deets on your neighbor’s pup (turns out, it’s a Shiba Inu) or help remembering what bouillabaisse actually looks like, Google Lens lets you search IRL. Simply point your camera, tap, and then watch as Lens drops some knowledge you can use—the Shiba Inu is a small dog that copes very well with mountainous terrain—on the spot. Lens launched in Google Photos and the Google Assistant last year, and some of the big news for 2018 is that the technology is now available directly in Pixel’s camera app (and other supported devices), so now you’ve got state-of-the-art ML in real time, wherever you may be.

Outstanding Achievement in Design

A behind the scenes look at the design process for Google Hardware from the Google Hardware team
Google Hardware

What does it feel like to hold Google in your hand? Tactile. Familiar. Natural. By merging textured fabrics and smooth curves with harmonious color palettes (selected after developing more than 250 shades of color 🎨) our newest Google devices are showing their softer side. From the Home Mini’s snowdrift-inspired form to the Pixel Slate and Home Hub’s lightweight durability and rounded edges, the latest designs feel so natural—hardware that gives us all the feels.

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Moments captured by Sean Pierce during the Softwear exhibition—curated by Lidewij Edelkoort and Ivy Ross—at the Rossana Orlandi Gallery in Milan

Softwear Exhibition
This year marked Google’s Salone 👏 del 👏Mobile 👏 debut 👏. The Google Hardware team partnered with trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort to revisit her 1998 treatise on the future of technology and humanity with Softwear—an exhibition at the Rossana Orlandi Gallery in Milan. Curated by Edelkoort, the show integrated objects, everyday housewares, and Google devices like Pixel and the Google Home Max and Mini alongside wall hangings by Dutch designer Kiki van Eijk. The intimate installation showcased the sensorial experience of hardware and how it fits into everyday life. As Ivy Ross, our VP of Design for Hardware explained to Dezeen, “We’ve definitely shown up to Milan design week in a very different way than people expected.” Brava!

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A visual representation of the Google Material Theme

Material Makeovers
Who doesn’t love a redesign? This year we rolled out a shiny custom Material theme featuring white backgrounds, pops of color, rounded corners, and our new typeface—Google Sans. Here are just a handful of the products rockin’ a sleek new look:

  • Bonito. 美しい. Bellissimo! Google Translate’s style has always been pared down and très chic. But with its Material redesign, the web UI introduced new typography, more helpful labeling, and an eye-popping level of responsiveness built to fit any screen size.
  • For the Google Assistant, getting a Material makeover was all in the cards. The refreshed interface added a bevy of surfaces that feature glanceable info, touches of color, and tap-friendly integrations to the app’s powerful voice-controlled UI.
  • What goes around Chromes around? For its 10th birthday, Google Chrome rounded off its old angles into more curved shapes, updated its color palette, and added helpful new icons—all to make the UI more browsable and user-friendly.
  • All of the updated G Suite apps are lookin’ well, sweet. Redesigns for Gmail, Calendar, Chat, Drive, and Keep reduce visual clutter and create a space for calm productivity. But it’s not all work and no play! The new look also introduced illustration to stave off potential drudgery in moments like onboarding.
  • News to you? Google News’ Material refresh was built to beautifully display up-to-the-minute info organized by new Artificial Intelligence tech. The simple card-based UI lets the content speak for itself.

Best in Crafting Accessible User Experiences

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American Sign Language stickers “yay” and “cool” designed by the Expression team

ASL Stickers
Raise your arms above your head and rotate both hands like you’re the Queen of England. Guess what? You just signed “yay!” But do you know what’s really nifty? We learned this by playing with Gboard stickers. Earlier this year, in collaboration with deaf advocate and YouTube creator Jessica Flores, The Expression team launched 24 animated American Sign Language stickers. These nuanced stickers—whimsical interactive characters shaped out of written words and signs—embody ASL slang to make Gboard more accessible to the deaf community and expose ASL to more people. It’s definitely got us jazzed up about the intricacies of sign language (🤟).

Creatability Experiments
From drawing using sight and sound to visualizing music, access meets ability in fresh ways through Creatability’s series of starter experiments. Made in collaboration with creators and allies in the accessibility community, these experiments use AI on the web to explore how creative tools—for drawing, making music, and playing with words—can team up with tech to work better for everyone (fun fact: it’s open-source and our friends at Creatability created a step-by-step tutorial, so you can get in on the action too).   

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An image of a women riding a motorbike—illustrated by Naveen Hattis and animated by Sharon Harris—from the UX for the Next Billion Users collection

Global Guides
Cracked phone screens. Low vision. Bright sunshine. Whether you’re unsure how to design for a physical disability like low vision or environmental factors like sun and shade, the Next Billion Users global accessibility series (part I, II, and III) enlightens us on ways to make more products helpful for more people. Covering everything from cultural color considerations to speaking someone’s language, these global guides unpack strategies and resources for designing inclusively.

That’s all folks! Whew, what a year. Before we wrap up 2018, be sure to share your favorite Google designs with us on Twitter and Facebook. Then rest up and get ready for 2019 (🔥).