Google is many things–search giant, advertising platform, innovation hive–but a bastion of good design it is not. Unlike Apple, the success of which traces directly to its insistence on crafting beautiful hardware and software, Google has bumbled its way into acting like a company that cares about aesthetics and user experience. Most of the credit for that very recent change goes to CEO Larry Page,who, since taking over the helm of the Googleplex in 2011, has focused on beefing up the company’s design cred.
One recent addition to the company’s growing arsenal of design all-stars indicates that Page’s mandate hasn’t ended. After a year and a half as Foursquare’s director of design, Ian Spalter has joined YouTube to co-lead its User Experience team, which basically means he is tasked with making the service as beautiful as it is useful.
“I think it’s a really great time to be a designer at Google,” Spalter tells Fast Company. “It kind of had a rough start–it was not necessarily the best place to be a designer. But once you’re on the inside and you’re seeing what’s happening here, there’s this great groundswell happening across the different design teams at Google. There’s a real hunger and desire to make some beautiful product. I’m excited to be a part of that and play some role in that.”
His previous 18 months experience make Spalter particularly suited for life at Google. When he arrived at Foursquare, he found a very engineering-focused environment, much like pre-Page Google. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a technology company, but it doesn’t always bode well for design: “When you’ve got really talented engineers that can build anything, there’s a temptation to build everything,” he explained. His job was to push for simplicity and ensure that design got a seat at the “big kids’ table,” as he put it.
The most recent version of Foursquare’s iOS app reflects that leadership, even though Spalter technically bailed before its release in December. Under his guidance, the design team took advantage of iOS 7’s tiled style, opting for blocky swatches of color and thinner text. Overall, it’s a more intuitive and faster app.
At YouTube, Spalter hopes to have a similar effect but on a much larger scale. More than a billion people visit the site each month, compared with Foursquare’s “tens of millions” of users. Internally, much like at Foursquare, brilliant engineers have built the video hub. But the website is cluttered–its impossible to find anything–and there is little parity between the mobile and desktop experiences.
Elsewhere in the company, designers have gained the authority to convince coders to build products that consider design, which has resulted in a handful of impressive creations, especially in the iOS apps department. Think: Gmail, Google Maps, and even YouTube. Spalter wants to continue that trend, starting with his strength: mobile. In fact, Google Maps is one of his inspirations. “It’s a really powerful experience,” he explained. “It’s useful, it’s quite minimal. They took a lot of noise out of previous versions.”
Minimalism, however, is not Spalter’s defining design principle. “I fall into the anti-tackiness camp,” he explained. “There’s certain benefits to skeuomorphism. Helping people understand spacial relationships can be valuable. But it can be cheesy; it can get really corny. On the other side, if you go too sparse, buttons don’t even look like buttons anymore. You’ve removed all the tools for providing certain affordances to understand how certain things should be used.” Apple, for its part, has had trouble with finding a balance, gravitating between tacky and nonsensical.
Beyond giving us insight into his design theory, Spalter, only a couple months into the job, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say what exactly he is working on. It’s possible he had something to do with the most recent YouTube facelift that Google has started experimenting with. Given his prior experience on mobile, we expect the phone and tablet YouTube experiences will be the first to get an overhaul. He said, for now, he wants to focus on hiring a dream team.
More generally, Spalter has pretty grand plans for his tenure: “Not only at YouTube, but broadly across Google, we’re try to make products that are more simple, more useful, and hopefully more beautiful. That would be my ultimate goal here, to hopefully push things that way.”