Is Legibility Playing Second Fiddle For Google?


There’s probably a good chance you’ve already come across the new set of icons Google have introduced for their suite of drive apps. Apparently, it’s called workplace now, what was wrong with sticking with Google Docs, obviously they weren’t content with just an icon change!

Google Workspace:

If you have encountered the full-colour spectrum that is the new Google icons, you’ve probably muttered choice words under your breath, as for the 5th time today you’ve gone into Google Drive instead of Gmail, it’s still happening to me and the icons have been out for a couple of months now. It comes down to the fact that legibility is playing second fiddle to design with this new direction, something that wasn’t an issue with the established style they used previously.

The previous icons were instantly recognisable, something that is key when you use a suite of apps regularly. You need a distinction between them, with the previous icons it was clear that the red M was for Gmail and the blue flip calendar was for Google calendar, it was easy and you did it without giving a second thought, something that good design should do. This is especially important when the majority of people are seeing these as the tiny icons at the top of their browser tabs; recognition should be the highest priority.

The new icons feel like they ignored this fact, surely if anyone has data on this, it should be Google. With their apps, Google even promotes using their different software. For example in Gmail you can access Google calendar and other apps directly from your inbox, so they know people are going to be using multiple apps at the same time. With this information, it feels like it would make sense to want to create a family of apps that have the same style, but please Google, give each one its own identity so it’s easy for your users as they are switching between multiple apps!

The new designs feel like they have been designed to work in isolation as if you would only ever see one of these icons at any given time. But as I’ve highlighted and with Google apps being so ingrained in our day to day productivity, this just isn’t the case and anyone who uses an Android phone will know the amount of Google apps that are on your phone as default.

Now I’m not trying to completely bash the new icons, though I know it’s coming across that way. I actually quite like the new style, especially the new chunkier Gmail. They work together as a family, are more modern and have a consistent design style that is very Google and in line with the four colour G symbol, which is at the heart of the brand. You could say they have done a lot of things right, but as mentioned, this is not a one-off logo, it’s multiple icons that need to work together and the similarity is where it falls down. Recognised patterns have been removed at the expense of design and the use case appears largely ignored. Sometimes I say to clients being generic is a good thing, as we all recognise common elements, for example keeping account and basket icons fairly generic is going to be a good thing, as we can all relate to these. There’s nothing worse when an icon is ambiguous, we’ve all been in that situation where the symbols on the toilet doors aren’t obvious!

So should Google completely scrap these icons and start again or are they worth saving. First off, I think they should start by looking at what made the previous symbols so iconic and more recognisable and look at what other well-used apps are doing effectively.

If we turn to one of Google’s competitors, shhh!, mutter it quietly, Microsoft Office. What they have done successfully is manage to retain the same style throughout their family of icons, whilst giving each icon its own easily recognisable identity. It’s universally recognised that the blue W is Word, green X is Excel and the orange P is Powerpoint. This also greatly helps when you consider that these icons appear at very small sizes, for example in My Documents, being able to quickly scan long lists and being able to instantly recognise your file types, saves massive amounts of searching every time you use your computer. Microsoft has also understood the power of recognition being an important design consideration, when we look at an evolution of their office icons you can see a continuity in the design style, from earlier icons in the 90s to the present day.

There are three things I believe Google can do to enhance the recognition and legibility of their icons. Firstly and probably the most important is colour, each of the icons needs to have it’s own predominant colour so you recognise the app itself. This way you don’t have to rely on the shape and the detail as much, especially important at small sizes. Gmail has always been predominantly red with previous iterations, why the need to remove it now? By doing this Google has removed the common factor that made users recognise it in the first place.

Secondly, the detail, because the icons are now much simpler and made up of the same width lines and four colours it’s hard to tell the difference. Also, further down the line if I needed to add new icons in this style, you can only make them look so different, so it is quite restrictive and makes future-proofing these icons difficult. The design needs to be able to make use of more elements, so you can create variety whilst still using the same style. A few lines and the same 4 colours are going to stifle even the best designers.

Thirdly the shape, this is due to the restrictions mentioned above, essentially all the icons look like boxes. I mean the Google Docs icon is just a squished version of the Calendar Icon, making it hard to distinguish from one another. Some difference in the shapes would go a long way to giving each icon it’s own identity, kind of like what Google actually had with their previous icons.

This update is very much a case of ignoring your use cases, yes you can have a great logo, but does it actually work well where it needs to. In this case, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this hasn’t been a successful application. External factors need to be considered and should have an effect on the design choices being made, as sometimes form needs to take a backseat to function.

What do I see for these icons going forward, well it wouldn’t surprise me to see these icons either completely replaced in a year or two or subtly updated. I could potentially see my point around colour use being implemented, to help add clarity to the icons. But with macOS Big Sur just being launched and making a push for more detailed icons again could we see a return to skeuomorphism? Watch this space…