Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism

"I've grown tired of debating...minuscule design decisions," design lead Douglas Bowman vents upon his departure from the search giant.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Douglas Bowman, Google's visual design leader, is leaving the company after finding the company's reliance on detailed Web page performance data too confining.

Bowman clearly had mixed feelings about departing, but he wasn't shy with his opinion about what he didn't like. From Bowman's blog post Friday on the matter:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions...

Yes, it's true that a team at Google couldn't decide between two blues, so they're testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can't operate in an environment like that. I've grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions...

I'll miss working with the incredibly smart and talented people I got to know there. But I won't miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.

Bowman also gripes that Google's designers came from a background of computer science and human-computer interaction rather than classical design, and that none of them rank high in the pecking order.

Google's vice president of search and user experience, Marissa Mayer, is pretty high-ranking and cares a lot about design. But it's not hard to see how her philosophy might rankle. Here's one thing she said about design in a 2008 speech: "On the Web in general, (creating sites) is much more a design than an art...You can find small differences and mathematically learn which is right."

I can't speak for Bowman's experience, though I can see how a classical designer might feel stifled by code monkeys. There are plenty of considerations that go into design in general, and pragmatism can be at odds sometimes with passion, boldness, and innovation. And Bowman earlier was a designer at Wired, which is definitely at the bold end of the spectrum.

Overall, however, I find Google's approach to design refreshing and radical in its own way. Choosing color shades and pixel widths on the basis of the behavior of millions of Web page users is a fascinating development to the form-follows-function school of design.