157 Shades Of Grey

Design is important. Thinking through how people will respond to the aesthetics of your product is an admirable thing.

I remember once having the pleasure of sharing a stage with JetBlue’s vice president of marketing, Amy Curtis-McIntyre. She explained how important good design was to the airline’s overall marketing strategy. A tremendous amount of thought went into the aesthetics of all its printed materials -- even those cards explaining the airplane's safety features that none of us ever read. But on JetBlue, not only did passengers read the cards;  they stole them because the cards were so cleverly designed.

Was this a problem for management? Not according to Curtis-McIntyre: "You know you’re doing something right when people steal your marketing shit,” she said.

So, I’m a fan of good design. But according to a recent story on, Google is going at least 156 shades too far. The company seems obsessed with color -- or, at least, testing for colors.  



The design team for Google’s new home assistant, the Mini, had to pick three different colors for the home appliance. They wanted one to make a personal statement -- and apparently that statement was best made by the color "coral."

Then they needed a color that would sit unobtrusively next to your TV set -- and that turned out to be "charcoal."

Finally, they needed a “floater” color that could go anywhere in the house, including the kitchen. And that’s when the design team at Google may have gone off the tracks. They tested 157 shades of grey -- yes , 157 -- before they settled on “chalk,” which is said to be the most inoffensive shade imaginable.  They even worked with a textile firm to create their own custom cloth for the grill on top.

That beats Google’s previous obsessive-compulsive testing disorder record, set by then-vice president of search Marissa Mayer when she ordered the design team to test 42 different shades of blue for search links to see which got the most clicks.

At Google, good design seems to equal endless testing. But is there anything wrong with that?

Well, for one thing, you can test yourself into a rabbit hole, running endless tests and drowning in reams of data looking for the optimal solution, completely missing global maxima while myopically focused on the local.

Google tests everything  truly, madly and deeply. Even Google insiders admit this penchant for testing often gets them focused on the trees rather than the forest. This is particularly true for design. Google has a long history of obsessively turning out ho-hum designs.

Personally, when it comes to pure design magic, I much prefer the Apple approach, led by Steve Job's and Jon Ive’s unerring sense for the aesthetic. It’s hard to think of a longer run of spectacular product designs.

Yes, they too sweated the small stuff. But those details were always in service of a higher vision: an empathetic, elegantly simple, friendly approach to product design that somehow magically connected with the user, leaving that user somewhat awed and consistently impressed. One might quibble with the technology that lies inside the package, but no one has put together a more beautiful package than the Apple design team at the height of its powers.

When you look at a Google product, you have the result of endless testing and data-crunching. When you look at a classic Apple design, you sense that this came from more than simple testing -- but instead from intuition and creativity.

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