Streamlined Design

photo ofDuarte Artwork2
Alum Combines Passions for Art, Tech as Google VP
by Karen Shih ’09 | illustration by Steffanie Espat ’15 | photo courtesy of Matias Duarte

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If you’re not tripping up when tapping on your phone or feeling confused when clicking on your screen, maybe you should thank Matias Duarte ’96. “I want to unlock the potential of the computer to be a completely adaptive tool that gives people superpowers,” says the Google vice president, who oversees all its design initiatives. “It’s an extension of your potential as a person, a tool to enhance your thinking.”

In 2014 he created Material Design, a design language rooted in cognitive science, to streamline billions of users’ experiences across Google’s myriad of platforms, including mail, search and photos. In addition to providing color and typographical guidelines, its goal is to mimic objects’ real-world behavior on a screen. As a result, the brain doesn’t have to slow down to process illogical functions, whether windows disappearing from one corner of a screen and reappearing elsewhere, or a photo making a jerky transition to a detailed view.

Five years ago, nobody would have put Google, co-founded by Sergey Brin ’93, at the top of any list for design prowess. But today, more than a million apps have adopted Duarte’s principles.

“Google has really stepped up its design game, and it shows,” designer Sacha Greif, creator of Telescope and Sidebar, said in VentureBeat, which covers technology news. “Instead of trying to impose a strict visual aesthetic, Google defined a set of principles that leave more freedom to individual designers, while still pushing their numerous apps in the same consistent direction.”

Born in Chile but raised primarily in the D.C. suburbs, Duarte was in elementary school when he got his first computer: an Atari 400 his dad bought from someone’s garage. That spurred his dual passions for art and computing, and at UMD he earned a computer science degree while doing oil paintings in his days outside the lab.

Video games were a natural intersection of those interests. Inspired by their favorites, including the original Doom, he and a few UMD friends created their own company. Despite a highly competitive environment, they managed to secure contracts with PlayStation, Sega and Atari and got enough work to stick with it a few years after graduation.

By that time, Duarte had moved out to California, where he worked on developing operating systems for the nascent mobile market, then early smartphones like the Danger HipTop (better known as the Sidekick) and the Helio Ocean before shifting to more established companies like Palm. In 2010, he came to Google to design for Android before advancing to his current role.

One of his favorite accomplishments is the surprising success of the Sidekick in the deaf community, which even developed an American Sign Language sign for it.

“That’s what I look for, a sense of having impact on people’s lives,” he says. “Not because you’ve sold a lot, but because it’s changed what they can do.”

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