Earnings and mergers and lawsuits, oh my. But this Friday morning, let’s turn the lens around and consider big tech from a more personal, day-to-day perspective.

When the pandemic hit and collaborating remotely became critical, Google was well positioned. It had the leading email service, popular productivity software with realtime collaboration built in, and a variety (some would say too much variety) of text, audio, and video communications apps. But it wasn’t Google that grabbed the big spotlight. It was mostly newer players like Zoom, Slack, Asana, and even Microsoft Teams.

Back at the Googleplex, however, big changes were afoot. Javier Soltero, brought in last year from Microsoft, was overseeing a reimagining of Google’s productivity and communications line up. Unveiled a few weeks ago but not yet fully rolled out, Soltero’s effort to modernize and better integrate all the apps is called Google Workspace. Eventually, you’ll be able to start a new document from inside the Chat app or go the other way around and kick off a chat or video conference while writing a document. Soltero shouldn’t be underestimated: He was one of the brains behind the brilliant Acompli app that Microsoft bought and integrated (sort of) into Outlook.

One part of Soltero’s latest effort has ignited some controversy, though. That was the decision to rebrand all of Google’s mobile apps with new multi-colored icons. I found myself nodding in agreement with some of the Twitter outrage over the confusing and similar-looking new icons. The somewhat satirical account Killed By Google may have had the most succinct summary of what was wrong:

Ars Technica reporter Ron Amadeo offered a simple solution: Just use the icons from Android 6 Marshmallow, circa 2015. “Every single icon here is an improvement over the current icon. We need to go back.”

There were also some fans. Stockholm designer Daniele Tottle loved the consistency and visual linkage of all the apps. Brand adviser Jennifer Volmer praised how the similarity of the new icons hints at the collaboration capabilities among the apps. Google says the new designs were developed via “a rigorous process” that included tests “specifically for findability and contrast ratios.”

I also checked in with some top design and usability experts. Former Twitter principal designer Josh Brewer, who’s now making design app Abstract, was pretty harsh in describing exactly what my brain was feeling. The new icons are “lacking in differentiation to the point that I now have to pay more attention to make sure I am launching the app I think I am—aka increasing cognitive load,” he says, adding that the changes throw out years of accumulated brand loyalty.

But Jared Spool, who co-founded the Center Centre design school, predicted it would all blow over. “Designers like to have opinions and changing icons is a great way to get them to share opinions,” he says. “But, in the long run, it won’t make a difference in the actual usage of the products.”

Maybe my weekend project should be figuring out the new way to change icons on the iPhone in iOS 14? We’ll all adapt sooner or later, both Jared and Josh predict. In the meantime, reduce the cognitive load on your brain, and have a great weekend.

Aaron Pressman



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