By Frederic Lardinois
Google (GOOG) has never been a hotbed of cool design. Services like Gmail and Google Docs have always been very functional, but few people would describe them as good looking. Google's first mobile efforts were also hit and miss. The first iterations of Android were pretty basic and the company's first dedicated mobile apps - assuming they worked - weren't much to look at, either. All of that seems to be changing, though. The latest group of apps to come out of Google, including the latest version of Currents, the new YouTube app, Google+ for mobile, Gmail for iOS and, of course, the spectacular Google Maps for iOS, show that the company is finally taking design very seriously.
In the process, the company is also developing its own design language that makes many of its new apps immediately recognizable as coming from Google. All of the recent apps, for example, feature the "cards" look Google first introduced with Google Now and the Google+ app. The YouTube app, for example, has them, as does the new Currents for Android, and there are event hints of them in the new Maps for iOS app. They don't always use the same smooth animations as the Google+ app does, but the overall design is very similar. The apps also all tend to have the same main menu, which slides in from the left (though some apps let you swipe left to right to bring it up and some don't).
While Apple (AAPL) has recently been moving toward the kind of skeuomorphic design that often turns off those that prefer Apple's more minimalist style, Google has opted for a pretty minimalist, flat and functional approach. Chances are, you won't find any fake bookshelves or leather binders in Google's apps anytime soon.
If the new Google Maps for iOS is any indication, we can also expect Google to put a stronger emphasis on gestures in its next batch of apps. In Maps, swipe gestures, for example, often hide some pretty cool functionality. While you are in navigation mode, for example, a right-to-left swipe lets you preview the next turn, for example. Swiping up from the info box at the bottom of the screen brings up more information about the location you searched for, detailed directions, and more. None of these gestures are clearly marked, but Google (rightly or not) expects users to experiment with these gestures and find them as they use the app.
On the web, of course, Google still has plenty of room for improvements, but at least on mobile, it's hard to look at the company's latest efforts and not give its designers props for finally getting it right (unless, of course, you really hate the whole light gray on white color scheme Google seems to prefer).