A group of Googlers showed off some never-before-seen design prototypes today at SXSW that showed a very different design direction from what was recently rolled out across the Google universe. While 2011's launch, dubbed "Strawman," was one of the biggest in the company's history, Google made similar efforts to redesign the company's entire stock of sites in 2007 with the Kanna project. An Icelandic term that means "to explore, to examine, to investigate," Kanna found the Google team building prototypes across four main clusters: fun, organization, daring, and minimalism (start at slide 5 below). Though the panelists didn't go into much detail as to why Google didn't push any of the designs live in 2007, they hinted at a lack of enthusiasm from execs.
Creative Lab's Chris Wiggins, Maps's Evelyn Kim, Gmail's Michael Leggett, Chrome's Nicholas Jitkoff, and Search's Jon Wiley also discussed the big changes in structure and approach to the more recent 2011 design. In early 2011, Larry Page instant messaged Michael Leggett, asking "If you were to redesign Google, what would it look like?" It kicked off a multi-month sprint that Jitkoff said was "like a rollercoaster, but the latches didn't go down."
Many of Google's products have been relatively slow to evolve over the years, and the panel attributed it to the company's structure around teams like Gmail, Search, Reader, and more. Until the Creative Lab came about, designers were mostly found embedded in each group, and the company mostly lacked a larger design authority or team. Interestingly, both the 2007 and 2011 projects were driven by Google CEOs, and when asked if the redesign could've happened without executive leadership, Evelyn Kim said Larry's word was an incredibly useful bargaining tool. Telling other project members that "Larry wants this" helped dissolve many arguments or misgivings about the transition to the new design.
Google's gotten its share of criticism over the years for its perceived over-reliance on testing and data in design issues, and it sounds like there's been a change of heart at the company. While there's still plenty of hard numbers for picking the optimum shade of blue, the designers were talking about a friendlier, qualitative, and more holistic approach to design — helped with the power of data, of course.