Nav bars and street corners (Why the new Google bar is simply a bland brand move)

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Lately, Google has been very busy improving the user experience of various products. In June, they introduced a new universal look and feel, a more consistent color scheme, a larger button system and more (no wonder they earned top marks in our annual Global Brand Simplicity Index). Since then, they’ve implemented dramatic interface changes to Docs, Gmail, Reader and YouTube.

Announced two weeks ago, the new “Google bar”is the latest step in simplifying and aligning Google’s products around their core offering—search—and enabling quick access to account settings and share tools. But in pursuit of simplicity, it sacrifices a particularly important component of the brand: contrast.

Truly, the new Google bar is straightforward, sufficient and sparse. It’s thoughtfully designed, functioning predictably across a vast array of sites and services. While it remains to be seen if collapsing Google’s various services into a dropdown actually simplifies options (or obscures them), what I first noticed about the new Google bar wasn’t any of these things.

I just couldn’t get over how bland it is.

Color and contrast are important

When walking down the streets of New York City at night, pay particular attention to what you find on the corners, and you might notice something interesting: for starters, banks with 24-hour ATMs are everywhere; furthermore, they assert themselves with bright, bold stripes of fluorescent lighting. Just look for the source of the bright color you need, and you can find a bank in any urban area (yes, even in Times Square).

Surely Wells Fargo recognizes the importance of easily locating your bank: upon merging with Wachovia in 2009, they opened doors to many new markets. But instead of maintaining their bright red signage—easily confused for Bank of America—they opted for a new golden color scheme in New York City. And not surprisingly, they’ve decided to take it nationwide.

Now, take a walk around your office, home, or local library, and—discreetly—peer at the open browser windows of colleagues, family and friends (or strangers). Do you notice something similar? Take a closer look:

See, the colored navigation bars of our favorite websites on the internet serve the same purpose as those stripes of fluorescent lighting on street corners: they’re way finding mechanisms and identity devices, rolled into one. In a time of need—be it searching for trends or untagging photos—these high-contrast, colored stripes help you quickly recognize and identify the service you’re looking for.

Back to the new Google bar

Look again at the headers above, and you’ll notice that I included Google’s classic navigation bar for good measure. So how does the new one stack up?

It’s certainly cleaner, and the logo has benefited from some whitespace. But it just feels like there’s something missing. Maybe we should zoom out.

Yikes: the new page on the right is devoid of contrast. There are visual cues that indicate we’re in Googleland (the beautiful, bright blue search button; the results styling; and so on), but they’re not immediately apparent. So, if you have many browser windows open, trying to find a Google tab is indisputably more difficult than before—a huge step backward for a company obsessed with showing you search results as quickly as possible.

Like many ideas at Google, the new Google bar is still in beta. But, you can bet that extensive tests are running to evaluate its performance (in fact, Google once assessed forty-one shades of turquoise to discover which hue drove the greatest number of clicks…an inanity that drove visual design lead Doug Bowman to Twitter). And when the new navigation bar goes live everywhere, I have no doubt that its simple, consistent interface will make Google’s services easier to use.

I do worry, however, that unless some much-needed contrast is restored, the new Google bar may make those services harder to find. Admittedly, that’s something of an ironic predicament for a company dedicated to search—but that’s Google’s pursuit, not mine.

Let’s just hope they don’t settle on light gray.

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