First he brought design to Google. Now, the visionary is subtly shaping our lives.
By Spencer Bailey
Photos by Christie Hemm Klok
August 03, 2017
Unless you’re a true UX geek, it’s very likely you’ve never heard the name Matías Duarte. But without a doubt, you have seen, used, and experienced products he and his team have created. Did you log into Gmail or open Google Maps today? Duarte’s touch can be found in both of them, as well as in hundreds of other digital products that he has helped develop at Google.
The impact Duarte has had on user-experience design is deep, and not just at Google, where he has been a vice president of design since 2015. He once oversaw the design team that created the Danger Hiptop, known to us consumers as the T-Mobile Sidekick. In the late aughts, he was a VP at Palm, where he led development of the company’s WebOS platform with its revolutionary “card” system. At Google, Duarte convinced the notoriously engineering-first company to embrace design, developing a single visual language applied to all of its products, from email to home-automation software, quietly affecting the experiences of millions of people every day.
Like his work, Duarte doesn’t seek attention. On a recent visit to his design team’s office on Google’s sprawling campus in Mountain View, California, he was found standing at a desk next to a tinted window in the corner of an unexceptional open-plan office. In conversation, he comes across as gregarious and is likely to espouse his strong distaste for big-ego leadership. On the whole, he strikes a quiet, unassuming figure.
Except for his fabulously colorful shirts.
“He wears these really loud shirts and jackets, but he has an understated design sensibility. His design does not hit you over the head,” says Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of The Outline and the former chief digital content officer of Bloomberg. “I find them refreshing,” says Ivy Ross, who was named a VP of design at Google a year ago, and is the head of user experience for the company’s hardware products. “The shirts speak to the unusual perspective from which he sees things.”
Duarte’s latest project exemplifies how his bold ambitions, combined with a humble profile, enable him to push boundaries. Since shaping the experience of Google’s entire range of products, he has now set out to redesign the design process itself. “We’re treating the process of design as a design problem,” he says. “I want the design process to be really transparent. I want it backed by science, and I want it to be continually reflected upon.”
Duarte was born in 1973 in Talca, Chile, a small town south of Santiago. His father was a trained architect who worked in urban planning and regional development, which led to a position with the United Nations. His mother was an economist. During his childhood, Duarte’s father’s work took the family to Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. They eventually settled on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., in the exurb of Olney, Maryland. Of moving to America, Duarte says, “As an immigrant child, I had the typical experience: You don’t know anything about the culture, the sports, the TV shows. Your clothing isn’t fashionable. You don’t know what’s ‘cool.’ You speak funny. Your parents don’t have a lot of money. I think it’s what they call a ‘character-building upbringing.’”
His parents, though, instilled in him a curiosity and passion for education, and it showed in his studies. “There was an embrace, an excitement, and an enthusiasm about knowledge and learning,” he says. “Science came as a part of that, but also history and culture. [They weren’t] just looking at technology in isolation, but as a part of society. I grew up naturally becoming aware of politics and the sociological ramifications of everything, from the design of houses to the design of economic policy.”
In 1988, Duarte enrolled at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. He had been selected as part of a “magnet” program for math, science, and computer science students that was, as he puts it, “intended to do two things: one was to better serve students who were high potential for these fields; the other was to increase the ethnic diversity at the area’s schools. At least that’s how I understood it.”
“The chance for me to go to this school was like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts, almost literally,” he says. “The school itself was this fascinating rabbit warren of old, interconnected buildings. It was a maze—there were places faculty didn’t know how to get to. It really had this character of taking you to another world that was Baroque, fantastical, half-functioning.” The school, at the same time, provided access to computers, robotics, and other cutting-edge tools. A lab there was outfitted with Macintoshes, some of them with hard drives—a rarity at the time. There was also a VAX computer. It was there that Duarte had his first interaction with the internet, and during his sophomore year he even got an email address, which he admits he “never did anything with.”
At Montgomery Blair, Duarte also turned to art, specifically drawing and painting. Realizing he had this particular skill set, he decided that art was what he wanted to pursue further in college, even more than computer science. His parents’ response: “No way.” By the time he enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1992, he had found a middle ground: two majors—a B.S. in computer science and a B.A. in art. Later, he added another B.A., in art history.
Through his studies, Duarte found himself blurring the lines between these seemingly polar worlds. “I’d be doing studio hours, painting on these massive canvases,” he says, “and then head over to the computer lab and be working on a ray tracer.” During this time, he naturally started think about the intersection of art and computers. Though user-experience design barely had a name at the time, it was a heady moment to be thinking about the possibilities for developing software that lay ahead.
During a summer internship with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that consisted mostly of data entry, Duarte and a friend, bored and taking advantage of the access they had to the NOAA’s computers, produced a game using the Motif programming interface under the X Window System. “We grew up in the wars of Amiga versus Atari versus Apple, and the rise of the PC. Steve Jobs was out there doing his PR for the NeXT computer. There was this whole vilification of the PC industry and Bill Gates. We were rooting for Apple, Sun, and SGI. Anything to keep away the clones! The game was this silly whack-a-mole themed on that. I figured out some of the graphical user-interface programming and drew these little sprites; my friend Brian [Wellington] figured out the logic programming and how to move the little sprites around.” Because of its open-source nature, the game, called XBill, still has “ridiculous distro,” Duarte says. “I’m not sure what I’ve done that has more distribution, whether it’s this silly game I did during college or something on Android.”
In the mid-’90s, following the XBill launch and inspired by the popularity and success of the 1993 science-fiction computer game Doom, Duarte decided to forgo his degrees—at least for the time being—and move to San Francisco to make games with some friends. It would be a few more years until he would finish his computer-science credits and graduate. He never complete the two art degrees.
Once in the Bay Area, he found himself working for companies he describes as “on the periphery of the games industry.” Though they got contracts with the likes of Atari, Rocket Science, Take-Two Interactive Software, and Sony Computer Entertainment, he was required to take on odd jobs to survive. During the late ’90s dot-com boom, he turned to whatever freelance programming work he could find, including stints as a web designer. This led, in 2000, to a position working at Danger, where he would begin his career in mobile software as a member of the team that developed the Sidekick. “That’s how I caught the bug of working in consumer electronics,” he says. “I’d never known anything about industrial design, and there wasn’t a lot of formal training on anything in what we would consider UX at the time. So I read a lot, and I picked it up as we went. There were consultants and contractors we brought in who had experience with Apple and Frog Design and IDEO. I talked to a lot of people, and just tried to absorb it all, making a lot of mistakes over the years.”
Duarte’s next major breakthrough came in the late aughts, when he developed WebOS for Palm. That was the beginning of Duarte as a true “system designer,” Topolsky says. “He is a guy who thinks in terms of systems from the ground up. At Palm, he designed an elaborate, deep—and revolutionary, in my opinion—mobile user-interface that is, soup-to-nuts, fully formed, from the most basic implementation of how to you handle your contacts to the complex task of switching between apps.”
In 2010, following Palm’s acquisition by HP, Duarte started at Android, working for Andy Rubin, who was CEO of the company—which Google had acquired in 2005—and had previously worked with Duarte at Danger. Before his first day, though, Duarte wanted to make it clear that he did not want to get sucked into the then-engineer-heavy Google vortex. “I never thought I’d work for Google” he says. “I had zero ambition to work for Google. Everybody knew Google was a terrible place for design.”
Duarte’s beginning at Android, perhaps not surprisingly, was rough. “Two days after I’d started to work for Android and get immersed, I went to Andy in his office and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out. Maybe this was a mistake for both of us, I think I’ve got to go,’ because the culture and the process were in such a state that I thought there was no way I would be able to have an impact or do anything good there. Andy said, ‘Woah, calm down. I got your back. Let’s figure this out. What do you need?’” Duarte’s response was “a list of things I knew were going to be important to get Android to be a platform that was good for users, had good design, and could be respected and recognized.”
His most urgent challenge was to excite the Android engineers and developers about design and to prove to them its value—in the hopes of improving the still not consumer-friendly product. The timing, it turned out, was perfect for such a mission. Tech nostalgia was in high gear—the Tron remake was slated to come out; Iron Man had just been released. Duarte and his design team decided to “lean into this joy of tech,” aesthetically speaking. First, they made some cosmetic changes, tightening up the look by, for example, making the previously white status bar at the top of the screen black, with easier-to-see bright icons on it. The team also simplified the appearance of the buttons by making their perceived depth significantly shallower. “I wouldn’t say it was refining it,” Duarte says, “because it never reached refinement, but it kind of took it in that direction.” His team ended up selling it “across the company, not just inside Android,” he says, by creating a coherent look and feel for Android 3.0, codenamed “Honeycomb,” that was appealing to engineers.
Topolsky hails the system as game-changing. “His concept of compartmentalizing information inside of cards—he was so ahead of the game on that,” he says. “I want to be very clear, when Apple introduces iOS 7 [in 2013] and Jony Ive leads the redesign, they are all over cards and the concept of what Matías had introduced both in WebOS and later with Android. They are full-scale lifting from his design, in my opinion. And not doing that great a job of it, by the way. Matías’s design, to me, had a much more coherent underlying system. You see with Apple the lack of a clearly thought-out system.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
John Maeda, the global head of computation design and inclusion at Automattic, the web development company behind WordPress.com and Jetpack, among other products, disagrees with Topolsky’s Apple thesis, but does credit Google with software mastery. When asked if he thinks Apple has ever followed Duarte’s lead, he says, “No, I think Apple has played its playbook over and over. And it kind of works, but it’s less appealing than it was in the past. It’s kind of like Sony in its heyday.” He continues, “On the computational design side, Google is winning because it has better machine-intelligence chops. That’s where the world will be won, and that kind of design is frightening and interesting.”
Nearly three years ago, Duarte made the jump from Android to Google. This came after a period in which the labyrinth of a company—as convoluted as the architecture of Montgomery Blair High School—was going through cultural and technological shifts. Throughout the 2000s, under Eric Schmidt, then CEO, and Marissa Mayer, then head of user experience, Google was focused on growth and speed, but mostly with incredible engineering prowess. Design was an afterthought at best.
An attempt to instill a design philosophy by Evelyn Kim, the company’s first visual designer on a product team, was shut down. Both in software and hardware, by 2010, the experience of Google’s products had become an incoherent mess. At the same time, Apple’s approach to design was the opposite, and it had gained tremendous cachet as a result. When Duarte arrived at Android, it was clear that Google needed to catch up—and soon—in order for the company to compete.
Duarte was the right balance of engineer-designer to come in and shake things up. “He has an engineering background, which has helped him have so much credibility initially at Google and the very engineering-based culture it came from. But he is a designer first and foremost,” says Margaret Lee, one of Google’s directors of user experience. “It’s this great combination. He’s not a one-dimensional leader. He can wear many hats and be very generous with acknowledging that it’s really the team that’s doing this stuff.”
Duarte’s largest achievement was developing Material Design—Google’s visual language for its myriad platforms, a set of rules that guide all of the company’s products across mobile and web. The project began around 2013, when the Google Search team was trying to break out beyond the “10 blue links”’ status quo that had existed for a decade. At that same time, a team within Chrome was looking to advance some technologies with the Google apps teams. And Duarte’s Android team had been preparing to work on its next release, Lollipop. To unify the user experience across the Search, Chrome, and Android teams, Duarte developed a cohesive, unified language that could scale from phones to wearables to TVs to cars.
Material Design is a “living document” that combines the practicality of hierarchy-driven classic print design—things like typography, grids, and color—with the magic of software, which can do things that can’t be done in the physical world but that still requires structure. Light, surface, and movement are key factors in this process. User actions are emphasized for coherency, and as such, movements and transitions must be consistent. The system remains flexible—as long as its basic sets of principles are followed.
In just a few years, Duarte’s impact within Android—and, in turn, at Google—became resoundingly clear. In June 2015, writing in Fast Company, Cliff Kuang declared, “Google produces better-designed software than any other tech behemoth.” Several months later, shortly after Sundar Pichai was named CEO, Duarte was tapped as Google’s first-ever VP of design and left Android to run the Material Design team.
Material Design quickly proved an opportunity to communicate what was so badly needed, design-wise, across the Googleplex, in a way most Googlers could understand. Describing something rather intangible—software—as something tactile, material, or physical established a relatable access point. With the support of Pichai and Google’s other top executives, Duarte built a sense of momentum and synthesis around this greater unifying cause.
“At the heart of it,” Ross says, “I think he’s a builder. Pour the foundation, lay down the two-by-fours…. Then it’s the lights and curtains and furniture. [Material Design] is one plus one plus one equals eight. It’s the sum total of the overall experience that makes a difference.”
Blake Enting, a partner of the Brooklyn-based firm Studio Xoo and formerly the creative director of Saatchi Design Worldwide, praises Material Design for its striking clarity. “It’s like when the International Typographic Style was developed by the Swiss,” he says. “It’s so optically correct. It’s so rigorous.”
For Lee, the importance of Material Design cannot be understated. “We need this type of framework—it’s not about being prescriptive, because we’re not designing in two dimensions,” she says. “We’re designing in multiple dimensions; we’re designing for rich interactions and great visual transitions and things that have to cross over from one platform or device to another. Matías helped to make that clear.”
From Topolsky’s vantage as a tech journalist and Google outsider, he sees Material Design’s impact as all the more massive. “I think Matías as a software designer has leapfrogged Google’s core design language way beyond what Apple has done in the last five years or so, when you look in particular at the translation of Material Design to the web,” he says. “Google’s concept of how to approach web design in a way that carries across devices and screen sizes—I don’t think he gets enough credit, frankly, for being revolutionary in changing how things really function and work. That’s unfair.” He adds, “Google used to be functional but hideous. Now they lead the design conversation in a lot of ways.”
Within Google, the force of Material Design and the importance of its team has spread deeply into the culture. Duarte finds himself at the center of it. But, according to the VP himself and others, he is most certainly not speaking from a pulpit. “We’re not trying to design for everybody and tell everybody how to design their products,” Duarte says. “We’re creating a tool kit and best practices. We then work with all the individual teams and say, ‘How can we help you with your problem?’ You build a sense of community and contribution that way.”
“Material Design was a watershed moment,” Lee says, “because it really was about empowering developers to design in a way that they could still be true to their own brand and their own product, but still have a design language to teach them how to fish.”
Not everyone believes all of this work is contributing to something entirely positive, of course. As great as it all sounds, and as significant as it is for Google and the UX community at large, Maeda notes there is a rather sinister factor underlying tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. “They’re here to take away your freedom,” he says. “Most technology companies today aren’t thinking inclusively about real people. The software is being designed by people who are generally doing really well: If they’re not in the one percent, they’re in the top thirty percent. They’re not making software services and hardware for what most people need to do in life.”
Despite this sentiment, humanizing design is a key factor in Duarte’s latest focus: rethinking the design process itself. His vision is to develop a process that is scientific and data-driven, and one that gets rid of the idea of the lone design genius in favor of teamwork. “There’s an attitude that you take in critiques, that setting a high bar means kind of being a jerk and constantly calling things out when they’re off,” he says. “You need to have other people’s perspectives, and see your creative input guiding and driving and adding to things.”
Increasingly, the integration of Material Design is seeping into Google’s many layers, finding its way more recently into the company’s hardware. “In the last year we’ve had the opportunity to marry software and industrial design, to have my team and his team together,” Ross says. “He and I really talk about the future and how these two things need to dance. It should not be an afterfact. He and I have the luxury to design things together from the beginning—one brushstroke at a time, so to speak.”
Though Duarte says he no longer paints, you can see its influence on his creative approach, and he admits he’s eager to get back at it. “I draw a lot,” he says, “and on vacation I’ll occasionally watercolor. But when I think painting, I think canvases that are at least six feet per side. I want something that can really capture the gesture of a stroke that goes through your whole body.” At his Silicon Valley home, he’s currently building an art studio. But with Material Design, he’s been painting, at least metaphorically, all along. Google’s vast campus has become Duarte’s canvas.