Google’s Material You Lets You Redecorate Your Phone

Apple may be too much of a control freak to follow along

Key Takeaways

  • Android 12 introduces Material You, a new user-friendly design language.
  • Material You is all about personalization.
  • Apple is historically unable to cede the tiniest bit of control to its users.
Android 12's Material You design matching the user's aesthetic and color scheme

Not since Apple’s weird, future-disco-style iOS 7 has the world of smartphone UIs seen such a radical new look as Android 12’s Material You.

Google’s new Material You is a beautiful departure from the current UI paradigm. It’s the new look for Android 12, and is full of playful animations, color harmonies, and customization. In short, if iOS 14 and the current Android Material design are stark but functional office spaces, then Material You is your living room at home.

"I think customization is more important than some marketers realize," Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire via email. "I think it would be more likely to tempt away younger consumers."

Tiles, Like Windows Phone All Over Again

Android 12 brings many enhancements, including neat new tile-style widgets that harmonize with the new design. But the big deal is the look. Since forever, computer user interfaces have looked like computer interfaces. The original Mac used a desktop and documents metaphor, with a black-on-white, paper-like look. While we’ve moved on in some ways, this central idea is still behind our computers. And, yet, computing has changed drastically.

Most people now carry a smartphone—a pocket computer—which is far more personal than a desktop or laptop. We’re still stuck on the idea that these computers are meant for doing work, for enabling the awful concept of "productivity," but they’re not. We use these pocket computers for normal human things; interacting with people, reading, remembering, collecting, photographing.

Material You recognizes this, to an extent. It lets you redecorate like you’d redecorate your home. Buttons are bigger, animations bouncier, and, overall, it looks more personal, less functional. That’s not to say it’s harder to use (we’ll have to try it out to know for sure, since Android 12 currently is in beta)—it’s just that it’s less starkly functional. And some accommodations are quite neat. For example, the UI can automatically re-color itself to match your chosen wallpaper image.

"The ability to customize settings like color swatches, contrast, size, line width, and other characteristics will help users make the phone’s visual appearance fit their moods," Oleg Kotov, Android tech lead at Orangesoft, told Lifewire via email. "This is a totally new approach to adaptive design that strives to show the individuality of a user. Due to endless customization, [it will become difficult to find] two similar Android phones."

And Apple?

Users love to customize their phones. Take one look over the shoulder of a fellow subway traveller, and you’ll see a very personal photo nestling behind the icons and widgets. You’ll see charms hanging off kitten-ear cases, or sober, stitched-leather wallet cases.

When iOS 14 added home screen widgets, and the ability to customize app icons, people went wild for it. And this is despite the fact you had to create an individual automation shortcut for each app, then watch the Shortcuts app launch every time you tapped an icon, before the actual target app launched. Apple cleaned this process up in subsequent iOS updates, likely because it was so popular with regular users.

WidgetSmith is an app that lets you create custom widgets for the iPhone and iPad home screens. It’s absurdly customizable, and after it was seen in use on TikTok, app sales went nuts. WidgetSmith saw 50 million downloads in just a few months. To say there’s an appetite for customization on our phones is an understatement.

How will Apple respond to Material You? iOS 15 will be shown off at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, so we’ll see if it has embraced the wishes of all those millions of iPhone users who downloaded WidgetSmith. But how far will it go?

Apple has a well-deserved reputation for excellent design, and is equally well-known for telling us how to use its products. On the Mac, you can change a few accent colors here and there, and swap icons, but that’s about it. On iOS you’re pretty much limited to choosing your wallpaper. Design is a big part of Apple’s brand, and every iPhone is an ad for that brand. It would be quite something if Apple relaxed its tight grip on the design of iOS.

Too Far?

Google has shown it’s all-in on making Android much friendlier for customization, and letting the user decide how things look. But does Material You go too far? Is it like iOS 7, which was such a radical, hard-to-use shift that Apple spent the next few years reigning in its worst excesses? Or is Android’s new look the beginning of big changes across computing?

This is a totally new approach to adaptive design that strives to show the individuality of a user.

"It really remains to be seen," says Freiberger. "I do think it's different enough that it might fall into the novelty category. But even if it does, some elements of it will survive to the next iteration."

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