While riding the subway in New York City, I often find myself playing a guessing game to figure out what phones my fellow commuters are using. Occasionally, I get stumped, but whenever I see a two-tone design with a bit of contrast, there’s no doubt I’m looking at a Google Pixel phone.
Pixels don’t look like the rest. The first Pixel and Pixel 2 used different materials on the back — a mix of metal and glass — that were unusual for a phone. While the entire rear was made of glass on the Pixel 3, the distinct two-tone aesthetic remained with a mixture of gloss and matte. This look has become iconic, and it’s now unequivocally Google.
But the new Pixel 4 is different. It’s the first design overhaul since Google introduced the original Pixel in 2016, though it calls back to its predecessors in subtle ways. The two-tone look isn’t as apparent but it’s still there, and the designers — Max Yoshimoto and Alberto Villarreal — firmly believe the Pixel 4 will become as distinct and recognizable as its forebears. I had a chance to speak to the pair, who are on the creative team for Consumer Hardware at Google, to learn about the process of designing Google’s next phone.
Pixel phones have a line that runs close to the top on the back of the phone, delineating where one material ends and another starts. With each iteration, Google has refined the overall look of the phone, but the two-tone design remained. It never ceases to add a spot of contrast — whether you’re looking at the black, glossy glass paired with the white aluminum on the Pixel 2, or the brighter-colored, glossy glass mixed with the dimmer matte glass on the Pixel 3.
This design language makes it easy to pick out a Pixel in a crowd; they don’t look like every other slab on the market.
The Pixel 4 is changing things up. First, it comes in the same two Clearly White and Really Black colors, while introducing a new Oh So Orange option as well. It also no longer has the line of demarcation that we’ve seen on previous Pixels: The glass back is matte on the white and orange phones, and glossy on the black model — say goodbye to the dual textures. It looks cleaner, especially as there’s no fingerprint sensor cluttering up the design.
The missing line doesn’t mean the classic high-contrast aesthetic has disappeared, or that the Pixel 4 doesn’t stand out anymore. Look at the edges around the phone, and you’ll see it’s distinctly black on all three colors. It’s also impossible to ignore the giant square camera module that’s offset to the top left corner.
“We love the contrasting textures and then the bold breakups,” Yoshimoto, director of Industrial Design at Google, told Digital Trends. “I think that still exists on the new Pixel. We worked with the camera teams really closely. and the amount of sensors that we were wanting to put in the back just started to evolve and change. Having a few generations in on that one design language, and then introducing some new sensors and cameras on the back — we thought that it would be a great time to do a change.”
The Pixel’s marquee feature has always been the camera. The Pixel 3‘s is among the best, although it was recently bested by the new triple-camera iPhone 11 Pro The series has had an impressive run, staying on top despite using a single lens, thanks to the company’s prowess in computational photography. Google adding a second lens to its new phone is a significant move, and it’s why the team decided to highlight it through the design.
The camera module — which both Yoshimoto and Villarreal called the “Pixel square” — is very much a square (with rounded corners) and it intentionally resembles a pixel. Yoshimoto believes it’s what will make the Pixel 4 “super iconic” and recognizable right away.
Look at some of the other design sketches that didn’t make the cut in the gallery below. There’s a blue iPhone 11-style prototype with two lenses, one on top of the other, and in the second image, you can see a design that mimics the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus. The final result is the most distinct approach; the bold square attracts your gaze, especially on the Clearly White and Oh So Orange phones. It helps that the cameras are masked in darkness, adding more contrast, unlike the camera design on Apple’s latest iPhone 11 Pro or even the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.
The black outline around the body of the phone is critical. It frames the Pixel square and the overall rear design, and is unusual; most manufacturers match the sides of a phone with the same color on the back. Villarreal said a benefit of the black band, outside of adding contrast, is that it also hides away all the components that help make the phone work but don’t need to be seen, like the SIM slot, the speaker grill, the USB-C port, and the antenna bands.
“What’s really nice about the black band is it kind of sets the Pixel’s square up really nicely,” Yoshimoto said. “It’s almost like a little bit of a frame for the Pixel square. If you look at classic design work and modernistic design work … you see simple shapes in almost grid-like structures, and they’re very lasting. So while, like we keep saying ,this is bold and iconic, we also feel like … the overall look and feel is one that’s also very lasting and not super trendy.”
Will the black band and the Pixel square become mainstays for the next few generations of Pixels, then? Let’s just say Villarreal, who’s the creative lead and industrial design manager on the Consumer Hardware team, didn’t want to talk about the Pixel 5 yet.
“The overall look and feel is one that’s also very lasting and not super trendy.”
What has remained from prior Pixels is the accented power button first introduced on the Pixel 2, which now adds further contrast against the black band around the phone. The Pixel 4 in Clearly White specifically calls back to this as it uses a similar orange color for the button as the Pixel 2’s Clearly White model.
“While we’re making some big changes, we’re also trying to keep some things and bring some things that we thought were fun and successful from the past,” Yoshimoto said. “And the other thing that we worked really hard on is making sure that all of the colorways look great together as a family. When they all are presented together, there’s a really nice rhythm and feel to everything so there’s not some one thing that just sort of sticks out in an odd way.”
Why orange? Whether you’re looking at the orange accents on the power button or the Oh So Orange Pixel 4, there’s no specific reason as to why they landed on the color. Villarreal said the creative team works closely with the CMF team, which stands for Colors Materials and Finishes, and they look at trends from many different cultural representations around the world, from sports to furniture and fashion.
“We sort of distill all of those trends and then we pick the colors that we feel that are more relevant this year, as well as more aligned with the brand,” Villarreal said. “It’s a really complex and nonlinear process. There are elements of our brand that are speaking more to the human side in terms of like how the form is gentle to the hand; the colors and finishes are sort of muted in a way. There’s also an aspect that is very optimistic, and how we use color as a sort of happy [state]. And I think that’s also represented well here with the color choices.”
Optimistic, welcoming, human. These are themes that are easy to pick up on when talking to the design team, even when looking back at past comments made from Google’s vice president of Hardware Design, Ivy Ross.
“Human,” Ross said in an interview last year with Google’s own blog, after she was asked what was the most important design principle for Google hardware. “By that, I mean friendly, emotionall appealing, and easy to fit into your life and your home.”
Similarly, Villarreal said the Pixel 4 is soft and approachable. The glass on the front and back transitions “softly and really smoothly” through the middle, and the edges are curved for better ergonomics.
I think we go back to what’s uniquely Google, and then that is for us an easy way to differentiate.
“We also put a lot of emphasis on making sure it’s comfortable in the hand,” Villarreal said. “The position of our power and volume buttons continue to be the same throughout generations of Pixel. We want to keep that consistent user experience for people who switch from Pixel 3 to Pixel 4.”
Approachable is the right word for Google’s color story. From “Not Pink” on the Pixel 3 and “Purple-ish” on the Pixel 3a to “Kinda Blue” on the Pixel 2, the decision to go with lighter palettes rather than darker tones do make the phones feel more friendly and approachable.
“I think we go back to what’s uniquely Google, and then that is for us an easy way to differentiate because we really try to tie with what’s the core of our brand and how those values are expressed through the hardware,” Villarreal said. “The way we find colors and finishes, and even details like the Pixel square and stuff like that, is really tied to the Google brand.”
Despite thinking about color in such a way, Yoshimoto said black is usually the most popular color people buy. The Pixel 4 in Really Black is entirely glossy, and Yoshimoto thinks the design still fares well here, despite the contrast not being as obvious as on the other colors.
“If you strip the color away and you want something that’s really simple — the black phone — it still, in those shapes, works really well,” he said.
What about the front? There’s a good deal of change here as well. A point of contention for last year’s Pixel 3 XL, to put it mildly, was the notch at the top of the screen. It’s the cutout that houses the dual selfie cameras.
The larger-than-life notch was called out as “ugly” by various tech sites like The Verge and Engadget, and even by Digital Trends’ own senior writer, Andy Boxall. It was a common theme on phones from 2018 as more brands looked for ways to offer more screen space while slimming bezels around the screen. But Yoshimoto doesn’t think the notch was a “trend,” and the reason for its existence on the Pixel 3 XL is simple.
“I think it is nice to give people more screen for the same size or the apparent sense of more screen,” Yoshimoto said. “So, that’s what we tried to do on Pixel 3, at least on XL.”
The Pixel 4 has no such notch, not necessarily because the team didn’t want to include one, but because there wasn’t any meaningful space a notch would have added. You see, the Pixel 4 comes with a variety of sensors at the top of the screen. This includes Google’s Soli technology, which can recognize 3D objects. On the Pixel 4, it’s used to help the phone identify gestures you make with your hand to control certain functions. For example, a wave of your hand can snooze an alarm or silence a call.
As there’s no fingerprint sensor, Google is also going the Apple route by adding face unlock as its form of biometric authentication, and that requires a host of sensors as well.
“Between adding Soli and adding the extra sensors for face unlock and, obviously, you have to have a selfie cam in there, we essentially ran out of space,” Yoshimoto said. “We could have put a notch in on the design, but there’s so little left over that it just really didn’t make sense. I think we’re really happy with where we netted out on this.”
Speaking of running out of space, the bezel on the bottom of the phone is much smaller than the one on the top, which is why you won’t find dual front-facing speakers anymore (a staple on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3). Instead, there’s a bottom-firing speaker paired with the earpiece on the top bezel for stereo sound.
My biggest gripe with the Pixel 3 is battery life. It barely gets me through a workday if it sees a little more use than usual, and it means I always carry a portable battery pack. I’m withholding judgment for the Pixel 4 until I can use it for a decent amount of time, but the specifications aren’t promising. The Pixel 4 has a 2,800mAh capacity and the Pixel 4 XL has a 3,700mAh cell. Those numbers are a little low, considering the respective 5.7-inch and 6.3-inch screen sizes.
Nevertheless, Yoshimoto said the phones are designed to deliver beyond 9-to-5 battery life. His team works closely with the engineers to understand the required power draw for each device, and goes from there.
“We want to really get everybody kind of a full day of use,” he said. “So if it has to be a little thicker, we’ll make that call. Obviously, we don’t want it to be too thick. But once again, we do want to deliver a great experience so we’re not going to compromise that part of it.”
Apple’s latest iPhones are — unusually — thicker than last year’s models due to the bigger batteries inside, and most flagship Android smartphones come with a 4,000mAh battery capacity as standard. Time will tell whether Google compromised here, or not.
It takes months to design a phone, yet one of the first items people buy when they purchase a new phone is a case to keep it protected. It’s difficult to argue against since phones are so fragile. I asked Yoshimoto if it hurts to see a design he spent months working on covered up in an ugly case.
“I’ve been doing phone design for a while, so I think that maybe if you’d asked me that like 5 years ago, I might have said it like a straight-up ‘yes,’” he said. “It still kind of hurts … but I totally respect how people want to represent themselves. If they do want to do a clear case with sparkles and unicorns on it — great. At least, you know, we’re still in control of that phone design itself. So I guess today I’m OK with it.”
If you are planning on buying a case for the Pixel 4, Google has a slew of fresh fabric cases to pair it with, and they’re not exactly the same as the fabric cases for previous Pixels. The hole for the fingerprint sensor isn’t needed anymore, for example, so it’s covered up — but that’s not all.
“All the weaves are slightly different,” Yoshimoto said. “If you look at that black band and then the square Pixel camera, you get a lot of really bold, great contrast, right? If you look at the weave in the fabric and especially if you compare it to Pixel 3, this year’s fabric cases, the weave itself is even bolder and more distinctive.”
Even with its cases, Google’s approach is distinctive. Most manufacturers — including Apple — opt for silicone, polycarbonate, TPU, or leather for cases.
It’s difficult to design phones. There are so many phone makers, so not only are you focusing on differentiating, but the rectangular canvas can also be limiting.
“Phone design is hard because you have to balance so many different components in such a tight space,” Villarreal said. “Every cubic millimeter is packed with something, so it’s really hard to balance the location of things, the dimensions, and then still do something that’s a good user experience.”
But there was a specific moment many months ago when Yoshimoto knew the Pixel square was the right approach for the Pixel 4.
“I very clearly remember the day that we started seeing sketches with this square camera detail — like literally a square,” he said. “And it wasn’t like, you know, slightly a rectangle. It was a square. We all looked at each other and were like, ‘You know there’s something clearly here.’”
After that, he said all the other pieces started falling into place, and everything that happened before went out the window and there was a clear vision.
“I’m really happy with where we ended up,” Yoshimoto said. “That’s because I think it’s striking sort of the right balance of doing something that feels unique and memorable, but at the same time it’s, you know, not this really wacky thing either.”
Do I think ours is more simple and more iconic? Yeah, I do.
There’s another phone that has a squarish module on the back of the phone this year, and it’s Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro. But it’s quite different from Google’s approach, as the lenses aren’t hidden away, but are instead pronounced. A side effect of this has been a host of people saying the iPhone 11 Pro triggers their trypophobia, which is the fear of small clusters of holes. Yoshimoto said he can see what drove Apple’s designers to go for a shape on the camera module
“You know it’s clear what they did as a designer; I understand what they’re trying to put behind that shape,” he said. “Do I think ours is more simple and more iconic? Yeah, I do. I mean, I know I’m supposed to say that, but I kind of really believe that too.”
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