An Introduction to Design Languages

May 5, 2021

Kevin Dekker

When I was a kid, my dad and I went to a lot of car shows, swap meets, and scrap yards looking for parts for his ‘61 Chevrolet Impala.  I was always amazed at his ability to identify the make, model, and year of a car just by seeing a small part of it. No doubt a lot of this came from practice and passion, but there was more to it than that.  

Even if you’re not a car person, you can probably recognize a BMW without ever seeing the logo. So why is this the case? A lot of it related to Design Languages.

What is a Design Language?

A Design Language (sometimes referred to as a Design Motif) is more than just branding – it is the glue that holds everything together.  Let’s stick with cars for a moment, but shift gears to look at a few other examples:

  1. Volvo’s design language communicates safety and practicality through simplicity.  Designers Thomas Ingenlath, Robin Page, and Maximilian Missoni refer to it as a true “Scandinavian” design. Comparing their latest models to those from the 90’s, similar shapes and proportions can be found, giving vehicles that distinctive “Volvo look”.  (Fun fact – the slash on the grill was originally only there to hold the logo).
  2. Cadillac refers to their design language as Art and Science.  Their philosophy "incorporates sharp, sheer forms and crisp edges—a form vocabulary that expresses bold, high-technology design and invokes the technology used to design it."  Long hoods hearken back to the older days, while the angled grills and sharp lines add a futuristic look.

Even without the logo being visible, there’s a good chance of identifying a car’s make from the design language. But what about branding? Strong brands are recognizable even when you can only see a portion of the logo – or you can’t see the logo at all. Let’s look at some of the well-known brands whose logos are easily identifiable:

Example 1

McDonald’s is arguably the most recognizable brand in the world. It’s so recognizable, that even just showing the brand’s colours can be enough. In a recent billboard campaign, only a portion of the logo was shown along with directions.

Example 2

Doritos recently had a campaign that flaunted their strong design language.  Their colours and the shape of their iconic chips is enough for most consumers to recognize the brand.  Recognition like this can only be achieved through their brand’s consistency and prevalence in the market.

Design Language in Tech

Let’s look at 3 of the big players in tech: Google, Microsoft, and Apple.  Each of these companies have had famous (or infamous) design languages that have impacted how other brands make digital products.

Example 1: Google

Google’s Material Design is one of the best examples of a design language.  Their team took the time to document and share their approach to grids, animations, and spacing.  The most impactful may have been their approach to depth effects such as lighting and shadows.  In their extensive documentation, , elevation is key, a.and has really defined the “look and feel” of Android apps and the G-suite of tools.

Example 2: Microsoft

Microsoft introduced their ambitious Metro Design Language to work on desktop, console, and their first foray into phones with the Windows Phone 7.  While the first few iterations had some issues to work out, they created consistency across platforms that hadn’t been seen before.  This was an incredible challenge – especially when you consider the vastly different interactions between a console and a mobile device. Bright colours and bold, rectangular links defined Microsoft products for a few years.  Today – Fluent Design System is the successor to Metro and has softened a bit, while taking in the lessons from their previous design systems.

Example 3: Apple

Design has always been at the forefront of Apple’s products.  As Steve Jobs once said: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”  Apple has made dramatic changes over the years, and their design languages have heavily influenced software and hardware development – not to mention advertising.  There is a focus on simplicity that Apple carries through to their marketing that is iconic.

Conclusion

Design languages are a major part of a good product.  Attention to detail is key – it’s all about how the branding, interactions, and functionality come together to form a strong design language.

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