Cognition and Widespread Acceptance of Material Design

Apple deserves the credit for building the new age Smartphone. A glossy rectangular device that redefined, what path breaking design can achieve with reference to the user experience.

While Apple had satisfactory user experience with their existing skeuomorphic design; with progression, the company shifted to the flat design concept that many believed would open up the next phase of a design revolution. However, this time, the scene was stolen by Google with the debut of its material design. I said stolen because most of the content on the web is being built on material design principles right now.

It will not be an overstatement to say that budding web designers or graphic designers, in general, will be more familiar with material design instead of flat at this moment. And this brings us to the question as to why material design is enjoying widespread applicability compared to flat designs.

What did material design offer that flat design could not?

While a lot of points can be put forth numerically, it all comes down to COGNITION on a broader scale.

Humans are wired to perceive and understand the physical world through the medium of light. The images that are projected within our eyes are 2 dimensional. However, the orientation of light and shadows makes us perceive the world in 3 dimensions. This is what creates the perception of depth, distance, and apparently feeds our consciousness.

Let’s illustrate it with some simple examples-

This is a simple geometrical cube. But, can you figure out which side is facing you and which one’s away ? Now look at the image below.

The blue dot is marked on the side that is facing away from the observer while the red facing the observer. However, until shadows and lights are used, the orientation of the cube remains unclear.

On the left, you cannot make out if the red dot is on the front or the blue one. In other words, we cannot ascertain the side that is near to us. Hence, for some the cube on the left might appear to be looking upwards or north-west while some may perceive it looking downwards or south-east.

However, as we use real light principles and shadows, we can now clearly understand that the cube is indeed looking downwards or south-east and the side with the red dot is facing the observer.

Let’s take another shape.


This is a Hexagon with consecutive diagonals meeting at the middle. However, it can also be perceived as a cube that is standing on one of its 8 corners. At the same time, even when you consider this figure as 3D in your mind, the meeting point of the diagonals at the center might appear to be pointing inside or facing outside. But only when we apply shadows, it becomes apparent that the diagonals are nothing but one of the 8 corners that is facing outwards and that the hexagon is indeed a cube.

This perception is so deeply rooted in the subconscious, that together with acquired knowledge it guides us in taking numerous decisions. If we are made to stand on the edge a cliff, it is this visual perception which will suggest us to step back or at least remain at a safe distance in order to avoid falling down.

In other words, the trickery of light that creates shadows and perception of depth is embedded deep into our psyche. It is how we perceive the world. And any design principle that takes that into account will have more chances of being accepted in real life.

Flat design, on the other hand, does not use shadows at all. Hence there is no perception of depth with flat designs.

You would now ask as to why Apple went into creating a new visual style that does not have cognition while dumping an existing style that was well-established and had very strong cognition?

The answer is simple. Shadows and shape that create the 3D elements use up a lot of processing power and RAM to function. When you have got a few apps in addition to the pre-installed ones, it does not create a problem. However, when more apps are installed, performance issues become apparent.

The submit button on the left is derived from the earlier skeuomorphic principles of Apple, while the right one based on Material. The left one occupies more space (as marked by the black border) and has 4 different effects. This is why it consumes more RAM, processing power and battery.

Also, the iOS7 UI that spearheaded the flat design norm was itself built on the premise to facilitate multitasking.  Hence, with an ability to run multiple apps in the background, Apple had to come up with something that ensured a lag free performance irrespective of a large number of apps being run by an arbitrary user. This is why, they stripped away skeuomorphism from their new app design principle.

When you are running a large number of apps at the same time, that makes a lot of difference in the performance. Apple moved to a new design scheme with a vision and achieved what it wanted.

Why didn’t Google go full flat then?

What made google stick to a more cognitive design is because Google controls the entire web and its experience. Google search and Chrome serve as the most important touch point for a lot of people using the internet. And now with Android added, Google has a much larger audience to serve. Another interesting fact is- many of these users have not been acquired yet. Yes, we are talking about people who have not seen the internet till date. Only a total of 3.17 billion or 40% of the world population is connected to the internet. The remaining 60% is yet to see the face of the internet and explore.

When these people do get the internet in their hands, a cognitive interface will not catalyze interaction but also help in faster and sure shot adoption of the web products that mostly belong to google.

If Google had gone with the flat design UI for Android, they would have been compelled to flatten Chrome and Google search as well in order to provide a unifying experience and development standards across all mediums. Do you think, this goes well with Google’s vision that is centered on collecting all the information of the world and serve it to billions of people from all walks of life in the simplest and most comprehensible manner? I don’t.

The smartphone market share is largely dominated by Google with Android, scoring more than 85% of the pie. Apparently a lot of cheap, but stable Android devices are making a mark in the market. And with them, Chrome and Android are naturally making their way into people’s lives. What better than material design to give them a natural cognitive experience into the digital world while making them habituated to it at the same time.

It is no surprise that most of the websites are designing their UI according to material design principles which reflect the fact that material has achieved widespread appeal.

No doubt, there can be some disadvantages with respect to performance when comparable computing hardware is involved. But as Android OEMs are free to beef up hardware or tweak the source code, the perceived dissatisfaction with top end devices does not really exist. In fact, many low-end budget Android smartphones (<150USD) gives almost a glitch free experience nowadays. Below is the Motorola E3 power. Very good on performance and costs 118-119 USD.

Material Design is also a lot more methodical and logical. There is nothing left to guesswork for the designer. Hence, it is easier to be an Android designer and start developing quickly.

Summing up, you have two design principles that are fulfilling two different purposes. Apple and Google are both crystal clear about their vision and they are using design as a key element to fulfill their respective objectives.

Arup Dey

I am passionate about Games, Content Marketing, NLE apps, and Videos. In my free time, I Read, Eat, and Code. I see life around me as interconnected subsets of small events. Helps me learn a lot! - OpenXcell