Google is firing all its cannons with its Chrome browser. It’s out for all the major platforms, and it’s even got a dedicated operating system in development. Part of such a cross-platform effort is a strong need for visual branding — a unique look which will subconsciously tell the user which browser they’re using. For two reasons, I’ll talk about Google Chromes branding today; first and foremost, to illustrate that a tab is not just a tab. Secondly, because Chrome has recently changed branding in a few key areas (which serves to illustrate the first reason).
A Tab Is Not Just A Tab
My good friend Chris called me on referring to Google Chromes tab design “unique” and “branding”:
@noscope It’s a tab. Of course that needs to be there. I don’t see what anyone could do to change that or, make it look brand specific.
Let’s look at Google Chrome at launch:
Google Chrome (development channel) today:
Aside from the addition of an extensions pane, we notice a number of changes:
- The frontmost tab and toolbar is now monochrome as opposed to bluish previously.
- The reload button is now integrated in the addressbar field, and the favourite star has been moved inside the addressbar.
- I can’t recall if the old version would show the site favicon also in the addressbar, but in the newest version you’ll see the favicon only on the tab.
- Did you notice the Google logo is gone?1.
What’s interesting here, is what Google did not change. And that is what I would argue is the most important branding. The tab design and layout.
Comic artists have worked for decades to create unique silhuettes for easily identifiable characters. Here’s comic artist Hergés Tintin:
If they made a movie, do you think they’d leave out this silhuette?
Games do it. Team Fortress 2, notably:
In the same vein, for software, the wireframe is the silhuette of the application. Here’s Firefox 4s wireframe look:
Clearly, the wave in browser interface design is tabs on top and minimal UI to save space for web-apps. It must’ve been a challenge for the Firefox designers (good job, by the way) to revamp towards this norm yet keep Firefox branding intact. Looking at the wireframe, the standout Firefox branding is now the App button and the Home Tab. The back/forward “keyhole” design not present on this wireframe is also an important Firefox branding element.
Usability Is Not A Jackson Pollock Painting
The design of the Chrome interface may be grounded in a rethinking of the browser — webpages are apps, tabs are app buttons — but the unique tab design is not an accident. Look:
One of the above is a Windows app, the other is a standalone OS. Sure, it’s iconified, but it illustrates the uniqueness of the tabs. These images are from the Chromium project’s Visual Design article, which also gives the following explanation for the design:
While it doesn’t show through today, we drew early inspiration from The Designers Republic’s work on the then-Psygnosis games WipEout and WipEout 2097; the focus on blinding speed, and iconography that could be recognized instantly even in the depths of your peripheral vision were both key attributes we admired.
The word “branding” may be thrown around a lot, these days. But in the case of the mysterious Google Chrome tabs, I would consider it appropriate.
- There’s a chance it’s gone because this is the dev channel, and that it’s present in the stable channel — I cannot say because I’m running only the dev channel. But my guts say it’s gone for good [↩]