Material You is Google's new unified design language it first introduced with Android 12. In contrast to rigid design paradigms of the past, it's a design that extracts its colors from the part of your phone that you have the most control over and that is likely very individual to you: the wallpaper. Thus, it's likely the most personalized design language out there, so there are a lot of technical details to dive into.
What is Material You?
Google unveiled Material Design at I/O back in 2014. An overarching design system was much-needed — it brought consistency to Google's digital products and allowed developers to easily build apps that looked at home on Android and the web. It has evolved a great deal over the years, but the latest major iteration is the biggest overhaul since it launched. Material You, as the name suggests, is all about personalization, and it first launched on Google Pixel phones with Android 12.
Google made it easier for developers to customize the look of their apps with Material Theming in 2018, and indeed many of the company's apps have since been updated with its own Material Theme. Even with what has been referred to as Material Design 2.0, many of the core elements remained unchanged, but Material You is a much deeper reimagining.
We got a ton of redesigned components along with new shapes, new colors, new lighting, and new animations. That means new toggles, big fat sliders, new button configurations... just about everything was tweaked in some way. Android 12 and Google apps got all of this first, but we can also expect to see it rolled out to smart displays, Chrome OS, and across Google's websites.
With Material You, Google hopes to unify its software and hardware teams and dictate the look and feel of the company's products for years to come. Let's hope that we don't see the same slow, painful rollout as the Google Material Theme — it took several years to update some of Google's core apps to match, by which time trends had moved on.
Google hasn't forgotten about accessibility in all of this—the contrast, size, and line width of components can all be easily adapted by the system to suit the many needs of different users. Material You has been designed with every possible "you" in mind, it seems.
The genius wallpaper-based theming engine
Material You is an exciting evolution, as it’s based on the one thing that almost everyone changes as soon as they get a new phone — the wallpaper. It’s the one part of any device where you can basically do everything you want to design-wise, with no rules in place about what’s tasteful and what isn’t.
On Pixel phones and select other devices, Android 12 bases its interface on the dominant colors of your home screen's background, with system UI elements, widgets, app icons, and some app interfaces tapping into this "color extraction" engine to provide you with a unique look that you might not find on any other phone in the world — that’s particularly true if you opt for an image that you shot yourself. With Material You analyzing every last detail of your wallpaper (locally on your phone), it will extract ever so slightly different colors and use those to give you a one-of-a-kind experience on your phone.
The simplest approach to theming imaginable
Google has long experimented with custom themes, most notably on Android 10 and 11, where it was possible to change icons, shapes, fonts, and colors for a few system UI elements. It’s a bummer that Android 12 lost this ability, bringing everyone back to the default round icons, but Material You makes up for that with its ease of use. You can just set a new wallpaper and let it do its magic, with no further tweaking needed—though it’s possible to choose from up to three alternative custom color palettes and four standard colors if you’re so inclined.
There will always be enthusiasts that enjoy using or creating custom icons for their third-party launchers that come in all shapes and sizes, but the wallpaper is likely the one common denominator that's accessible to regular folks who are not particularly into theming and modding. Material You's design options are front and center, and they can't be avoided, no matter how little you know about theme customization.
In a perfect world, every single Android app would introduce Material You elements, giving you a unique experience in every application you use. Google was pretty fast about adding support for its own apps, which gives us a glimpse at how Android could look in a year or two. By just changing your wallpaper, you might be able to tweak all of your app interfaces to your liking, with colors you prefer to see. Couple that with light and dark modes, and you have a huge palette to play with. A small selection of apps—Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Kindle, and a handful of Reddit clients—already allow you to tweak their UI, but having your wallpaper serve as a system-wide toggle that refreshes the look and feel of your favorite apps is a less tedious alternative.
Just like Material Design adapted and grew over time, I’m confident that Material You will also mature over the next few months and years.
Is there anything to hate about Material You?
Of course, it's optimistic to think developers will jump on the Material You bandwagon. Many big third-party developers will probably take pause before they give up their brand identity for Material You, just like many popular apps were reluctant to jump on Material Design back in the day. This could lead to a disjointing experience a few years down the line, with Google services and a handful of indie apps remaining the only applications to take advantage of the Material You theming engine.
Depending on your stance, Android 12 could also feel a lot more childish than previous versions of Android, with bigger elements and more playful shapes dominating the home screen, the notification shade, and system settings on Pixel phones. Google has increased radiuses and decreased borders, and the bigger headings it encourages throughout app design can look and feel muddled and unharmonious in the end. Information density also suffers, with bigger borders and more white space revealing ever less information. You'll notice that in the notification shade, in particular.
There is also the argument that Material You could make apps look bland and boring, stripping them of any individuality that could make them more fun to use or help users differentiate them at a glance. However, just like Material Design adapted and grew over time, Material You will likely mature over the time. Perhaps the color adjustments will be subtle enough that they won’t fully dominate applications anymore, or perhaps apps will be able to use the theming engine in some novel, less in-your-face way that we can’t imagine just yet.
It’s clear that Material You is a bold bet, but it looks like it’s a gamble that is paying off. The new visual direction has more people talking about Google's latest phones — the excellent Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro — and about design in general, with many saying that Android 12 makes iOS look long in the tooth. It’s entirely possible that Google is in the process of triggering a whole new wave of app design paradigms across multiple competing platforms, much like it did with its 2014 Material Design launch.
Scott Scrivens contributed to this article.