Google vs. MSN

Sweet: Google
As I mentioned in Signs of Design Life, ridiculous-sounding words are entering our daily vocabulary thanks to the internet. Unlike the web-speak of a few years ago, “blogging” and “googling” are more than just buzzwords. With internet habits (and vices) so ensconced in the lives of practically everyone under 40, they are new verbs for which there are no adequate substitutions. So they’re not going to go away anytime soon.

The superiority of Google’s services is the main factor that’s cemented its status as verb. A dot-com should be so lucky as to be eminent for their exceptional service, rather than their presentation (something companies did not realize before the bubble burst). Google’s minimalist home page design and simple, fairly timeless logo reinforce the focus on conciseness and usefulness, rather than pretense, not unlike a dictionary. The white space has none of that obnoxious post-modern conservative business-ey Zen feel thanks to the friendly, colorful logo. These elements all serve to give the name of the business and its services meaning.

So I was surprised to read a quote recently from a designer who thought Google needed to be re-branded. Their current design is obviously making them money and serving their audience the best. From a corporate perspective, that is all companies really need from a graphic designer, especially in our still-lean economic times where many businesses don’t have a big advertising and design budget. It’s the designer’s job to see those objectives are accomplished.

Brands becoming words is nothing new. Most people in Texas refer to soda water/pop/cola, etc. as “Coke,” even if it’s Dr Pepper, RC or Hill Country Fare in a red can. When was the last time you heard anyone say “tissue?” Whether you reach for Scotties or Puffs, you blow your nose on a Kleenex. When a brand sets the standard, it becomes an indispensable commodity, and potentially a new word. An uncomplicated design strengthens its meaning and proves the old adage “Less is more.”

Shameful: MSN.com’s “New” Look
I can’t remember what was featured on MSN’s main page two weeks ago, but I can remember when they last changed their design in early 2003. I was working as a receptionist for a small non-profit science organization in my first job straight out of college. When I wasn’t providing Illustrator tech support for the marketing director or reading a random subscription of AdWeek their old network guy subscribed to 5 years ago, I was applying for new jobs through my Hotmail account.

One day, I clicked on MSN Home to find a page crammed with links, photos and blue gradients. I was surprised but indifferent. Sure, it was trendy for an enormous monopoly. Their marketing people probably thought it was a gutsy move, riding the brightly colored over-designed tails of the defunct dot-com boom.

Now in an even more gutsy move, they’ve greatly simplified their design, changing from the gradients to the boxes, and you have the option of changing the colors from Classic Corporate Blue to Quasi-futuristic Simple White Space. You’re blowing my mind, Bill Gates. Obviously, the design is not what’s gutsy, it’s the fact that they have the balls to shamelessly copy Google’s simplicity.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s still a webpage on steroids with ADD. There’s still ads and links all over the place, with absolutely no focal point, like watching the screen for CNN Headline News (to be critiqued later). And like CNN, I find the dynamic-ness and graphic movement of the content unnerving. The features on MSN change twice a day, mostly focusing on celebrities, money, consumer goods and sports. It’s scary to think that over 200,000 people have died in the tsunami disaster and it’s already out of their headlines.

Not only I lament the low quality of MSN’s content, I also decry their “new and improved” search engine. I’ve submitted my portfolio website to MSN Search and used supposedly ineffective META tags in the HTML on my main page. Do a search for Rachelle Rouse. The only thing that comes up is a book I illustrated for a small publisher three years ago. Do a search for R Squared Studio. It comes up on the second page – better, but now try The BackWord. Not even in the first five pages. You won’t hear me saying “I MSN Search’ed it.”

They many not set the standard for excellence, but Microsoft is very good at what they do: copying innovative ideas, dumbing them down several shades and making shitloads of money off the whole deal.

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