Google is changing the look of Google apps for very specific reasons that you need to know about, especially as it concerns the future of Google+.
Google is transitioning to a new look that is based on focus, effortlessness, and elasticity. First the slick black bar appeared across the top of all Google websites, now Gmail is changing, and Docs and other Google Apps are next. The question you should be asking is why? Why is Google making these changes? What do you need to know? And what does this have to do with Google+?
All Google sites now have a dark black bar across the top of each page where users can access their account information, the apps associated with each account, and, of course, quickly share and access Google+.
This bar helps to unify all Google Applications and to remind users which of their Google Accounts they are currently using. The clean white interface under the black bar helps draw the eye up to the red button on the top right which shows the number of new Google+ notifications.
Google has made it a point to use colors in a more consistent way. Bright colors like blue and red grab the user's attention. The user interface (UI) also has more white space which allows users to focus their attention on the important pieces of information. Gray and neutral colors are used take attention away from less important information like legal text and messages that have been read. This use of color as a way to guide users is especially evident in the new Gmail interface.
New Gmail interface
Gmail accounts and Google Apps Accounts on the rapid release cycle can now opt-in to a preview of the new Gmail UI. To preview the new look, select Mail Setttings | Themes | "Preview".
This new look strips out unnecessary color, adds more white space, and generally looks more clean and modern. The bright red Compose Mail button and the bright blue Search Mail button help the users focus on the important parts of Gmail. Additionally, some navigation buttons are hidden until the user needs them.
The original Gmail UI was built to display in a standard sized monitor, which is why the Gmail mailbox would display awkwardly on non-standard monitor displays. This new UI is more elastic, meaning it can easily adapt to all types of displays, mobile, PC, netbook, tablet and still look good.
Google also hopes to offer users effortlessness by combining the power of the web with design simplicity. This is most apparent in the Gmail search feature in which a 25GB inbox can be combed and filtered in a matter of milliseconds.
New Calendar interface
Google Calendar, which is also considered to be one of the "messaging" applications of Google Apps, also received a makeover. The new UI has much more white space, and the buttons for printing, refreshing and navigating are redesigned in a soft bubbly modern looking gray.
Color is used to highlight the Create Event and the Search button while everything else is kept white or gray.
Continuous Improvement: There are bugs
As is the nature of Google, the new UI was rolled out before it was fully baked and there are some bugs. The most common complaint is that there is too much white space in between conversations. There are also complaints that the new gray header area can distort the way a custom logo appears. Some Lab features may also look a bit strange in the new UI.
You can share your feedback about the new look with Google by filling out this form.
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What about existing Themes?
The blog post Google wrote about the new themes makes mention of even more new themes being released with a similar minimalistic structure. It is not clear whether the current themes will be retired or whether they will still be accessible to users. Some corporate users of Google Apps reply on the custom themes for branding reasons.
What does this have to do with Google Plus?
It's hard to ignore the connection between the release of Google+ and the new Google UI. The Google+ share button and notifications show in bright red and are clearly accessible through at the top right of the universal black navigation bar.
Google has often been criticized for releasing new products haphazardly, and that they get lost in the immense offering of Google services, products, apps and profiles. It is clear that Google+ is different than most product releases. It is cleanly and more precisely integrated with all of the Google Apps than any other new product rollout has been.
Google Apps Users - Scheduled Release Track
Domains listed on the "scheduled release track" do not have the option to opt-in to the new Preview theme for Gmail. The What's New site does not have a date listed for when this theme will roll out to those on the scheduled release track. Instead of rolling out as an opt-in preview theme, it may just roll out as the default theme.
Expect to see similar UI changes appear in Google Docs and Sites any month now.