Designing alongside data: decoding Google’s neuroaesthetic language at Frame Awards

Frame Awards 2020 jury member and speaker Ivy Ross is the vice president of hardware design at Google. But she really sees her role as that of an orchestra conductor, and that’s not far off: leading her team of ‘talented and diverse individuals’ in the creation of a multitude of award-winning smart products (Google Home is one), the Silicon Valley-based executive-designer has indeed found symphony in harmonizing the digital with the physically sensorial.

In 2014, Ross came to Google oversee the development of the now-discontinued Glass, which is notably currently in process of being revived for developers by the hardware-resell market. It was one of the first physical products offered by the tech giant. ‘Transitioning from software to hardware was a complex challenge,’ she explains of Glass’ conception, ‘But one we were so eager to jump in and solve. My biggest learning experiences came in continuing to appreciate that the user experience must lead the way and those use cases must be clear before one starts designing a product.’

It’s this regard – and inherent respect – for the user that has caused the birth of projects like Google’s Salone del Mobile 2019 installation, A Space for Being. For many who experienced it first-hand and countless more who didn’t, the installation underscored the importance today in regarding as neuroaesthetics as integral to the design process. The burgeoning neuroscientific field is one of the primary focuses in Google Hardware’s practice.

At Frame Awards 2020, Ross will explain how, following the tenets of neuroaesthetics, Google has effectively created a design language that marries the digital with the domestic and why human intuition is as important as data-driven insight when developing physical products.

I view all aspects of design as a way of solving problems for people

You started your career in jewellery design, which I find poetic considering the products you conceive now for Google Hardware – the craft is so much about the human hand, the organic meeting the precise. How do you harmonize your tactile and tech-led sensibilities?

IVY ROSS: I view all aspects of design as a way of solving problems for people. Whether in fashion, consumer goods or consumer electronics, the goal is the same from my point of view: to create solutions that are unique, engaging, beautiful and helpful. The great thing about the hardware team at Google is that we utilize incredibly tactile elements in new and ground-breaking ways in the space of hardware. We were the first to begin using fabrics and colours on smart speakers to ensure they perfectly fit into people’s homes. We’ve developed soft-touch glass in our phones that feels great in your hand and prevents it from slipping out of your hand; we’ve developed a palette of colours for each year’s products that complements our homes and living spaces. That’s one of the greatest parts of this job – finding beautiful ways to solve complex problems and create truly helpful products in both their design and features.

At Frame Awards, you’ll talk about why human intuition is as important as data-driven insight when developing physical products. Neuroaesthetics have recently become an important focus for Google – what sparked that?

I like to frame the conversation around data versus intuition in the field of design with the phrase ‘Design Thinking and Design Feeling’. My interest in the field of neuroaesthetics has been a long-standing one, but only recently did we start to begin to name and quantify what it all truly means. ‘Design feeling’ takes the principles of neuroaesthetics to their most pure form in the field of design. Designers innately consider how their work will impact those that experience it. And what we mean here is shifting the importance of what ‘good design’ means, how we approach it and what we want the outcome to be in order to focus on how products make people feel.

Designers innately consider how their work will impact those that experience it

On my team there is always a time and place to utilize both the ‘feeling’ aspect of the design process in addition to the more data driven/rational/logistical ‘thinking’ elements, but we always use them in harmony.

What do you think the most important elements are in creating digital objects that people will feel comfortable having – and using – in their home?

A few words come to mind and you nailed one of them on the head. Comfort, helpfulness and a blending of technology with design elements of the home are key to us.  Several others come to mind as well: security and privacy. Knowing how important and beneficial these principles are to my team and in my own life, I certainly want to be able to share that with as many people as possible. We want to create products that are seamless with everyday lives and that complement lifestyles, not ones that detract or distract from them.

There are several design principles that guide our work at the hardware team – ‘human’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘bold’. We utilize these principles to create beautiful products that can assist our users in so many ways, and we’re really just getting started. Building off your last question about neuroaesthetics, we want people to know they have the agency and control to impact how they feel by what they choose to surround themselves with – that includes the technology and products they invite into their home.

We see technology and hardware products as ways to aid well-being

Technology has developed our understanding of physicality and spatial awareness immensely. What positives do you see in this evolution?

I see so many positive developments occurring in this space on a daily basis and they all centre on the ways that technology can help people live their lives to the fullest. We see technology and hardware products as ways to aid well-being, both in personal and work spaces. From the materials and colours we choose to how these technologies will go to fit into homes, we carefully consider each and every design choice from a lens of helpfulness.

We take the idea of ‘digital well-being’ very seriously at Google and understand that there are great challenges that lie ahead to ensure our products serve to connect rather than build barriers. An example of one of those barriers is one we know all too well: looking around a public space and seeing everyone staring down at their phone. We think this approach will vastly improve our users’ lives and their physical spaces.

Join our team and Ivy Ross at the forefront of spatial design – get your Frame Awards tickets here.

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