The tally for awards earned by Google’s hardware design team – the brains behind products including phones, wearables and laptops, and installations like A Space for Being and Softwear – has exceeded 100 since its launch in 2016. It’s been a fast climb: when current vice president of hardware design Ivy Ross started working for the tech behemoth in 2014, it didn’t yet have ‘a discipline of design’. So, how did the Silicon Valley company manage to swiftly create a design language that successfully marries the digital with the domestic? The answer may be surprising: human intuition. At Frame Awards 2020, Ross shared why Google’s approach is firmly rooted in neuroaesthetics – in other words, why our biological instincts are just as valuable as data-driven insight when developing physical products.
When Ross came onboard, the first task at hand was to formulate a set of design principles that could ultimately bring hardware, software and AI together. It turns out that doing so ‘late in the game’ introduced some clear advantages. ‘We were able to stand back, look at other brands and say “We're not this, we're not this – who are we?”. Electronics really have been looking very much alike in today's market – at least the big companies – and that really drove us to want to figure out where to position ourselves on this scale that would give us a more unique and brand-appropriate position. We organized a cross-functional debate to explore all the possibilities and we looked at all the manifestos that Google had written over the years; what were the words used; what consumers were saying about us. We ended up with these three words: human, optimistic and daring.’
Now, the tangible manifestation of those words comes from a careful, studied attention to colour, form and tactility. Google’s devices are designed to belong together: it’s been considerate, yet previously unprecedented design touches – the selection of vibrant, yet home-appropriate palettes and the use of fabric material finishes in place of hard plastic, for example – that’s helped set the company’s offering apart. ‘When technology first came out there were big black boxes that said “Look, I'm here”,’ Ross said. ‘Now that we're living with it, it's about how we quietly assimilate it into our environment and have it be there when we need it. We wanted to be the anti-black box, which is definitely the path of least resistance. So we started doing these forms that were more natural: when you hold them in your hand they feel like a river stone or a pebble, hiding the technology and the interface until you need to communicate functionally. Flat screens are causing us to crave this sensorial nature of texture and different surfaces, so I want to make sure that our products absolutely contain all of this.’
We need to remember that intuition is our first instinct and actually another form of data
The real ‘secret sauce’, according to Ross? ‘It's the people,’ she explained. ‘My team is from all over the world, coming with expertise in areas of design, UX, engineering, colour and materials, having worked on a vast array of product categories such as fashion, furniture and electronics.’ Ross organizes different events to get everyone together, ‘usually in nature’. ‘I believe an important element of creating together is trust and connection, and we need to create other ways for that to happen outside of our day-to-day work environments. If you focus on yourself or your singular goals, you may knowingly succeed – but if you forget yourself and truly connect with others to focus on an audacious outcome, that's when unimaginable success happens.’ The team brings this energy into the work itself. ‘We use both data and our intuition. On the surface, these two sources of information or intelligence seem contradictory – data being facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis, and intuition the ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning of the two. While valuable data has become so big, it can dominate our thinking and feeling which puts our intuition at risk, resulting in analysis paralysis...we need to remember that intuition is our first instinct and actually another form of data.’
Human-centred design is not about designing for what people think or say they want, it's about designing for what people need
‘Human-centred design is not about designing for what people think or say they want, it's about designing for what people need,’ reasoned Ross. ‘[It’s] why we cannot rely solely on interviews and survey data from design research. That type of information only scratches the surface because we can only get out of people what they're able to articulate based on what they already know, as opposed to what we as designers might be able to imagine in combination with what our intuition tells us. This is why, when designing for a future that does not yet exist, we need to gain a deeper understanding of people – how they think and feel – to truly provide what they might need from technology in the next three to five years.’