Ivy Ross is the Vice President of Design for Hardware at Google. Over the past three years, she and her team have launched 30+ products winning over 90+ global design awards. This collection of hardware established a new Google design aesthetic that is tactile, colorful and bold. A winner of the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Ivy’s innovative metal work in jewelry is in the permanent collections of 12 international museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Ivy has also held executive positions at Calvin Klein, Coach, Gap and Mattel among others. Ninth on Fast Company’s 2019 list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, Ivy’s passion is human potential and relationships and she believes the intersection of arts and science is where the most engaging and creative ideas are found.
Chris: When you started to define Google hardware and its completely new design language from scratch, were you totally free to do that or did you receive any input from the founders?
Ivy Ross: We began the definition of Google Hardware with various sessions across our divisions, from marketing to engineering, software, UX and more. We truly wanted to express and identify what it should and look and feel like to hold Google in your hand. We identified core attributes that felt the most applicable and that we could draft off of as we built this new initiative within Google. Then we developed our design principles from there. The words ‘human’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘bold’ rang true to us and felt like a pure translation of what Google stands for. Then our job was to translate those three principles and the core of Google into the design of physical products.
Chris: At what point did the materials come into that story? Was it at the beginning?
Ivy Ross: We started with the word human which implied certain forms and it meant the shapes were rounded and more natural. For example, the Google Home Mini feels like you’re holding a river stone in your hand (and people have actually mentioned this to me). These forms then influenced us in terms of how we incorporated both soft and hard materials and textures. There are so many ways that you can create speakers, i.e., you can just have perforated holes in plastic, but we said no, we want that materiality and that softness to shine through. That’s when we said let’s start exploring fabric. And the use of colour really came from our optimistic point of view of surprising people, both in the product itself and in the little details. For example, when you shift the mute button on the Home Mini and that reveals a pop of colour. Thinking about materials and colors was a way for us to express and deliver on our attributes.
Chris: The use of textiles feels like it was very intuitive in terms of what you’ve just been saying. Was there anything else you want to add about that idea of using textiles because you’ve used it in a very bold and CMF defining way that really communicates the value of the products?
Ivy Ross: Absolutely. One of the biggest aspects to our textiles is that they were all completely custom made and designed. We had to research, develop and innovate in this space to meet all of our needs. There were textiles that existed that were good for audio, but they didn’t necessarily look or feel good when you touched them or held them in your hand. Then there were textiles that looked or felt good but weren’t acceptable for the high audio quality that we needed to achieve. So all of those fabrics we had to create from scratch. I’ll never forget at one of our all-hands meetings we announced that we had looked at over 150 different shades of gray fabric to find the perfect color and texture and the rest of the company was blown away by this attention to detail. Google had never worked with fabric before and it was fascinating for the company to realize how much effort goes into each and every one of these decisions. After we had an idea of what Google Hardware should look and feel like, we dedicated ourselves to making sure each and every element was exactly right.
Chris: Previously you’ve talked a lot about how users feel, how do you want users to feel when they’re using your hardware?
Ivy Ross: We developed our own design language for Google to express the company and its mission in a physical form. And the good thing about coming a bit late to the game with hardware compared to some of our competitors is that we had a clear differentiation out of the gate. Our products feel approachable and human and blend in perfectly in your living room. A lot of our competitors have one slick surface but for us the meaning of human was making things a little more tactile. So in the early days, dividing the product surfaces, even the back of our phones, with some new processes where you can have matte and shiny living together and where the matte has a real grip to it. Really pushing on the sensation of touch and feeling. I think we’re craving to ignite our senses a bit more as we’ve all flatlined in this space. We’ve been surrounded by black plastic and harsh edges for too long. As a design team we’re always looking at how we give the material some new sense of tactility because when you introduce that element it makes you feel and sense differently. So that’s something we look to do across all products and materials - whether it’s on soft touch glass with the Pixel 3 or on the fabric on our speakers, the mixture of this texture invites a warmth to the touch.
Chris: That’s interesting as you’ve got the Google software interaction at the heart of the brand, which is very screen-based and somewhat detached from the physical world, so in a way you’re balancing that out with very tactile, emotive and sensorial hardware.
Ivy Ross: Yes, you’re absolutely right. You’re often interacting with screens which are flat, slick surfaces which are great because they’re very efficient and helpful to us. But to add the warmth and tactility around it is really something we’re very thoughtful about, wherever and whenever we can be.
Chris: With the domestication of technology and making it more human, you could’ve gone down the route of natural woods or metals, but like you described that combination of different surfaces, textiles and plastics also feels very human. Can you talk anymore about the use of plastics and that combination with textiles?
Ivy Ross: Well you know, design is about solving problems, but we also have the challenge of staying within specific production and price parameters. We would love to utilize wood or other materials in place of plastic but it’s just not practical in production at this stage. For example, getting the form factor of Google Home Mini where the plastic and the fabric combine almost seamlessly in a beautiful shape was not the path of least resistance. It was incredibly challenging. But we really looked at every possible option and design and we arrived at the best solution that also fit within various requirements. We are always researching new materials and would love to develop something beyond the traditional plastic, but until such time, that’s why we continue to evolve the traditional approach to plasti and we combine it with other techniques. One of the most inspiring parts of my job is using design to solve problems within boundaries like these.
Chris: You have talked about being an orchestra conductor and your products look effortlessly put together and conceived. So, as a conductor what’s your style and how do you manage the different teams to work together in what looks like such a harmonious way?
Ivy Ross: The great thing about Google Hardware is that the engineering and marketing teams have great respect for our design language and principles. But it’s always a dance of trade-offs. Engineering and design are constantly going back and forth to solve problems, but the great thing is, because of the respect we’ve earned, we give a little bit, engineering gives a little bit. Like I mentioned, the form of the Home Mini was not the path of least resistance. I mean it’s certainly easier to make a square plastic box. But the rest of the company saw the consumer reaction from doing something a little bit different. Something that was softer, more beautiful. They’re on our side to achieve these things.
I’m so lucky to have such an incredibly talented team ranging from industrial designers to material engineers and I love the fact that they have come from many disciplines. Not just electronics, but from fashion to furniture and even bicycle design. I really do believe that diversity is what fosters creativity. Because of the different points of view we were able to push our design principles to be as strong and unique as possible.
Every week we have a Joint Product Review where individuals bring in products and perspectives to discuss and challenge each other on. I have used the analogy as an orchestra conductor as part of my responsibilities are to hold the vision or maintain the synergy that we’ve agreed to. And just like an orchestra, sometimes we might need a bit more percussion or need a little bit more violin to really stay true to that vision and make sure the team is working together in harmony so we maintain our consistency. I am very grateful for this opportunity and it’s not often you get to develop a brand within a brand, especially at a company like Google.
Our work crosses so many different product categories and the idea is that we can make them all feel like a family through these aligned design principles. I think it’s a matter of coherence. Coherence between the vision of the team and the continuing dialogue with open and honest communication. Over time, identifying which of these design principles need to evolve and which ones are really the soul of the aesthetic that we shouldn’t change? It’s an evolving process and we always challenge ourselves and challenge each other to make sure we can tell if “this feels right” or “this isn’t working”.
Chris: In many of the videos I’ve seen you’re playing with materials. There are always material samples and there is a video that shows a materials library. Can you say something about the role of materials?
Ivy Ross: The great thing is the company let me work with an architect to design and construct our studio. That was such a gift because buildings at Google have been designed for other disciplines in the past such as computer engineering and coding so to have our space designed for visual and industrial designers was a fantastic opportunity. We talked about what was important and two very big things that were not part of the architecture of other Google buildings was the materials library and the colour studio, which are the of pillars of the space. I think for me, creativity is looking at everything holistically, taking it all in and then putting it through your own filter and perspective on the world. So it’s really important that we try and inspire each other with new materials, new forms, new shapes and new colours all the time. These two rooms are actually designed with shelving facing outwards towards the rest of the studio so when you walk in every day you see an exhibit of elements that our designers have collected from all over the world. Even a bar of soap that happens to be a beautiful colour or we liked the touch or feel.
On the other side of the atrium is the materials library where there are all different kinds of fabrics, textures, resins, etc. I’m a big believer that things from outside your industry can and should inspire you. Having a dynamic range of materials in the library, from mushroom leathers to 3D printed objects, is incredibly inspiring to have around us. I believe part of creativity is playfulness and having these materials to play with is incredibly important to the team.
Chris: Google started as a software company and all of their software products are very easily accessible and approachable. Did the software part of Google influence the material choices for the hardware?
Ivy Ross: We started as a software company so our core design principles evolved from our mission of creating products and services for everyone. And ‘For everyone’ is what we translate into being human - if you’re ‘for everyone’ then you’re inclusive, you’re optimistic, you dare to solve problems that will benefit the whole. And we were certainly informed and inspired by Google’s DNA and all the amazing applications that came before Hardware.