Interview: Ivy Ross, Google’s Vice President of Hardware Design

Experimentation, curiosity and the customer are at the center of the team's philosophy

In Google‘s recent collection of home and mobile products, all products—regardless of function—fit together in a way that complements their technologies and visual design. That’s in part because of the precise yet fluid vision of Ivy Ross, Google’s Vice President of Hardware Design for the last few years. With experience in various realms—from fashion and jewelry to toys and art—Ross brings a truly unique point of view to the position, and her design choices are oftentimes experimental, but always human-focused. “Having been a psychology minor in school, I think I get into the mindset of the consumer. I think we have to do what’s right for each person,” she says.

Google has developed into a top-tier product company, branching far from their original days in software and development. Their first products launched in 2010—with the Nexus phone and then the Chromebook a year later—with high expectations and an inconsistent design language. Now the brand forges ahead with the clearest identity it’s ever had. Ross tells us, “I think it’s important that we keep the same language and signals up until such time where there’s a reason to evolve. I think we will evolve; we’ll keep our values but we’ll evolve. But really we’re just getting started.”

Image courtesy of Arthur Drooker

One such moment of evolution was evident in the development and introduction of the fabric for various Google Home and Pixel products. “I think people are craving this sensorial, tactile nature,” Ross says. “We are on screens—which are slick—a lot and when we are not on a screen, the rest of the product, because it’s sitting in our home, should blend in. So we go to great lengths to custom-make all of the fabric that we use because there wasn’t anything we could find on the market that had the performance we needed. It’s a signature of ours,” she says.

Of course, deciding to use fabric was just the beginning of the process. “It’s interesting because we always test with consumers in a family of colors. Your first impression is seeing a group of colors together, and then you go and decide, ‘Oh, I am this; I’m not this.’ So we do something really interesting, we have to look at things in context,” she explains. “For example, this color phone next to a green phone may give you a very different initial impression than this color phone with a black or white one. We have this really interesting way of doing what’s right for individual appeal and what’s best for when people first encounter our product online or in a store. So we also look to test the impact they have on groups.”

Ross says her team’s desire to do things differently doesn’t stem from being contrary, rather from curiosity. “I’m not into doing things just to be different. It has to be functional and differentiate. The fabric is an example of where it is both functional and differentiated,” she says.

There’s still always tension and dancing that happens, but there’s also a willingness to understand that sometimes making the effort really pays off and creates a difference

There was even skepticism from within Google. “What’s fantastic is that the company is really now appreciating it. With some of these subtleties that the design team and I were asking for, of course, it’s simpler to do other things. But now that we’ve won so many Design Awards and Design Company of the Year, it’s great because it’s a lot easier. There’s still always tension and dancing that happens, but there’s also a willingness to understand that sometimes making the effort really pays off and creates a difference.”

“There is real mutual respect. I think it comes on both sides; it comes from the designers, and it starts with the leadership, but the designers and I, we understand how things are built,” she says. “There’s a language that we can speak that pushes when we need to push and not push when it’s not going to be worth it. It all starts with mutual respect and trust. But it’s not easy. I think it’s about art and science; data and intuition. It’s finding the balance between having a point of view, but being willing, within a range, to hear feedback.”

“We came together from all different disciplines; we’re learning together,” she continues. “It’s like building a house: I always become friends with my contractors because if you understand the craft, you can have intelligent conversations about the possibilities.” Ross admits, “It’s like a Frank Gehry house. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest.”

While these visible choices are based on human interaction with tech, Ross believes that the ultimate goal will be to make technology disappear more and more. “I do think technology will ultimately ‘disappear’—it’s going to be magic. When it was new, it had to be overzealous and present and, ‘Look at me! I’m new!’ Now we’ve accepted the role that technology can play, and I think our job now is to design how it fits in and almost disappears.”

This concept creates an interesting tension at the center of Google’s design work: making something that has a point of view, while also wanting it to blend in—and eventually disappear. “We have possibilities in our mind that the consumer does not,” Ross says. “The consumer knows what they know today, but I want to get into the consumer’s mindset and understand it, and then take them to a place they couldn’t have imagined.”

Images courtesy of Google