The company that’s creating the most beautiful hardware in the world is no longer Apple. It’s not Samsung. And it’s not even Microsoft, either. It’s Google, with its new line of cloth-covered speakers, phones, and VR headsets.
Ivy Ross, head of design for all hardware products at Google, is largely responsible for guiding this aesthetic push. She joined Google in 2014 to lead the recently launched Google Glass after stints at Mattel and Disney–before all of which, she was actually a world-renowned jewelry artist who had her work placed in the Smithsonian.
Ross, a judge for Fast Company‘s 2018 Innovation by Design Awards, spoke with us on a range of topics–from her background, to what Google’s getting right, to her design team’s role in addressing consumer privacy.
Fast Company: Long before Google, you were a jewelry artist, landing your work in several museums. How did you make the jump from art to industrial design?
Ivy Ross: I was an art major and psychology minor in school. My dad was an industrial designer who worked for Raymond Loewy. I was in a household where he taught me to see things beyond what they appeared to be. Looking at a light fixture, even when I was a little girl, he’d ask, how can you extrapolate that mechanism to a different gadget?
My dad taught me an artist puts something on a pedestal, stands back, and hopes someone walks by and resonates with it. Certainly, I’ve done that and bought art. And love art. But a designer solves problems that millions of people are going to benefit from. And to me, that became really inspiring. How do I work within boundaries as any good designer does, but break the boundaries just enough to affect millions of people’s lives.
FC: But where did you actually develop those skills–from artist/craftsman to industrial designer?
IR: I had the work I was making with my own hands, that museums collected. And then I also had a company called Small Wonders, where we designed jewelry and mass-produced it.
Some people feel fashion is frivolous, but if you really tap into society, and can have a feeling of where as a society we want to go, fashion is a way to express that–and I was always looking at technology to get there. I would think to myself, how can I use that technology in the metalwork I was making? I would always hit the streets and find the manufacturers who could manufacture the idea I had in my head.
Once, I wanted to make these bracelets that had negative space cut out of them in really intricate patterns. You couldn’t cast metal that thin, though. So when photo-etching computer chips came out, I thought, with those, you could perforate the metal and punch out these shapes in intricate patterns.
I loved solving the problems differently each year. Every season, I wasn’t locked into manufacturing in any one method. I’d get the idea of where society was going, get the idea, and find the factory to bring that to life.
When my numbers were smaller, people were buying for 10 stores, I could knock on the door of various factories making products for other industries, and I could ask, “Could you fit me in and make 500 of these?” But as the orders got bigger, Neiman Marcus would order something for all of its stores. I realized that I had to open my own factory, and commit to only cast metal or cut stones, and I found that very limiting creatively, because I’d have to commit to one technology or technique of manufacturing. Meanwhile, the phone was ringing off the hook from various companies, “Would you come in and design?” And I thought, wow, this is great, because I can learn all these different technologies and techniques [in the private sector].
FC: You also transitioned to the corporate world pretty successfully. That’s not a given for artists.
IR: I was fortunate, as a metalsmith, getting my work into 10 museums around the world in my 20s. My ego trip lasted two weeks, and then I returned to normal. I realized life isn’t about attaining a holy grail. It’s a journey.
With my ego satisfied at a very young age, I really became fascinated with, how can you take a vision, together, and move people toward that? I view my role as being the orchestra conductor at this point. My job is to understand and see everyone’s gifts and talents, and create the dialogues that move us forward collectively.
FC: I had the funniest experience the other day. I laid down my Pixel 2–which has a Google cloth case–onto an upholstered rocking chair in my son’s room. And then I couldn’t find it. It was camouflaged to the chair because it matched almost perfectly! You nailed my textile taste, I guess.
IR: See, I think that is great. When technology first came out, it was black boxes. You’d walk into someone’s house and go, “You have a such and such speaker.” And I just think things are going to blend in first with our environment, then on us.
FC: I love Google’s aggressive fabric designs, and that, finally, tech feels as inviting as our living room. But I’ve also wondered, in the age of privacy concerns, is all of this soft technology actually more like surveillance equipment designed to be forgotten?
IR: When we think of technology as anything man invents, we get a very specific image of it that’s tied to advancement. But the team and I sat down and thought about it, [realizing] we should make it more inviting, more human. It was intentional that we softened things. We’re trying to make them feel more human, comfortable, not like a foreign machine. I’m sorry to hear that the privacy issues provide such a high contrast to [design].
Just like we’ve put out this design aesthetic–more soft, human, inviting–that fits into our environment, I’d like to think we’re taking the same approach of always having been very conscious of how do we do what we need to do without invading privacy.
FC: You can’t blame people for having this concern, though, with everything happening around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
IR: The privacy conversations are complicated. Each of the tech companies are not the same, and we have different business models. I hope the public doesn’t lump us all together.
We believe technology is here to help us, not to scare us, not to invade our privacy. I think it’s up to us, the people, to understand where it enhances our life, and brings us advantages. And really we [as designers] must be user-centric in coming at this from the user perspective as to how to give them the advantages to what the tech provides, and be absolutely respectful of their privacy.
This conversation has surfaced, and it’s a good conversation to have because we should be talking about it as a society. Design is about solving problems. That fundamentally is what good design is. I think this is just something that has to be considered in all design. At the end of the day, it’s really about, what’s appropriate, how do we serve people without disrespecting privacy issues?
FC: When Google Glass came out, I was hugely skeptical. I didn’t believe people would wear it because, if nothing else, it didn’t offer enough functionality to make it worth wearing something on your face. What did you learn from Glass?
IR: I think we will look back five years from now, which will be 10 years from when Glass started and say, “Wow, it blew the door open and it was a product ahead of its time.” And I think that has a role to play in society.
Timing is everything, and I think that over time, technology will get distributed among our senses. [But] technology has to come to the place where it can be utilized in a way that fits into our lives. And technology must be served up in forms that enhance our humanity and don’t take us out of it. I think we’re still interested in [Glass], believe in it, and it’s just a matter of timing. Right now, and this is public news, that second edition of Glass is in enterprise and really giving enterprise some great advantages.
FC: With all that in mind, what do you think are the future trends in industrial design? Is every gadget going to become soft and beautiful? Or will all of this stuff just disappear entirely?
IR: Absolutely to both. I think there are some things that are technically capable of being invisible, and they should be invisible, and you should be able to access them in a simple, easy way. But some things can’t be invisible, they need to be shown, or sit somewhere. They should be aesthetic and beautiful and additive to the space. Not subtracting from the space.
I think we’re all trying to get rid of some of the clutter in our life. So when you do have an object, a speaker or thing, sitting on the table, I want to think that it’s additive. Or if you can wave a magic wand and it disappears, that’s cool.
We’re moving toward where, it’s either invisible, or if it has a presence, it should have a considered presence.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.