We all remember the face-plant that was Google Glass. Or the time when, in an infamous fit of over-engineering, Google tested 41 shades of the color blue on ad links to find the most profitable hue. Since then, however, the company has been steadily refining its design strategy to get out of the way and put users first. Last year, Google’s Allo messaging app was an honoree in Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards. This year, the company has presented a slate of sophisticated new products—including a range of smart speakers, a globe-trotting virtual experience, and a new interface for communicating via Morse code on smartphones—signaling a design-first sensibility that has earned Google our first-ever Design Company of the Year Award, honoring high-quality, ambitious design work across an organization. CEO Sundar Pichai sat down with Fast Company‘s Co.Design editor, Suzanne LaBarre, for an exclusive interview about how design fits into Google’s overall mission.
Fast Company: Ten years ago, I would not have identified Google as an iconic design company. Was there a moment when you said, “We need to invest in design”?
Sundar Pichai: If you go back to Google Search and the Google home page, design was a big focus—this notion of doing something simple for users that’s accessible to everyone. All those elements were there. But not all products [groups] were thinking through the core tenets of design. As computing started shifting with mobile, that gave us a good opportunity to give a deeper framework for this philosophy across all our products. One thing that was important for me was: Users don’t use one Google product. They may be interacting with many Google products multiple times per day. Technology should be in the background and should adapt to you. Maps is a good example. You open Maps, it’s very intuitive. You understand this is what it should look like. When we built Chrome, we wanted it to be simple. We always had this mantra on the team: “It’s the content, not the Chrome, that matters.” We needed to more systematically do this across Google.
FC: How would you describe the company’s design strategy today?
SP: One element is a focus on the user—not trying to call attention to a product. It’s approachable, you feel comfortable interacting with it. If you go back to the classic Google home page, you could be a Nobel laureate using it or you could be in an emerging market getting internet access for the first time. We want things to be intuitive.
FC: What is the structure of design at Google? Apple has a very top-down structure, with Jony Ive, the visionary, running his design group. Google has incredible designers—Ivy Ross, Matías Duarte, and more—but it doesn’t strike me as being hierarchical.
SP: Google has more of a distributed approach. We have world-class designers across key areas, and the design community is very strong. There’s alignment around shared values and approaches but diversity of thought and opinion. Apple is great at what they do. But we found this works well for us. Because we are building many different products globally, diversity is an asset for us. We have all kinds of people from all parts of the world, and that contributes to the strength here.
FC: A big conversation in the design profession these days is around whether design really has a seat at the table. How does Google ensure that designers are empowered throughout the organization?
SP: When I look at our products that I feel have been designed well, I can name who the key designer is. There is a strong voice for these people. Whenever I do a review on any of her hardware products, [head of hardware design] Ivy Ross is in the room, and it’s clear to me that the role she’s playing is to make sure [there’s consistency] across a family of products [and to show] how we’re thinking about design, what our philosophy is.
FC: How does Google reconcile the tension between building seamless products that help users accomplish their goals easily and ensuring their privacy?
SP: I actually think they are not necessarily at odds with each other. Great design can help affect privacy and ensure well-being. For example, hush mode in Android—being able to place your phone down [for] “do not disturb”—is a good example of that. If you go to our “My Account” page, we’ve done a lot around privacy settings for our users. Over time we can do more and more. I think things like voice give you new affordances for better control.
FC: Looking ahead, what do you think is the company’s biggest design opportunity?
SP: Computing is in the middle of an exciting transformation. Today you use a single-purpose computer, your laptop, or your phone. Over time, computing will be there ambiently for you, when you need it, in the context of your life, and increasingly it will help you with more things.
FC: What do you see as Google’s biggest design challenge?
SP: Users still feel [that] getting technology in their lives, setting it up, configuring it—all of that is a hassle. [We want] technology that is super easy to use and is personalized and thoughtful in a privacy-sensitive way. When we built Chromebooks, a big focus for us was [to allow users to] set it up in less than a minute. There’s no time for it to boot up. Things just work. And if you give a Chromebook to someone else, they can just pick it up and use it. Those are hard design challenges that we are constantly working on to make better.
FC: What, ultimately, do you see as Google’s design legacy?
SP: That we make great design more common in the world. We care about the tools we provide other developers. For me, it’s a personal passion that technology works for everyone—globally. That not just Google, but a small developer building a new product, solving a problem for someone, also can create great design. That’s a big goal of ours. Android plays a big role in that. Providing platforms and tools that help people do better design. I want a $100 smartphone, or a $50 smartphone, which we are getting excited about increasingly. When we build Android Go phones, we want those to have the same great design. Design shouldn’t be conflated with higher-end.
Google is a winner, finalist and honorable mention in the 2018 Innovation By Design Awards. Check out all the honorees here.