For the past 11 years, Robert Wong has helped build the Google Creative Lab. At a company known for its engineering efficiency, the NYC lab was an early bright spot for quirky thinking inside the company–in part thanks to his role as cofounder and executive creative director. The Creative Lab gave us the first interface behind Google Glass, a few fun AI experiments, and lots of tearjerker commercials.
I caught up with Wong to talk shop, just before Google’s annual I/O conference this week, where the lab debuted its new closed-captioning system for Android. What Wong (who is also a judge for our 2019 Innovation by Design Awards, which closes May 10) offered is essentially a manifesto on why he comes to work every day.
Fast Company: What’s in your head these days? What are you thinking about?
Robert Wong: What’s in my head right now is what’s been in my head for a long, long time. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story, but it’s a parable that’s inspires me all the time as a North Star. An MBA, artist, and engineer are in a bar having a drink. The MBA says “Hey, it’d be so cool if we built a road to Town B. It’d be great for our economy.” And the engineer says, “Great, let’s build a straight, four-lane highway. It’ll be the fastest way to get there.” And the creative says, “What if we built the highway to the coastline, so for all eternity, people loved the drive?”
I trained as a designer, but I’ve always been attracted to being in the center of impacting things as much as possible. When I was creative director at Starbucks, I wanted to be somewhere that every day, people would experience something new–where I, as a designer, could add humanity and meaning. That’s why I joined Google. I wasn’t going to trust the future of humanity to MBAs and engineers. I wanted to bring a bunch of misfits from the creative field to add to that. That’s my deep ethos.
FC: You want to be at that intersection of tech and liberal arts.
RW: More recently, under the Obama administration, [the president] hired the first chief tech officer–an ex-Googler, actually. That was a big thing. Tech was having a big impact. It was such a crucial role that most cities now have a CTO. There’s still no chief design officer of America, or [even of] the city of New York. I don’t know what that person would do, but I feel like unless this field is at the center driving commerce, government, and nations, we’re kind of hobbling. We’re not leveraging all of what humanity has to offer to move things forward.
RW: Sometimes, I feel like design and designers are thinking too much about design as a capital D, as its own thing, versus how does it integrate and partner and riff like the artist, engineer, and MBA at the bar. If they’re just riffing and building stuff together, no one is above anyone else.
FC: Can you talk about the Creative Lab? You put out several commercials, and recently, experiments that promote AI–but are you really more Google’s marketing arm than part of product development?
RW: I probably spend over 50% of my time in product development! Definitions, by definition, kind of limit things. People who come in here are often like, “just tell me what I should be doing.” If I had a list of everything we’ve done, what’s most important is what’s not on the list. Our goal is to invent what no one asked for.
FC: Right. At the Lab, it doesn’t seem that you start with a normal identify a problem, find a solution, mindset.
RW: I think we do. The thing is, even though I undersell some of our expertise in branding or product design or whatever, I think we do try to understand [problems]. We have a little view of the world where there are three circles. The first is what’s within Google right now: technology, ethos, ideals, what makes us proud. What raw tech is lying on the floor? Then the second circle is “what does the world need?” It could be individuals, countries, whatever. Then the third circle, which is also important, is “what will pay our paychecks?” If you [focus on] any one of them, you could be an NGO or drive the bottom line–but the sweet spot is understanding all three areas and spelunking in all three areas.
What’s going on in culture? What’s the latest TensorFlow innovation? What are the business drivers crucial to the future of YouTube? Then we push those three circled together to find intersections.
FC: So how do you develop new projects?
RW: There’s no checklist or process that does this, but in the back of our minds, we want everyone to think almost like a VC investing–to have the best impact to create results and return. So we have creative capital. Let’s spend a few hours thinking about this problem and see if we can get a little return. Sometimes it’s dead, let’s move onto the next thing. We’re always trying to think of projects that hit all three. We have a very loose, organic culture where people are free to experiment. But in the back of our minds, we all know that’s the target we need to hit. Sometimes, it’s interesting.
A recent video we did that we’re super proud of is called “Becoming Mom.” It’s a story about how one in eight women have issues getting pregnant and having a baby. It’s a huge percentage of the population, and it’s only getting bigger.
We started the project like, “Mother’s Day is coming. We have a Home Hub that’s really useful. Let’s make a spot about that.” We tinkered. Nothing worked. Nothing was exciting us or making us laugh. The creative director working on this was having lunch with someone trying to get pregnant—she broke down in tears, said “Mother’s Day is coming and it’s the most miserable day for my life in the year. And it just highlights what I’m not yet.” [The creative director] said “Oh my god” and hacked together this story on what it is to become mom and how hard it is to be a mom. It’s hard to be a mom, it’s also hard to become a mom . . . We launched it for National Fertility Week.
It’s one of those perfect things of like, what’s going on in culture? It says here at Google, “we see you–we see you who are also not a mom yet.” And at the end of the day, we’re showing off our products and how they can be useful. So it serves our brand and our product needs.
FC: Do you worry about how initiatives like this will be perceived? I mean, you’re a major corporation making a social statement about a very emotionally charged topic to promote a product.
RW: Absolutely. That’s why we started this project with that whole [not yet a mom] community. So internally within the Lab, and throughout Google, and to some external people, we were like, “hey what do you think?” We never want to overstep on things. So they cocreated it. And when we finished the thing, they were amplifying it.
To your question of, do I worry what people think? Yes, of course. However, it’s like, why did we do this? To get the word out when most people aren’t aware. We know the true motivation of what we make–you have silent friends and family going through this stuff. For me, making the video and putting it out there was about trying to make the world a more understanding place. I’m sure people will say, “Google is targeting this sensitive issue,” but I don’t care because I think it’s more important people know that this is going on in culture than to worry about a couple of people.
We’re pretty privileged, we’re in a position of being able to influence products that touch a billion people’s lives. We don’t take that responsibility lightly. We’re always constantly measuring what positive thing we are adding to the world, the product, the message–that drives us.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.