Google designer-in-chief Ivy Ross puts us in touch with our design feelings

Robyn Fadden
Google designer-in-chief Ivy Ross puts us in touch with our design feelings

Illustration: Daphné Côté-Hallé – Les Microcosmes

If you’ve ever held a Google Home speaker and marvelled at its uniquely rounded contours, you’ve got Ivy Ross to thank. She’s the Vice President of Design for Hardware at Google and has been celebrated as one of the most creative people in business today.

Ivy is also one of those rare people who, after finding critical acclaim in the fine arts world (her innovative jewellery metal work is in the permanent collections of 12 museums, including the Smithsonian), successfully crossed over into the realm of business, holding executive positions at Calvin Klein, Coach, Gap and Mattel prior to joining Google.

Over the past three years, she and her team at Google have launched over 30 award-winning products and set a new standard for hardware design aesthetics: multisensorial, bright and human-centred. In advance of her appearance at C2 Montréal 2020, we caught up with Ivy to talk about design, art and creativity in the age of connected technology.

C2: You’re kind of the perfect human representation of a C2 event, where commerce and creativity come together and beautiful things can happen. Where do you see that overlap happening in product design?

Ivy Ross: “To me it’s about integration, bringing the highly sensorial experience of the arts together with science, technology and data. To be healthy as a society and come up with solutions for our collective future, we can’t be ‘either/or’ about it — it has to be ‘both/and.’ Creativity often comes out of the tension of opposites you might never have put together before. It gives me great joy in terms of the possibilities.

“Right now in the arts, there’s so much around experience design and stepping into multidimensional worlds. I think the appeal of that comes from our desire to get lost in ourselves and step into the unknown. At the Salone del Mobile in Milan this year, we created a large-scale experience called A Space for Being, focused on neuroaesthetics. Visitors wore a piece of technology that measured how the aesthetics of the space and the objects in it affected how their bodies felt. I wanted to show how aesthetics and the senses, things we sometimes think we can put aside, have a profound effect on us.”

C2: How does your work at Google integrate your own artistic side with technology?

Ivy Ross: “As an artist with early success, I never stopped being a people person. I wanted to give the process of creativity to others and bring forward their creativity and talents. I’ve worked to create the conditions where creativity can flourish and thrive in companies. I view myself as an orchestra conductor: I know my instruments really well and call forward the right people for the symphony we’re playing.

“In our work at Google, the question is how to make technology more visually and emotionally appealing. Making technology feel more human isn’t only just about how it functions but how it feels, looks, sounds and smells. As human beings, we’re craving this multidimensional, sensorial creative piece. It helps us feel alive.”

C2: Do you go out of your way to create a creative tension of opposites with your team at Google?

Ivy Ross: “I put impulses into the system that are very different from what the team might be doing from day to day. I brought in a sculptress who works with clay and asked my team if they’d like to get their hands muddy. Working with clay uses both your hands at the same time, which is totally different from how a traditional hardware designer works.

“The next day, two team members showed me their next product design — they’d carved its shape out of wood. They put their design into a CAD system afterwards, of course, but it was important that they discovered a sensory way to get to the end game. Technological tools are great, but we can’t forget our humanity in the process. I’m personally shifting from design thinking to design feeling.”

C2: Does that approach foster an experimental way of working with your team?

Ivy Ross: “It’s more like play, and play is also a form of creativity. One definition of play is doing something entirely differently than you do every day, doing it without a prescribed outcome or end goal. We’ve become so obsessed with optimizing for our rational minds that we don’t play anymore. The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s suppression. We have to play a bit with the unknown and its possibilities. Through lightheartedly playing with ideas, amazing solutions can arise.”


5 Ivy Ross fun facts
  1. The design apple didn’t fall far from the tree: Ivy’s father designed the ultra-stylin’ Studebaker Hawk automobile in the late 1950s while working for industrial design legend Raymond Loewy, who created everything from the iconic Lucky Strike packaging to Coca-Cola vending machines to locomotives.
  2. A metalsmith, Ivy was one of the first jewellery artists to work with metals like titanium, tantalum and niobium, applying electrical charges in order to release a broad spectrum of colours.
  3. Her favourite non-digital tool is a set of tuning forks in the notes of C and G, which she says “mimic the sound of the inner core of the Earth.” When struck and placed to her ears, she says the forks ground and relax her.
  4. Indeed, the avid polymath’s attentions extend to music as well: Ivy is also a drummer.
  5. While at Mattel, she was tasked with developing a new toy for pre-teen girls, so she created “Project Platypus,” an experiment that saw 12 employees (or “platipi”) with varied skill sets sent to a playground-like building for a three-month creative think-tank. The result was the Ello construction playset.


Be in the know
Don’t miss your chance to hear Ivy Ross share even more pearls of design wisdom at C2 Montréal, May 27-29, 2020.


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