In A World Of Slick Tech, Google Makes Playful Products Stand Out

Google is known for embodying a sense of playfulness. This is the company, after all, that fills its homepage with animated Doodles, embeds fun easter eggs in its search results, and calls its own employees Googlers. But transferring this sense of playfulness from software, the foundation Google is built on, to commercial hardware, a space it has only recently delved into, isn't so easy: There's a thin line between creating something that looks playful, and something that looks childish.
This is the challenge that has faced Ivy Ross, Google's Vice President of Design and User Experience for Hardware Products. Ross, an FIT graduate, has spent much of her career outside of tech. She started in jewelry design, then went on to lead design at Coach Handbags, Calvin Klein, Mattel, and Bausch + Lomb. Innovation with materials and color has been the common thread in her career.
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"If something didn't exist, I would figure out how to make it," Ross told Refinery29 in an interview.
A little over three years ago, Ross got the call from Google: The company wanted her to lead the design for the next iteration of Google Glass, a product that performed poorly in the consumer space but has since found a second life in enterprise. When Google decided to fully expand its range of consumer hardware after the launch of the Pixel phone in 2016, Ross's background made her the natural candidate to head up design.
Photo: Courtesy of Google.
Google's 2017 product collection is the first from the newly formed design department, led by Ross. The product "family," as she calls it, includes the latest iterations of Pixel, Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL; wireless headphones called Pixel Buds; a hybrid laptop and tablet known as, Pixelbook; a smaller version of Google Home, Google Home Mini, as well as a larger version, Google Home Max; a tiny, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand camera, Google Clips; and an updated version of Google's VR headset, Daydream View.
Ross, a self-described Apple fan who grew up on the competitor's products, didn't want to mimic the sleekness Apple is known for on the iPhone, MacBook, and other flagship products. Her years in the fashion industry taught her that for every trend that appears, there's always the anti-trend.
"The good news about coming in a little late in the [product] game compared to an Apple or a Samsung is that we get to step back and look at what’s already there and go, okay, where do we think things are moving with technology?" Ross said. "It's a question of how can we differentiate and how can we represent Google."
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One way Ross sought to achieve this differentiation was by mixing materials, instead of using "one, slick material." She believes this creates a greater sense of tactility and warmth. "We're all on screens so much that we crave that tactility," she said.
These materials also tie one device to the next. When you look at the products together, it's easy to see the common design elements, even though their form and function differ. Google Home Max, Google Home Mini, Daydream View, and Pixel Buds all incorporate fabric into their designs. The back of Pixel 2 and top of Pixelbook, meanwhile, each have a upper glass panel, creating a split line.
Photo: Courtesy of Google.
According to Ross, Google's playfulness comes across in distinctive pops of color: You'll find accents of orange on the black and white version of Pixel 2 XL, as well as Pixel Buds; the bottom of the chalk-colored Google Home Mini has a touch of coral; and Google Clips is edged in teal.
"You think of Google and you think fun colors," Ross said. But her team didn't put these colors everywhere — they wanted devices to represent Google's playful sensibility while still looking sophisticated. They also stayed away from colors that looked too bright or fiery, since those colors would stand out too much. These are products that are meant to make sense together and in the spaces people use them, whether that's at home, at work, or anywhere in between.
Given Ross's background in fashion, it's somewhat fitting that Google is rolling out its collection on the heels of Paris Fashion Week. With this new product line, Ross and her team are showing that playful tech can look pretty stylish.
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