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 at Design Indaba 2020, what he shared with me reactivated my appreciation for design.
ROBERT WONG, Head of Google Creative Lab interviewed by WESLEY DIPHOKO Editor-In-Chief, Fast Company (SA): Google Creative Lab
How important is design in product development?
It depends how you define design, if it’s to do anything with intention then it’s very important. Everyone is a designer, not just designers who are trained in school. Everyone, when they think about what they should make, how it should feel and look, is a designer.
Now as far as professional trained designers go, the ones who obsess about the aesthetics of things, the beauty, meaning of things, the joy of things, I think it’s very important that design is built into any product and any user experience. Sometimes it comes from engineers or product managers – everyone participates in building that experience.
How important is design for products you can’t touch, such as the Google search engine?
I think a driving principle behind software development, since the beginning, is that we try to get out of the way to allow what the users want. If you think about the early days of search engines, before Google.com, pages were filled with links and the search bar was just tiny at the top because at the time the advertising model was about the more we could keep people on the page the more advertising the company could sell. Then Google came along and it was the best search engine out there because of the page rank algorithm, but also the only thing on that page was the search bar and our logo as well as a cursor that asks what you do you want, what are you thinking, what do you care about and what do you need? It was nothing about us and we could get you what you want faster than anyone else. I think that ethos of obsessing about what people want, how we can best help them, and we get out of the way, that’s how I think the product manifests itself.
Would you say the design principle behind the Google search engine was one of the most important elements to its adoption among many that existed at the time?
I think it’s all balanced, meaning the technology was superior and the user interface was the simplest. Design and engineering, I feel the art and science, I think it’s best when they both complement each other and neither dominates.
What has been the impact of the Google Creative Lab?
We’ve helped turn Google into a branding and marketing organisation, as good as our products are, sometimes we have to remind people why they exist, how these products fit into people’s lives. A good example is an advert we did for the Superbowl. We were inspired by one of our designers. He was helping his grandpa to reflect on memories with his wife, who had passed away.
How important is Google Creative Lab in the product development process at Google?
We are not officially a step in any process, but we have a lot of organisations with the organisation that call us in to assist. Sometimes we find products lying around and we figure how we can put them to use. Sometimes we develop products ourselves.
For instance, we’ve developed a live caption for mobile phones. Right now there’s no close caption on the phone for all media. Now Pixel phone (Google-produced phone) can create a caption when recording voice and video. We knew that this was a problem for phones. It now exists for all our phones. It is something that came up during the process of working with the deaf community. We then realised that a lot of people were missing out. We may roll it out to Android phones in the future.
What has been your role within the organisation?
I think, one is to try and get everyone to focus on the Why? Second is to set a very high bar and exceed expectations. The last thing is to focus on what we can uniquely do.
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