Progress Depends on the Unreasonable Woman...Just ask Google

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One of the most unreasonable women we know is our friend and rule breaker Ivy Ross, VP of Hardware Design at Google. If anyone knows how to screw up the status quo to make the world better, it is Ivy.

After creating and running her own award-winning jewelry design firm, managing breakthrough creative projects for Disney and Mattel, designing clothing for Old Navy, and running Marketing for Gap, Ivy joined Google to create something they never had before—A Design Department for a full range of consumer Hardware Products.

Introducing the foreign, and, for some “illogical”, concept of designing and developing aesthetic consumer hardware products in a high tech, data-driven, engineering-focused tech firm like Google was no easy feat. 

The team’s job was to define what it felt like to hold Google in your hands. Through a process of digging into Google’s DNA as well as what they believed consumer hardware products needed to be, they arrived at the words human, optimistic and bold to define the design language. This design language informed the collection of products that launched in 2017 and continues today.

With the support of a few other key leaders, Ivy’s collaborative, break-open-the-thinking approach leveraging data and intuition won over many to her unexpected and disruptive ideas. The team has also won over 70 design awards since launch and most importantly won over the hearts and minds of consumers. Ivy and her team wanted to break from the traditional tech approach to design (“here is my clever device, see what it can do”) and create for the human experience, experiences and design that connect on an emotional level and elevate delight in aesthetic, harmonious living.

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One of the ways Ivy breaks open the thinking and possibilities for her team is by making sure that her designers get out in the world to be inspired, observe and take in new information. One of the places her team goes is to the Salone Del Mobile in Milan Italy, the home of great design and the site of a week-long event that attracts 300,000 people interested in design from all over the world.

She invited the marketing team to join them in 2017 to give them a taste of design inspiration. To her delight, the VP of Marketing asked her if she would ever like to have an exhibit there put on by her Google design studio sharing with the international community their design philosophy that created the Hardware brand.

In 2018, Ivy and her Design team returned to Milan to introduce the Google Hardware products to the world. She called the exhibit “Softwear”. Again, many people questioned why a tech design company was showing in Milan and not at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas.

The show in Milan was a major success. It made a huge splash in both the world of design and the world of tech hardware and garnered millions of dollars of PR for Google. The 2018 Milan show also positioned Google Design as a world-class design player.

 
 
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Fast Company named Google “Design Company of the Year” in 2018.

In 2019, Ivy, her Google Team and several outside collaborators returned to Milan with an entirely disruptive, screw-up the status quo, unreasonable approach that set the design world abuzz and garnered Google more great PR as they continued to show up as a thought leader. Instead of just exhibiting another well-designed tech device, they delivered an amazing experience.

Neuroaesthetics & Google

Ivy is a relentlessly curious, borderless polymath and voracious life-long learner. When, through her many explorations, Ivy met Susan Magsamen, founder and director of the Arts+Minds Lab at Johns Hopkins, they began creating the connection between Susan’s work on Neuroaesthetics and Google’s future innovations. Neuroaesthetics is the study of how the art, of all disciplines, changes the brain, enhances life experiences, aids in well-being.  

 
 
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Ivy’s Google team, along with Magsamen and two other key contributors—Suchi Reddy, artist and architect, and Christian Grosen, design director at Muuto—created “A Space for Being” at the 2019 Milan Design Week show. The Space was actually three living spaces, beautifully appointed and designed to offer the visitor three entirely different aesthetic experiences.  

 
 
 
 

Using Google’s algorithm-based wrist bands, visitor’s movements, temperatures, skin conductivity, breathing and heart rates were measured for their responses to the three aesthetic space experiences. This private data was then shared with visitors-only in a beautiful artistic form. Many people commented they were surprised that what they “thought” about the spaces was sometimes not how their bodies actually experienced the space (as registered via the wrist band data). The Neuroaesthetic study of the impact of design and other sensory disciplines provides a new level of understanding for science and it continues to prove the importance of thoughtful design.

“A Space for Being” was a huge hit. When the buzz hit Milan, people were waiting in line one to three hours to have this unique personal experience.

As Ivy said, “We (as a society) have focused so much on getting a lot of things done, we’ve forgotten what feeling alive is. Music, dancing, artwork, color, scent…all of these things have a powerful effect and we need to pay attention to them. They are not just ‘nice to haves.’”

What a wonderful thing for a leader in high tech design to say. No wonder, with this philosophy and design approach, the awards continue to flow in. Most recently Ivy was recognized by Fast Company as the 9th “Most Creative People in Business in 2019” among the Top 100 visionary leaders. 

WHY WAS IVY, HER TEAM AND HER COLLABORATORS SO SUCCESSFUL?

Here we’ll use our BEAM Innovation Journey Framework to explore several of the reasons Ivy and her team were good at screwing up the status quo and becoming so unreasonably successful.

10 Exploration Points on the Innovation Journey:

 Below is a map of an Innovation Journey. We designed this cartoon map to capture the many explorations innovators may engage to achieve their innovation objectives (innovation has to be filled with creative play as well as serious design, so we thought the cartoons would convey that message). The map looks linear, but it is often not in practice. Many times, an innovation team may do things out of sequence, reiterate the steps, move forward and back before it completes its creative journey.

 
 
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  1. Ask Wicked Questions—At the beginning of her team’s innovation journey, Ivy asked them, “What does it feel like to hold Google in your hands?”  The better question most often produces a better answer.

  2. Be like Sherlock—Ivy took her team to Milan and other places to discover the secrets of great design, finding clues to new ways of thinking and exploring the limitations of current “reasonable” approaches to innovations in tech design.

  3. Dive Deep—Go below the surface of what is assumed good design and find the treasure of deep insights into how people experience the world and how they want to experience it in the future, even if they may not know it yet.

  4. Hang with those Who Know Secrets—Ivy and her team hung out with leading thinkers who know design, architecture, Neuroaesthetics, fabrics, algorithm coding, emerging tech science, etc.

  5. Go Cosmic Fishing—That is the term the 20th Century engineer/designer/genius, Bucky Fuller, used to describe intuition. Ivy is a highly intuitive artist/designer/leader who trusts her intuition and acts upon it. Throughout their design process, her collaborators did as well.

  6. Leap and Play—Ivy gave her team space to play with their ideas, try crazy things and to take leaps of exploration into areas not gone before.

  7. Turn It on Its Head—Ivy flipped the old model about designing and showing tech products on its head. In addition to developing a tech device and promoting it at a Consumer Electronics Show, the Google team designed experiences for people and a better way of living. They then provided the supportive technology in a way that fulfilled that experience. She also offered this experience to the guests at Google’s Milan site as a personal gift. Google did not collect data on anyone’s personal experience.

  8. Stick Odd Things Together—Ivy and Team put together brain research, aesthetics, computer science, and world-class design. They used fabric innovations and combined them with electronic innovations to create breakthrough product designs. They combined great design with great experiences to create great marketing.

  9. Connect to Create—Ivy is a facilitative leader who deeply believes in the power of collaboration united by a common vision of success. When you praise her for her achievements, she always points out that it took a village of collaborators to produce the big results.

  10. Take it for a Spin—Prototype, try it out, test it, refine it, redesign and refine it again. Ivy learned from her father, an honored automobile designer, the importance of building it, doing it, not just conceiving of it. Art, design, and innovation are hands-on processes, there is no substitute. The team tested many combinations of fabric and color for the Google products. For just one beautiful color of the fabric, they tried out over 260 colors before they got just the right one. 

When you started reading this article you probably recognized that we paraphrased G.B. Shaw’s famous quote…“All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Sometimes when it comes to breakthrough innovations, an unreasonable woman is better for the job.

Written by Dan & Meredith Beam, Ivy Ross Illustration by Drew Beam

Screwing up the status quo to create value and enrich life