by Ernest Kim
Tech publication, The Verge, recently published a fantastic piece on the rising design culture at Google—a company that, historically, has been known more for its engineering than its aesthetic sensibilities.
And it’s not just your typical fluff piece. Provided a surprising level of inside access to the people who are actually driving this cultural shift—folks like Jon Wiley, Lead Designer for Google Search—there’s quite a bit of substance, including a brief look at an earlier design initiative called Kanna that failed to take hold.
A peek behind the scenes of Google’s design process.
This latest effort is called Project Kennedy, an allusion to John F. Kennedy’s insanely ambitious “Man on the Moon” speech from 1961, which inspired the US to achieve the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before that decade had ended.
The fascinating thing is that while Project Kennedy is animated by the vision of Google CEO Larry Page, there’s no one person in charge of the effort. Quoting Andrey Doronichev, Senior Product Manager for YouTube Mobile, “We don’t have a single mastermind designer.” So, unlike Apple, where the design bar is effectively set and maintained by one person—previously Steve Jobs and now Jony Ive—at Google, the goal is to weave a shared, co-created design ethos into the fabric of the company as a whole.
There is a catalyst in the form of a secretive group called Google UXA, which is described in only the vaguest terms in the Verge piece. But it’s really up to the members of the various product teams to bring this ever evolving design vision to life. People like Darren Delaye, lead designer on Google Maps for Mobile, who explains that “Designers take the design language from cross-product initiatives like Kennedy and weave that together with the user needs for their particular product.”
Design is really about practical imagination … imagining possibilities, and making them real. One of the essential parts of that is to do it. You just have to do a lot of it. Iterate a lot. Look at everything. And only when you’ve done it—done like every possible variation you can think of—then you realize, oh, there’s actually one thing we didn’t try … let’s try that.
— Matias Duarte, Senior Director of Android User Experience
The result is a shared vernacular that enables a degree of “Googley” consistency across sites, apps and platforms, while still giving individual product teams the flexibility to “move fast” and craft experiences optimized for specific use cases.
A few key takeaways for anyone daunted by the length of the Verge piece:
- Cultural change within an organization must come from the top. Even in a company as committed to internal collaboration as Google has always been, a shift in cultural priorities to embrace design could only take hold with the full backing of the CEO. In the words of renowned management consultant Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And cultural change within corporations does not happen from the bottom up—it takes the drive and commitment of an engaged leadership.
- Iteration is central to success in digital. As noted by Matias Duarte, Google’s Senior Director of Android User Experience, effective design requires doing, doing and more doing. This is a lesson that marketers—many of whom are more accustomed to a one-and-done campaign approach—must learn to embrace if they hope to successfully engage consumers in the digital space.
- The perfect is the enemy of the good, and nowhere is this more true than in digital. An oft repeated sentiment captured in the Verge piece was Googlers’ recognition of the need to “move fast.” According to Google Search design lead Jon Wiley, among Larry Page’s first directives upon assuming the CEO role in April of 2011 was to “redesign all of our products.” And, within three months, “Google shipped fresh new versions of Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Calendar.” None of these were perfect, but they were better, and with each subsequent iteration they were made better still. As Steve Jobs famously said, “Great artists ship,” and Google is proving that, in the digital space, the spoils go to those who can ship both faster and better.
Yes, the piece is long, but it’s a great read for anyone interested in design, UX, product management or organizational change. And don’t miss the accompanying video, which includes on-camera interviews with many of the people bringing Google’s new design culture to life.