Mike & Maaike — A Retrospective on Cultivating Industrial Design at Google.
Hi, It’s Mike and Maaike.
A few years back we quietly embarked on a unique journey and are happy to announce our return and the independence of our Studio once again. But first, we’d like to catch up and share our story.
In late 2011, we were acquired by Google. Flattered by the opportunity but happy running our thriving industrial design studio, it hadn’t been an easy decision. Daunted by the question of whether our small industrial design entity could thrive inside a huge search/advertising company, but intrigued with the impact we could have, we dove in. Back then, Google already had incredible reach, measuring success in billions of users — but the hardware opportunity was untilled soil, especially considering hardware and software experiences had yet to converge.
“Can you do what you do, but bring it inside Google?” Andy Rubin had asked us simply.
Just how would we cultivate Industrial Design culture, “what we do” within a software company, and “bring it inside Google” successfully? Having had some experience collaborating with Google, we were familiar with some of the challenges, if only from the outside.
From inside Google circa 2012, we had entered a land of possibilities, albeit one where industrial design had yet to establish itself deeply. Individual project teams controlled their own culture and decision making with regards to design needs — some worked with outside consultants, some hired designers and embedded them within engineering culture.
Data-driven decision making and the ambiguous fluidity of the iterative software development process were mostly foreign to us as designers of hardware.
We were used to setting a compelling design vision first, then working with teams to implement it. In software development, the reverse seemed to be true. Products and entire feature sets seemed to evolve up to the moment of shipping. The thoughtful and expansive design process we were accustomed to was at risk of being replaced by highly rushed “design sprints” which don’t often work for industrial design. Suddenly we were dropped into a room of cubicles, surrounded by scores of (happy) software engineers and (somewhat disoriented) hardware engineers, many of them “voting” for their preferred designs. We were not in our natural habitat.
Thinking more about Andy’s request, it became clear that indeed, we would have to simply “do what we do” even if it didn’t mesh at first with the internal gears of the company.
“Don’t think of yourselves as cogs in a wheel” Andy would later tell us. “Be the wheel”.
Google in the Home
During these first 6 months at Google we experimented with various Internet of Things experiences for the home, designing mesh-network hubs, lighting control systems, and music & media streamers.
Through these early hardware experiments, some of which failed quickly and dramatically, we were able to develop a design approach that reduced devices down to their basic elements. This became a foundation of what we call the Elemental Design approach we introduced at Google. Resisting the pressure to make things overtly “premium” or follow the consumer electronics aesthetic of the time, we felt Google was about making technology accessible and humble. We strove to create simple understated devices that complemented the home.
In late 2012, Rubin challenged us to expand our industrial design team to take on an ambitious scope of new categories. We were lucky to attract a talented collection of designers, some who thought they were applying to our small studio but were surprised to be redirected to Google. Our team was established in close proximity to the Android UX team who were busy developing Material Design.
Our first step was to unify the many expressions under Google’s Nexus brand previously defined by hardware partners by designing a cohesive product line. From this effort came some of Google’s most successful Nexus devices — the Nexus 5 (the first phone designed in-house at Google), the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9, a wireless charger, Google’s first colorful line of covers & cases, and the first Android Wear device. It was during this time we had the unique opportunity to work closely with the design and engineering teams of many of Google’s hardware partners around the world including LG, Samsung, HTC, Asus and Motorola.
Most important for us was to help plant the seeds for industrial design culture to grow at Google.
We knew we wouldn’t be at Google forever but wanted to help establish a foundation for industrial design to succeed. To do this, we focused on hiring thoughtful designers, establishing proper design studio space and creating a friendly but ambitious design process with principles that would endure. In addition, we started to connect the small numbers of talented industrial designers already scattered throughout the company. No job ladder for industrial design? Write it. No connection between ID and product managers? Create it. No pipeline for ID candidates? Establish it. No proper design studio space? Build it.
Applying our experience of working in the furniture world, we helped Google build out a creative design hub for hardware and software designers to collaborate. Soon, our team grew to be Google’s largest team of industrial designers.
Instead of creating prescriptive design language guidelines, we established a design compass — guiding principles that would serve as a north star for industrial design.
The principles were not formalized into a corporate edict; instead, they were developed organically, debated, experimented with as a team and ultimately taken to heart by the designers. We are proud to see this design DNA continue recognizably in some of the latest hardware releases from Google to this day.
Much like the focus of our design studio pre-Google, it was important for us to seek the unexplored, to define new products or entire product categories. In this unknown, we believe industrial design has the most value, it can create beautiful new experiences and establish the most relevant and memorable icons.
The Moonshot Factory
In 2014 our appetite for the unexplored was growing as was our interest in the advanced technology being developed in the more secretive parts of Google. After a conversation with Astro Teller, we were inspired by Google X’s mission to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges in health, connectivity, energy, and transportation through various “Moonshot” projects.
We left our team and positions at Android to build a central industrial design team for Google X to support many of these projects. It was during this time that we saw an entirely new perspective on the role industrial design can play in a company.
If our work at Android was about landing products on the market, the work we did at X was to help set the trajectory for early stage technology projects as they take off.
Walking through the cavernous X campus (a former shopping mall) was like being in an engineer’s playground: driverless cars quietly zooming around, delivery drones floating overhead, robots walking (and tripping) up and down stairs, and the lively buzz of technical and delightfully futuristic conversations around every concrete and steel corner.
Industrial design was a foreign language to most –– defining our role and the teams we worked with was largely up to us. We steered away from making early stage prototypes “look pretty”. We felt industrial design could bring the most value at X by setting end-state product visions and by defining human interaction principles. This work created impact in two ways: it drove technology development trajectory and created buy-in for partnerships and funding; both very important for projects to succeed and graduate from X.
Here we had the privilege to collaborate with the most incredible scientists, engineers and researchers we’d ever met, on teams such as Verily, Makani, Wing, Dandelion, Loon, Driverless Cars and others, as well as X’s Rapid Eval team.
With Verily we designed the band aid-like miniature CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) Patch. The tiny patch provides wireless continuous actionable data for type 2 diabetes. The project helped establish an important partnership between Verily and Dexcom to bring comfortable CGM sensors to the market and to connect the dots between devices, data, healthcare and medicine.
On the other end of the scale spectrum, we engaged with the Makani Team to rethink their system for landing an autonomous 26 meter wingspan carbon fiber Energy Kite, arriving at more cost effective, efficient and less visually obtrusive iterations of their ground station.
Brainstorming with engineers from the control tower of the former Alameda Airport and Makani headquarters, the massive components we were discussing looking like lego toys far below us, it was clear that the creative approach we use for design could also be highly effective in solving pure engineering problems.
On project Wing, our team envisioned autonomous airborne delivery systems from both the user and bystanders point of view, ensuring the experience is delightful and safe.
For some projects at X, we found the limits of our effectiveness. Some teams were just so busy trying to solve difficult engineering systems problems that they weren’t ready to engage with design just yet. Other teams preferred to have dedicated designers that could commit 100% of their time to their project.
We’ve always maintained that for an Industrial Design team, working on a diverse set of projects leads to better design solutions.
The diversity of unrelated projects keeps the designers inspired and allows for cross-pollination– where the approaches and materials from one project can inform and inspire another. An example of this is our work with Google’s VR team.
While at X, our team began collaborating with Google’s VR team (Daydream). VR turned out to be one of the most daunting industrial design challenges we’d come across, but the project’s leader was as smitten with industrial design as we were inspired by his team and vision.
In VR the challenges around ergonomic comfort, size, weight, optics, displays, interaction, heat, adjustability and materials are a delicate balance to strike.
We were uniquely positioned to bring a soft new approach to VR, because of the diversity of our past experience in both soft-goods and technology.
In 2016 we founded the industrial design team for Daydream VR. Our team designed Google’s Daydream View, a product most notable for its use of soft materials. Most VR products at this time were rigid — like strapping a block of plastic to your face. We wanted Google’s VR device to be comfortable and inviting — like clothing — to attract more people to try this incredible new experience.
We knew this would be our last project at Google and a proper way to mark the end of our 4½ year journey.
Though our time at Google was mostly all-consuming, we were able to see a few non-Google projects we designed come to market during this period — The EO travel luggage collection with Incase, the Windowseat Lounge with Haworth and the Tonic furniture system with Watson all launched successfully and are doing very well to this day. It’s been especially fun seeing these products out in the wild.
We’ve always trusted intuition more than logic. In late 2016, after 4½ years at Google, as much as it defied financial, social, and corporate-ladder logic, we left Google to return to the roots of our experimental industrial design studio — to be Mike & Maaike.
When we first joined Google, we thought we were entering a monolithic corporation. In reality, we had joined a collection of distinct startups, each with its own unique culture and approach. It turned out the only way to effectively build industrial design culture was to build it team by team, project by project.
Working with so many teams at Google has given us deep insights into innovation culture, rapid change, and the future of the work environment and team structure. Experiencing the full spectrum of start-up management styles –from the top-down approach and the unhealthy work dynamic it creates, to a healthy bottom-up approach, we learned first hand what worked and what didn’t.
In the most successful teams at Google, incredible trust, optimism, and appreciation flowed from leaders to the teams they supported.
Individuals were trusted as specialists yet empowered to learn from others and to collaborate with understanding. These teams fostered humanity in all it’s shapes and colors.
The part about the untilled soil was true: The seeds we helped plant for industrial design culture are thriving at Google and continue to yield beautiful product experiences crafted by incredibly talented and thoughtful industrial designers.
In our time at Google, we established 3 industrial design teams, shipped 12 products, collaborated with 15 Google Project Teams and recruited a significant portion of Google’s industrial design talent.
But numbers are not a measure of success. Success is being true to your passions. If design is an act of discovery, like sailing unexplored seas, most of our energy at Google went into building the boat.
But in this analogy, our true passion is to sail. Our small industrial design studio is the boat we built years before and we find ourselves setting sail…
Mike & Maaike and the future of. . .
With our new found independence, we will attempt to push design and ourselves out of our comfort zones into an even more expansive and experimental range of subjects including the future of work, the future of mobility, and the future of the built environment.
Some explorations will be initiated independently and in others we will engage with friendly and inspired partners who share our passion for defining the undefined and connecting the mostly disparate worlds of technology and humanity. We look forward to sharing the fruits of these efforts in the coming months and years. We will be less quiet from now on!
-Mike & Maaike