Creative Empowerment

A shared design philosophy

I’m embedded at Google as a designer through Left Field Labs, an experience design agency. While I approach my 1-year with Left Field Labs, Left Field Labs approaches 10 years of creative partnership with Google. I’ve quickly learned here that Left Field and Google align closely in their design philosophies. One belief in particular stands out to me: creative empowerment.

What is creative empowerment?

In its early years, Google, like many young tech companies at the time, held an engineers-do-all mentality. Today, we find ourselves operating in a highly specialized, design-rich environment — where those with capital-D-Designer in their job titles are sometimes seen as the primary agents of creative change. Industrially, this is an unfortunate consequence of the (mostly) productive shift toward design thinking.

Creative agency is not meant to be siloed nor hoarded. Our developers are creative. Our producers are creative. Our friends and siblings and neighbors are creative. We at Left Field have maintained such a fruitful partnership with Google by fostering an environment both inside and outside of Google in which creativity can come from anyone, and is a shared responsibility of everyone. This is what creative empowerment means to us.

Good ideas come from everyone.

We’re privileged to have a diverse team, comprised of people who contribute interesting and unfamiliar perspectives. Everyone with a unique perspective deserves a seat at the whiteboard, not just those with fancy degrees or extensive training in sticky note methodologies. The best ideas can come from casual and unexpected conversations. Our Awwward-winning site, Android 404, was born from a tangential discussion about the internet as a series of tubes. From this completely unpretentious idea came a completely unpretentious execution.

android.com/404, 2017

Our creative sensibilities have roots in our personal lives, our desires, our relationships. We truly believe that if we invest in ourselves — if we live through and reflect on rich, meaningful experiences — great work will follow.

Emotions will outlive pixels.

Impact is our key success metric. And while visual impact might last a few minutes, emotional impact can last years. Take a look at our 2011 redesign of android.com. Sarah Mehler, CEO of Left Field says, “People still tell me in meetings, ‘I remember that Android moonwalking from 6 years ago.’” It’s not the drop shadows, nor the border radii, nor the exact shades of blue that people remember. It’s the feeling of surprise and delight that stays with us.

From the Chrome browser as a pane of glass to a snowman dancing the Carlton, we aspire to give life to every project we touch. Without a grounded, human element, design is hot air; technical design chops are only as useful as what we do with them. Great work solves problems and makes you feel something.

android.com, 2011

Tools are hardly a constraint.

We aren’t interested in the Sketch vs. Illustrator vs. Whatever debate because no design tool will limit the quality of our work. In 2010, our marketing site for the Nexus One featured a 3D tour of Google’s first phone. WebGL didn’t exist yet, so the team enlisted the designer behind the lovely Juno title sequence to build a frame-by-frame stop motion animation. We don’t rely on software-specific knowledge or fancy, expensive tools.

As creative individuals, we are not constrained by our tools; we are only constrained by our perceptions of them. When you change your perception, Sublime becomes a design tool. After Effects becomes a CSS3 playground. Pen and paper become an interactive website.

google.com/phone, 2010

Everyone has creative potential.

Whether or not you agree that everyone is a designer, the underlying sentiment is irrefutable: everyone has creative potential. Over the past decade, we have crafted and refined an environment that enables our team explore this potential. The strength of our partnership with Google is a direct result.

Thank you to Sarah Mehler, Akash Khokha, Eric Lee, Greg Dodds, and Laura Polkus for contributing to this story.

Neil Shankar is a designer on Creative Engineering at Google, embedded through Left Field Labs. Follow @tallneil on Medium | Twitter | Dribbble.