Photos by Talia Herman
If you're an industrial designer looking to work in the tech sector, Google is probably pretty low on your list of prospective employers—if it's on there at all. The company employs plenty of UX designers, interaction designers, motion designers, and others who shape how Google users interface with its many digital tools. But Google doesn't really make stuff, and ambitious designer-makers are much more likely to set their sights on Apple, IDEO, frog, or any number of other high-profile companies that do.
That may be about to change. Recently, Google invited Core77 to visit its Mountain View, California, campus and meet some of the design talent behind Google X, the semi-secret "moonshot factory" that has in recent years been designing quite a bit of actual stuff, some of which you've no doubt heard about by now. X was founded in January 2010 to continue work on Google's self-driving car initiative, and to start developing other similarly futuristic projects. The next to be unveiled was Google Glass, the much-publicized wearable computer that is expected to reach consumers sometime this year. After that, X launched (quite literally) Project Loon, an attempt to provide Internet service to rural and remote areas via balloons floating in the stratosphere; it conducted a pilot test in New Zealand last June. X also recently acquired Makani Power, which develops airborne wind turbines that could be used to harvest high-altitude wind energy, bringing its total number of public projects to four.
But what's interesting for the design community is not just that Google X is doing some traditional industrial design in the service of realizing outrageously big ideas, but that it's integrating I.D. with a variety of other disciplines in a particularly rigorous fashion, creating an ideal-sounding nexus of design thinking, user research and fabrication. And it is actively seeking new talent who can help flesh out its multidisciplinary approach.
"We're looking for unicorns," says Mitchell Heinrich, one of the four X-ers I met in Mountain View about a month ago. Heinrich founded and runs his own group within X called the Design Kitchen, which acts as X's in-house fabrication department but is also deeply involved in generating (and killing) new ideas. And what he means by "unicorns" is designers who have the rare ability to excel in both of those roles—as he puts it, "people who have the ability to have the inspiration, the thought, the design, and then are able to carry that out to something that actually works and looks like what they want it to look like."
That may not sound like such a fantastically rare combination of skills, but Heinrich insists that finding people who can do this kind of soup-to-nuts design—come up with brilliant ideas and then actually make them, while also working extremely fast—has been difficult. In other words, the Kitchen has high standards. "I like to think of it as more like a Chez Panisse than an Applebee's," he says.
The Googleplex in early December
Mitchell Heinrich (left) founded and runs the Design Kitchen, Google X's in-house fabrication department. Dhvani Patel-Smith is a senior researcher on X's user-experience team.
Heinrich's own background is, as they say within X, "pretty unicorn-y." He graduated from the industrial arts program at San Francisco State University, where he took a mix of industrial design, graphic design, and web design classes, and then worked at Squid Labs, a noted technology incubator that founded several spin-off companies, including Instructables and the aforementioned Makani Power. Heinrich worked with a number of Squid's spin-offs in a variety of roles, designing biomedical devices for OptiOpia and human-powered electricity generators for Potenco, among other projects. After Squid, he did a brief stint as an artist in residence in Vienna—where he created cocktail-serving robots and invented "smell graffiti"—before co-founding and serving as the lead designer at Fenix International, a renewal-energy startup.
From there, he was tapped to join Google X as a member of the user-experience team on Glass, where he helped develop the device's bone-conduction audio interface and also took the lead on packaging design. Along the way, Heinrich built "a zillion" bone-conduction prototypes and packaging mockups—not because he was asked to, but because that's just his way of working. (At one point, he described himself as a "math nerd meets fabrication guy"; lately, he's been self-producing a line of geodesic cappuccino cups for fun.) "And then what people noticed," he says, "is the best value I was giving the program was these quick, iterative prototypes." So X invited him to start his own team with fast, frequent prototyping at its core.
"I was kind of taken aback," Heinrich says. "I'm going from being a part of a team that's far along on a project to [Google saying] 'We believe in you as a person and your vision, go for it.' That level of latitude I hadn't really seen elsewhere. And to have the capital to back it up and say, 'All right, here's a budget, go for it'—it was pretty amazing."
It took Heinrich a while to come up with a name for his new group. He didn't want to call it a machine shop, because that implied that his team was just there to fabricate other people's ideas. He didn't want to call it a lab because, at Google, everything is called a lab. "I was trying to embody this idea of creativity, experimentation, hands-on work," he says. "And I wanted it to be a focal point—which, in most houses, the kitchen is." Heinrich was also thinking of the pioneering industrial psychologist and engineer Lillian Gilbreth, who, with her husband, performed motion and efficiency studies in a range of arenas, most famously the kitchen. "A lot of her work was around the work triangle, she called it—the stove, the refrigerator, and the sink," Heinrich says. "Having those within a few paces of each other increases your throughput and your efficiency. I like to think of the Design Kitchen embodying that in a different context with product development and R&D, where we have design, fabrication, and testing all wrapped in one."
I should note here that I didn't actually get to see Heinrich's Design Kitchen, as Google X is, not surprisingly, extremely cagey about access to its facility. The best I can do is tell you that it's one big room stocked with 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a laser welder, a wood shop, simple metalworking tools, casting equipment, a small materials library, and a "giant" CNC mill for doing large-scale models—basically, a playground for fabrication nerds like Heinrich, who likes to come in to work early so he can spend some time making stuff first thing, before getting sucked into meetings and other workday commitments. "Pretty much anything you can imagine, we can build," he says.
Inside the Google Garage, a collaborative workspace that apparently has a somewhat similar vibe to X's Design Kitchen. (Alas, Core77 was not allowed inside the actual Kitchen.)
Mac Smith, another member of the user-research team, worked closely with Heinrich on the design of Project Loon's consumer-side antenna.
But, again, fabrication is just part of the puzzle. The Kitchen works closely with X's user-experience team, and the remaining three X-ers I met in Mountain View are members of this group. Although they are deeply involved in the design of X products—they essentially incubate new projects, including early research and concept work, as well as handle implementation and testing—none of them has a traditional design background; in fact, all three would be more accurately described as psychologists than designers. Ricardo Prada, who leads the team, earned a Ph.D. in human factors psychology from George Mason University. Mac Smith and Dhvani Patel-Smith, who are senior researchers on Prada's team (and are married), were graduate students with him at George Mason—Patel-Smith earned a Ph.D. in applied developmental psychology, and Smith's Ph.D. is in human factors and applied experimental psych.
After George Mason, they each followed different paths to X. Prada worked at Boeing, on new designs for its jets and on FAA-funded research to improve airline safety. Smith was a researcher at Microsoft Game Studios for three years, where he helped launch Kinect and managed a portfolio of small video games. Patel-Smith did policy work in Washington, D.C., then briefly joined a children's-book startup in Seattle before also landing at Microsoft, as a user-experience researcher on its Office products.
I stress these backgrounds because all of the X-ers I interviewed are convinced that their strength as a design group rests largely on the breadth of expertise they have on hand. Since X projects span a huge range of arenas, and since they typical involve doing things that have never been done before, it's crucial that X employs a variety of experts—and that each member is comfortable rapidly acquiring new skills. "It's the whole 'mental athlete' thing," Smith says. "You've got to be able to move quickly, acquire knowledge quickly, and immediately apply it." Prada adds that "the key part of it is a depth at the thing you're good at. You are one of the world's best at this. And then you have the ability to say, 'I'm also conversant in all these other things; I could do them if I was pressed; I know how to reach out to the people who are the best at this; and my T will complement your T.'" (The last comment is a reference to T-shaped persons, a metaphor that IDEO has also used to describe its approach to recruiting talent.)
So how does this all come together in practice? Perhaps the best example of X design in action involves Project Loon's consumer-side antenna—i.e., the thing that actually bolts onto the user's house and receives an Internet signal from balloons in the stratosphere. Since those balloons are invisible to the user, X wanted the antenna to be an "iconic" object in its own right, and something that conveyed the idea of being welcomed to the Internet. "This is really the representation of the project to everybody on the ground," Heinrich says. "So we wanted to embody that through its physical form."
Ricardo Prada leads the user-experience team at Google X, which essentially incubates new projects.
Mac Smith and Mitchell Heinrich with a table of Project Loon prototypes
To get to that form, the Design Kitchen not only created countless prototypes of different antenna shapes and sizes—everything from a balloon to a pyramid to a bell—but one of its fabricators even built a full-size mockup of a corner of a house, in order to see how the different prototypes would look in action. (Turns out they looked a lot smaller on the house than they did on the conference room table; this was taken into account). And, before that, Smith had people from his research team "essentially scouring the different countries for all of the different housing types we might encounter in rural areas." Smith's team also interviewed the pilot users to see what they wanted out of the device, and it talked to Loon's installers to make sure that the various shapes-in-progress would be pragmatic on the ground. (The bell shape was nixed because the installers thought it would make an excellent bird's nest.)
Ultimately, Heinrich and Smith settled on a red, plastic, balloon-shaped device, which visually references the actual balloons up in the stratosphere and feels welcoming in its own right. (It was partly inspired by the fact that new Google employees receive balloons at their desks.) But when the design was finalized and the parts manufactured, it turned out that X couldn't get an assembly line in place in time for its schedule—so Heinrich and his team put together a makeshift assembly line in another Google building and drafted some of the X researchers to help assemble the first batch of antennas themselves.
This entire process—from sketch to final product out in the field in New Zealand—took a mere ten to twelve weeks. "This ends up being one of our superpowers," Smith says, "that we can move at an extremely high rate and still have really high-quality output." Indeed, everyone I talked to stressed both X's speed and its "fail fast" approach, which means ruthlessly killing less-than-perfect ideas as quickly as possible. "X has a very scrappy culture in general," Patel-Smith says. "It's very fast and requires you to always be on your toes."
To maintain this startup-style culture, X intends to stay relatively small. (Google X as a whole employs "more than a hundred people," but not a lot more—that's the best number I could wring out of the secrecy-shrouded organization.) But as X projects find their legs and go public, they are typically spun off into new, standalone teams, and the designers who helped develop a project will often leave to be on those teams. As a result, X is constantly looking for talent, and that's part of the reason it invited Core77 up to Mountain View—quite plainly, it wants designers to know about X because it wants the best designers to seek them out for a job.
Google's corporate mascot, Stan the dinosaur, with a makeshift Android statue in the foreground
Project Loon's consumer-side antenna—i.e. the thing that bolts onto users' houses to receive an Internet signal from balloons in the stratosphere.
Not that X is an ideal fit for everyone. Its members are expected to have a lot of self-direction, to figure out what they need to be doing and then make it happen, without outside approval or supervision, and often on schedules of their own invention. For people who prefer structure and outside deadlines, this could all be misery.
But for those who thrive in a more freewheeling work atmosphere, X is obviously a unique opportunity. "When I'm talking to people who are interested in joining our team," Prada says, "one of the things I sell them on is the fact that we're not limited—we're not institutionalized the way other places are. We look for people who feel slightly caged; it's kind of like having a caged animal and you open the door a little bit and they pop out and they're like, 'Oh my goodness, the world is so big!'"