Wild Thoughts With Ivy Ross

“Good design is not just subjective. Nor is beauty. Some people think it’s arbitrary, but it’s not,” says Ivy Ross, the Head of Design for Google Hardware. It’s a Friday afternoon and Ross is working from her home, a modernist house with an almighty view of Mount Tam in Marin County. Lily Lin, a Google communications director, peers at us through a laptop camera positioned on the coffee table while Ross and I sit on an architectural sofa by Antonio Citterio. Lin’s video-link presence might feel Big Brotherish if she weren’t so good-humored and sisterly.

Ross is a “Greygler” as they call Google employees who are over forty, but she pulls off Current Elliott coated jeans and Converse Allstars customized with black studs as if she were a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology (her alma mater). An enthusiastic interviewee, Ross is quick to draw on all aspects of her unusual curriculum vitae. Initially an award-winning jeweler, she went on to work in fashion companies like Calvin Klein, Coach and Gap as well as toy companies such as Disney and Mattel. From a deep understanding of product design in a range of materials (metal, textiles, plastics), she moved on to senior responsibilities in global brand marketing. She also spearheaded many initiatives to foster the productive use of intuition and imagination among her companies’ employees. As her current boss Rick Osterloh, Google’s SVP Hardware, explains, “Dorothy Parker once said, ‘Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.’ That, in a nutshell, is Ivy.”

The mandate of design in the tech sector has changed dramatically. A little over a decade ago, it meant black boxes and gray gadgets. Now industrial design is only part of a puzzle in which “user experience design” takes precedence. Why? Tech is not much use if people can’t figure out how to use it. Ross oversees a team of approximately 100 people, who focus on the industrial and user-experience design for phones (their new Pixel), voice-activated assistants (Google Home), tablets, virtual reality products, and all sorts of top-secret special projects. They also deal with research and packaging. “We are excited to develop a complete design language,” says Ross. “The simplest things are the hardest to design because you don’t have a lot of places to hide.” As Head of Design, Ross’s gift for obtaining a sense of the big picture and the microscopic details is essential. “Ivy is a magical blend of broad experiences,” says Tony Fadell, a highflying entrepreneur who had the pleasure of “creating the future” with Ivy when he ran Google Glass. “She can deftly speak about fabrics, fashion trends, electronics, user interaction, marketing, sales, even ethnography. She’s a businessperson’s designer and a designer’s businessperson.”

When I ask about Google Glass, Ross turns to her laptop screen and raises her voice, “Yeah. So. Miss Lily?” Her communications director replies, “The project still exists, but we’re not announcing anything new at this point.” I press for a comment. “Glass was ahead of its time. To have a computer that small is incredible,” says Ross. “It was brave of us to put out a prototype. It was an honest entry—maybe served up innocently in a way that didn’t quite serve its purpose. Your average consumer doesn’t understand the concept of a prototype.” Google Glass is currently part of Google’s wearables division, which embraces products focused on virtual, augmented and annotated reality.