How Google went from being a tech company to a design company
Taking insights from Google’s Visual Design Summit – an annual internal event for its entire creative staff – we explore how design is valued at one of the world’s best-known businesses.
- Jenny Brewer
- 8 March 2022
Though Google is usually put in the category of tech company, it employs thousands of creatives all over the world across UX design, illustration, motion design, typography and more, on all of its products. What’s more, the past decade has seen it gradually reposition itself as a design company first – likely, in part, because the mainstream consumer market has grown to value design more highly, but also thanks to its in-house team pushing for a stronger culture of design. One of the fruits of this campaign is the Google Visual Design Summit: an annual internal event comprising talks, workshops and discussions, put together by a handful of visual designers with the intention of connecting, inspiring and supporting the discipline, and making design top of the company’s agenda.
At this year’s event (its third annual Summit) It’s Nice That hosted a panel discussion with designers from international Google offices to discuss the company’s design culture – how it’s valued, how it’s changed over the years as Google has grown and diversified its output, and improvements that still need to be made. Overall, the designers were surprisingly candid and keen to openly discuss the good, the bad and the less media-friendly aspects, but were unanimous in agreeing that design thinking had (albeit slowly) become integral to its approach.
One particularly telling anecdote came from Philip Battin, head of Seed Studio in Hardware, who said that designers were encouraged to attend Milan design week instead of the big tech shows in Las Vegas, for instance. In this way the company had transformed from being more “technically and digitally driven,” to being more focused on lifestyle and individual user experience. There’s been a shift in how Google sees itself, and, in turn, how its designers want the world to see it, from the outside.
Recent years have also seen Google shift from designing for the “average” user to becoming more human-centred and individualised. Carly Ayres, content strategist in Material Design, admits that Google’s output used to be about how you standardise making a website or one exact output, whereas now its products’ user interface is increasingly open to customisation and accessibility. Again, this is part of a global movement towards softer and more personalised digital design, but Google is expected to be at the forefront of this, and has done so by putting far more resources towards creative work. “People are bored of big tired systems, they want nuance and want to see it within design,” says Andy Stewart, visual design lead on Material Design.
A physical manifestation of this shift towards being a more design-motivated company can also be seen in its offices. Once infamous for their slides and confetti-coloured interior design, many of its offices have been transformed to look and function more like creative studios, with maker labs, Risograph printers, design libraries and crit spaces, etc. Jason Blythe, principal designer on Search, notes that their working environment is one that “makes creativity and creative thought more accepted”. This investment seems concrete evidence that Google is not only keen to recruit and keep the best creative talent possible, but to instil a culture rooted in design.
While a lot has changed at Google, there’s still a way to go. With huge competition for talent and design innovation coming from a constant stream of start-ups, this behemoth has its work cut out to stay at the cutting edge, and ensure the best pool of creative minds is present. Alicia Fairclough-Buford, visual design lead on Hardware, is part of a small minority of Black women in the hardware space, and feels passionately about building a more inclusive design industry by engaging with a broad range of communities. This means not just recruiting from famous universities, but continuing efforts to recruit from smaller, often overlooked art schools and colleges to “unearth hidden gems”. It’s also about expanding our definition of design, and what various skillsets can bring to the table.
The benefits almost go without saying, but specific to hardware design Alicia says they are “building products for people from so many different backgrounds,” that it just makes sense to have a range of perspectives creating them and to “not stick with comfortable options”.
The main takeaway is that clearly the internal culture at Google has enjoyed a seismic shift in the past few years, from being tech-focused to people-focused. Over time, design has become increasingly infused into all of Google’s work, and while visual designers admit there are still improvements to be made, they believe in the power of design to do good – to make more accessible and empathetic products to aid people’s lives. The very existence of this summit is a testament to this powerful creative community and their ambitions to push the design envelope.
Part two of the VISD Summit will take place on 9-10 March with Field.io, Landscape, Martin Lorenz, Moniker, Porto Rocha, Space10, and Yehwan Song. Part one featured Deem Journal, Saewon Oh, Spect Studio, Sulki & Min, Tableau, Talia Cotton, and Wade & Leta.
Panelists for this discussion included: Alicia Fairclough-Buford, Amber Bravo, Andy Stewart, Carly Ayres, Christopher Morabito, Jason Blythe, Philip Battin and Triona Butler.
Learn more about the Visual Design Summit, whose goal is to activate a rich culture of design, and make Google’s products even better by inspiring designers to do their best work. More info at design.google.
About the Author
After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.
Jenny is currently on maternity leave.