Designing Project Ara, Google’s modular smartphone, by San Francisco studio Branch

9 June 2016

Industrial designers Nick Cronan and Josh Morenstein, founders of San Francisco design studio Branch, have been working on Google’s much-talked-about Project Ara for the past year. Now the first prototypes of the modular smartphone are finally out in the open, the studio spoke to It’s Nice That about the process of creating this innovative new piece of technology.

What was your design brief from Google?

In April 2015 we got a call from Andrew Ackermann, creative director at Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects Group (ATAP), which had been working on concepts for Project Ara, their modular device. Andrew was looking for a new creative partner to collaborate with.

Andrew showed us an appearance model of the device concept and said “this is Project Ara, how would you do this better?” Ultimately, while the basic architecture of using 1×2 and 2×2 modules had been established, the Project Ara team wanted to rethink the whole experience and create real life stories to help guide what people really wanted a device like this to do, which aligned with the user research the team had done.

How did you approach this — what’s your process?

Our first effort was focused on exploring the future of the platform. Our approach was to start completely from scratch, understand the needs of the individual modules, then distill their details down to simple, pure geometry. Just as it’s our job to push the envelope on what’s feasible, we must also be tuned in and sensitive to opportunities that feel magical and unexpected for the user. It’s not a frame that holds modules, it’s the physical manifestation of ones needs and interests.

What were the main challenges you faced? How involved were you with the technical aspects?

The biggest challenge was creating a platform that allows for the rapidly growing ecosystem of unique modules that need to look, feel and behave as an integrated device. We aimed for simplicity and consistency, however every individual module is a unique product, and is treated as such. For example, a camera’s optics have a dramatically different set of requirements and user experience than the acoustics of a speaker.

Ultimately, we wanted to allow people to have the look of a one-piece one-colour device, but at the same time we curated a wide range of colours, materials and finishes that all work together allowing for increasing levels of personalisation from minimal to wild. Frankly they can do both and everything in between, and that’s the amazing thing about Project Ara. It doesn’t put limits on users the way that other, conventional objects in our life do.

For over a year the Branch team has been working extremely closely with the Project Ara team as the creative partner to co-create and develop Ara from the ground up. Many of the mechanical challenges were overcome through daily collaboration and countless whiteboard sessions. For every interaction, feature and detail we created countless sketches, renderings, mockups and refined models to make sure they integrated seamlessly into the rest of the experience.

Can you tell us about the final design — how would you describe the aesthetic?

It’s honest and clean. There is a sophisticated elegance and universal appeal to the absence of trendy styling. As with all phones, the overall size is driven mainly by the display but we tried to make the modules as compact as possible, which meant they needed to be square and crisp. All the early explorations into organic geometry and surfacing felt purely cosmetic and dishonest.

We worked to reduce the visible structure of the device, allowing the chosen modules to define the aesthetic. We wanted there to be no ugly combinations while empowering limitless personal choice. We discovered that everyone involved has combined dramatically different colours, materials and finishes, creating dramatically different versions of “their Ara”. It’s a new emotionally driven experience that has more to do with the weather and what you had for breakfast than what you see everyone else doing.

What stage is the project at now?

There are many functioning developer devices within the team and we’re now working towards launching a fantastic developer edition. Many exciting things on the horizon. This marks a technological tipping point, and Project Ara is the first of its kind to deliver on its promise and therefore needs to pave the way for the future.

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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