Brands have the power to change lives. But in today’s saturated market, the sought-after blend of beauty and substance is crucial for meeting consumers’ increased expectations, as shoppers’ refined eye for utilitarian, sleek products has challenged designers to up their game, lest be crushed by the competition.
“With design, you need to constantly be taking in the world,” says Ivy Ross, vice president, design for hardware products at Google. Ross and her team designed the new suite of Google Pixel products, in addition to researching, sourcing and designing one-of-a-kind soft-hued textiles for Google Home that optimize speaker sound quality, color, aesthetics and touch in interior spaces. And Ross’ wide-ranging career in product design includes major muscle firms such as Bausch and Lomb, Coach, Calvin Klein, Mattel, Disney, Old Navy, Gap and Art.com, where she led various efforts in design, development, marketing and branding.
Here, Ross talks to WWD about fit, function and the importance of purposeful design.
WWD: How would you describe your career path in product development? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Ivy Ross: Over the years, I’ve worked on a wide range of products. I’ve been at companies large and small. I’ve worked for brands like Swatch, Coach, Mattel and Calvin Klein. I even had my own jewelry brand and am honored to have a selection of my pieces on display in museums around the world.
A challenge that comes from a diverse and non-linear career is the technical limitation within each category. Designing a cashmere sweater is a wholly different world than designing a wristwatch. These challenges drive me. I love adapting the same thought process to a different category of work. Determining what these technical limitations are, finding ways to create within these confines while still creating the unexpected has been one of the most rewarding elements of my career.
I’ve always been a craft person at heart. As a jeweler, I love the satisfaction of making something with my own hands. When making jewelry, there are confines. You can have a visual idea of something you want to make, but it still needs function. The piece must sit comfortably on the body. A necklace can’t be too heavy, nor a ring too chunky. When designing the Pixel 3, I’m reminded of my years of jewelry design. A phone must comfortably fit in one’s hand, and fit on one’s body. The same human factors are involved in the design, despite the product having a completely different use case.
WWD: Have you had mentors in the industry? If yes, how have they helped you?
I.R.: I find such huge reward in expanding my knowledge of design through working in a variety of product categories. Diversity is key to opening our minds. I’m grateful to have worked in so many industries because with each new role comes a new part of my mind expanding. Each role was vastly different and it was through the differences that I learned most.
Across mentorship, learning and inspiring creativity, I believe that diversity is of the utmost importance. I see that firsthand with my team at Google. We have people who have designed everything from bikes to fashion to electronic technology, and people who have lived around the world, as well as individuals of different ages, genders, heritage and religion. Having that different perspective and offering that unique lens has been paramount to the creativity and product quality that stems from our team.
WWD: How does empathy for the consumer impact your creative process for product design?
I.R.: As a designer, you need to understand your user’s world. You must research, home in and deeply empathize with your customers, so you can successfully build a product that they will find useful and fall in love with. At its core, design is about solving problems for people. As product designers, we’re constantly working to understand not only demographics, but also the psychographics of our user base. When I worked at Mattel, our product team would come together and envision the joys of playing with a favorite toy long before we even began building it. We needed to learn how we would play, interact with, carry and store the toy before any of the tangible sketching and material sourcing took place.
I’m particularly fueled by the dichotomy of designing products both where I’m not the target user, like Mattel toys, and also when I am. Take designing the Google Home products: In this instance, I am the customer. I spend a lot of time decorating my home and I care about putting things in my space that are there to stay. I want objects that blend in. I do not want to feel like I have an obtrusive electronic box in the middle of my living room; instead, I want my connected home devices to blend into the look and feel and flow of my personal space.
Function will always be imperative, but when it comes to incorporating technology into the home, how can we naturally blend these devices into our environment? Now that tech is here to stay, how can we design pieces that we want to live with?
WWD: What factors typically have the strongest influence on your creative process?
I.R.: With design, you need to constantly be taking in the world. At Google, our product designers are not influenced by other electronics; instead, we’re looking at completely different product categories. How can we find inspiration in areas like home furnishings? What new materials are we seeing in furniture, surfaces and treatments?
Something unique to our team at Google is a space we’ve created called the Color Lab. Our Color Lab is home to an endless array of objects from around the world that our team has collected over the years, all of which provide a certain inspiration to our design process. It could be a toothbrush discovered in Japan, with a handle texture that we want to emulate on the glass surface of a new Pixel phone. Maybe it’s the texture of a throw pillow that we want to infuse in the design of a Google Home device. We’ve created a miniature museum of sorts that hosts inspiration for our team to touch and feel and then run off and achieve that texture with our Made by Google products.
WWD: What advice would you give emerging product designers in the technical textiles and fashion markets?
I.R.: Get creative! Explore the unexpected. We’re seeing how new materials are becoming more important in terms of prioritizing sustainability in the fashion and textile space. We’re already seeing this behavior pickup in fashion — I highly recommend visiting the Fashioned from Nature exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, if you’re in the area — where sustainable fibers and sustainable fashion is helping to reinvent an industry which historically has accounted for a huge amount of waste.
I love the tension of opposites seen in sustainable fashion. Imitating leather through the creating materials out of mushrooms, for example. And using materials that you wouldn’t expect — cross-pollinating. That, to me, is interesting, surprising and delightful.
My second piece of advice is that we should not make a product just because we can. Instead, we should forever strive to build things that are useful to the consumer. This is constantly top of mind for my team and me: How can we continue to push the boundaries on design, while simultaneously build products that truly provide value to the user? Mastering this balance is essential.
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