WHat is it that you do? Exactly?

Everything to come is designed by you.

Welcome to a new age of design—a time when anyone, anywhere can instantly iterate, model, prototype, publish and promote. This is a fascinating by-product of the overnight democratisation of production (making) and distribution (sharing) that has occurred via free web-based software, and near ubiquitous hardware in pocket or laptop or tablet computers. These tools are accessible to billions of people. The world is full of creative ,brilliant, curious, passionate people who could do anything. Isn’t that exciting? We could, for example, given some coordination, direction and aptitude, rewrite the entirety of Wikipedia each day, or perhaps do something even more productive. But there’s a downside to this instantaneous digital production and distribution. The world’s problems are monumental, yet we respond primarily to the minutiae of daily existence. We have apps for this, apps for that—this is a rhetoric for ‘digital’ that is mainly self-interested. We design for ourselves. 

I came very late to design. I didn’t like design at school, I still don’t consider myself a designer. I am frequently asked “What do you design?” and until this exact moment I have always said ‘websites’ (even thought I might as well say tanks, or fishing rods). however I have realized that I design ideas. I may use the ‘websites’ line for the immigration officers when I visit New York, but as part of Google’s in house Creative Lab, my role is to have ideas and then iterate on those ideas, much like any designer. I work through the structure of the idea and the concept using words, and eventually I share those words with my team. I guess it is fair to say they are quite unusual ideas. 

The Creative Lab has people around the world and is quite a small team in a company like Google. I worked first in London, joining in 2006 and building a big team for the European market; then I moved to Australia 2 years ago in order to have a very small team (5-8 people) and smaller budgets. Both of these things allow for more creativity in your work. Around the world we have designers; we also have programmers, filmmakers, producers, philosophers, operations, and business folks. Collectively, but with different points of focus, we explore the new digital tools of our generation. We also create experiments that showcase what digital technology might mean for productivity, creativity, entertainment, or simply for day-to-day living. 

It makes most sense to share some examples of our work – which we can talk about in detail to illustrate the essay.  Over the past few years we have worked on a wide range of projects. One of our earliest, and now more recognizable, projects was the ‘YouTube Symphony Orchestra’ (2009), during which we worked with the London Symphony Orchestra using YouTube to audition classical musicians. The musicians that the LSO chose were brought together for a one-off performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009, and in 2011 they performed at the Sydney Opera House. The project ran for over five years from the very first meeting when a young marketer suggested the idea, to the final night in Sydney whne 35 million people watched live on YouTube. At different times different teams come together, to develop posters and mocks that sell the ideas, or start working on the website, or experimental side projects, or program the schools outreach, or start planning filming. When the creative is at the beginning of the whole project you stay in touch with all the lawyers meetings, and contracts, and venue problems, the logo design and the banner adverts. Hundreds of people will touch your project.  

For the film-project Life in a Day we invited everyone in the world to send us footage from 24 July 2010 on YouTube. We received over 5000 hours of footage from 80000 people and we worked with Ridley Scott and film director Kevin McDonald to turn five thousand hours of YouTube video into a 90-minute film. We also worked on lots of interesting digital sub-projects for the site and the cinemas.  Life in a Day was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, in addition to its theatrical release. 

Sometimes projects seem positively ridiculous. In the summer of 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Midsummer NIght’s Dreaming, in which they performed Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in real-time in Stratford, England over three days. We simultaneously created an extended online universe on Google+ that was comprised of characters who did not have lines in the play, and we let them offer contemporary commentary on the action during the performance. 

Most recently, we have been exploring the potential of ‘Google Hangouts’ as an interactive educational tool. ‘Hangouts in History’ can reach any school that has an internet connection, and it lets children interact with actors performing historical roles: scientists, explorers, nuns, nazis. It is very simple way of bringing historyto life for students that allows them to ask questions and challenge history in a fun, fluid way.

It is simplest to imagine this essay as sort of a ‘pen-portrait’ of how I personally construct and manage my creative teams. I will try to explore briefly what I expect from our ‘design practice’. We don’t really have a strict way of doing things. Eventually every group becomes so big that they bring in people who know how to do things like run projects professionally but in the first instance that is not whow we want it set up. It is better to be frustrated by lack of process than stifled by too much process. We have learnt almost everything by doing. Ours is a speculative and exploratory set of processes.  Speculative design is often most appropriate to internal, funded teams, since it is a form of creative R&D that relies on solid relationships and on an in-depth knowledge of an organisation’s strategies and strengths. 

Think about the world for a moment.  We are moving from an era of written down words in books, or on films that you have to own, to physically be in contact with and we are moving into a time of fluid information. Information about anything and everything, sometimes raw data about the weather or your location, or your health, sometimes incredibly well organized information about the world, like wikipedia or google or facebook. How you access that information changes everyday and will definitely be different to you reading this than me writing it. But one thing is certain – it is more fluid. It is easier and more accessible and that is not going to change. We are moving from an era of static information to an era of fluid information and only the most curiously passionate people are going to be able to make the most of that.  That means learning how to find information that interests you from multiple sources and finding ways to crash it together to allow us to see the world in a new way. 

For that you need to be fluid minded, passionate, curious, and creative. So I don’t tend to hire designers. I know what designers do. I hire people that make me excited by their interest, and their fascination, and their ability to play with ideas. And then I try to let them do whatever they enjoy the most – as long as that is helping explore one of the teams ideas. 

This approach has been described as an artistic-practice combined with a variant of design thinking. One of our fundamental goals is empathy with ‘normal’ people (i.e. you and me, and people all around the world): how we can make technology feel more human, more natural and more obvious. We also explore the convergence of technology and culture. Often these ‘convergence’ statements begin: ‘I think that x (technology) would allow z (people) to explore y (subject) in a new way’—quite often this can be paraphrased as ‘wouldn’t it be cool if z was able to use x to do y’? One time we did a pop video that began: “wouldn’t it be great if we could do a pop video in a web browser”. This kind of question helps us look for opportunities to explore. What might that look like?  In our team we get to ‘write the fiction of the science” as Robert Wong says. Generally we are wary of predefined outputs - although ultimately there is normally a short film. If there is a brief, then we push at the parameters to see how far we can go. For example a project about speaking to computers once turned into a year long exploration of whether we could use that to help people learningEnglish pronounce their words better..

How do projects like these come to life?

We have some simple ideas that help us, like trying to firewall the team. Creativity might thrive on a budget, but generally it doesn’t like budget management, or copyright concerns, or politics, or sales pitching. The most productive teams we have are the happiest ones—and that is because happy teams are productive, not the other way around. We try to give very clear sense of significance and direction—a mission—that allows us to understand the value of the project, to be unconcerned at the absence of a clear roadmap, and to enjoy the ‘journey.’ We try to minimize the time spent presenting or in meetings. Hide the team, let them articulate, discuss, and make. When a parameter becomes fixed, or a scope shifted, then the team engages in a series of ‘sprints’—which are highly focused periods of intense output towards defined goals—to embed that parameter so that it is structural and essential rather than an impairment—we . tTry and fail, and share and try again. This process does not make for the most polished outputs, but it creates ‘collisions of creativity’. Collisions are great – they cause energy, and motion, and they very often leave fragments of ideas that can be used later in different ways. We should probably spend more focus on creating collisions of ideas. This can be intellectual as well as visual or technical. It can be as simple as putting images on walls, or playing videos next to each other, having two people speak to each other, or one person present their ideas formally. Personally I like trying to explain ideas over and over again. A constant cycle of showing and telling, iterating, listening and refining.

Enable everyone:

On any given project, our teams stretch to parlay 3 to 8 roles, such as developer, graphic designer, filmmaker, UX designer, producer (technical or theatrical), writer, creative strategist, project manager. My group sub-divides into smaller groups, which allows them to work on between 4 and 7 projects at a time. Sometimes one person takes on all of the roles for a project – when you find yourself doing everything it is almost certain that you won’t reach a level that should satisfy you. Try to be mindful of thisif it happens; lower your expectations and open the door to collaborators. Whatever role people play in a team, they should feel that they have agency, and not just over their own actions. They should have some authority within the group to define and shape aspects of our output. If they don’t, they should change up. For managers, the challenge is remaining conscious of the motivations and ‘psychology’ of each individual, and to be aware that everyone is different and that motivations fluctuate; this is difficult and frustrating. (I am not so good at this). 

Learn by doing:

Successful, high profile work for my team may end up being large-scale, or even perhaps global, but this work normally begins with small, scrappy models or prototypes on a workbench. We rarely start with a big idea and more often start with investigations or explorations of a particular technology. For example all of our Hangouts in History work started with a completely open experimental project called ‘Extreme Hangouts’  that included suggestions for emergency services, interactive gaming and speed eating, as well as teaching history using actors. We work on what we are interested in, where we can, and big ‘things’ typically start small. Another example is our current projects with video cubes which started with a cube experiment two years prior and then that sat there until the mobile technology caught up with what we wanted to do. Our work is naturally cloud-based. We expect people to work from wherever they are, and we expect to be able to assimilate the skill sets that we need—sharing access to documents, designs and presentation decks online. We frequently work with small agencies and freelancers worldwide, and we expect these participants to ‘dial in’ to a Google hangout when we need to chat, wherever they happen to be. Collaboration means letting everyone contribute to everything, then letting people know what everyone is doing and letting them do what they each do really well. This process stresses fluidity in individual and group skill sets, and a capacity to ‘dive in’ and add value immediately. We have ‘walk-time’, which give us time to talk, share, show and make. We have sprints, highly focused periods of intense output that is geared to defined goals—and we discourage team members from hiding away and labouring on ‘perfect’ solutions. Very little lasts long in our work process—either offline or online—and bringing a sense of impermanence into our practice is hugely beneficial because??. We are often more productive if we keep verbal discussions to a minimum and instead construct prototypes or models in a given timeframe. We re-use and re-cycle, we learn by doing, and doing, and doing. 

Ultimately, the outcome of this approach is that our design is speculative, which is an indulgence because most design or creative groups appear to work as parts of a more directed process. I think it takes a lot of courage for a company to allow small groups to explore without boundaries or expectations. We create speculative design, aiming for an immediate synthesis of knowledge, creativity and output; we believe in prototyping by design, by video, by modeling. We believe in beginning with the minimum viable products, and the ephemeral nature of our tools. With the organisational knowledge and relationships at our disposal it is as much a matter of creative strategy as design - and that feels like the best way to create.

A book in a box can survive 1,000 years; a computer in a box maybe 20. It is an irony for aspiring designers that their digital work will almost certainly not outlive them unless it is either printed in a book and housed in a library, or copied and pasted into the digital consciousness, uncredited, by the bloggers, the tumblrs, the pinteresti, the many curators of design online. The more we create, the less we need to preserve. I think every morning is worth finding a moment to acknowledge why we spend such time and effort on our craft, and, if you can, to relish that we have the freedom to create.