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Google’s Design Guru: ‘People Think Fashion Is Frivolous. It’s Not.’

July 17, 2018, 12:58 AM UTC

Ivy Ross does more than just make tech pretty.

Google’s design guru—technically, vice president of hardware design—would argue that she imbues the search giant’s gadgets with humanity. Her aesthetic touches, which can be seen in our homes (Google Home and Google Mini smart speakers) and our pockets (Pixel phones), embody the face of Google inside our most intimate spaces.

“People think fashion is frivolous. It’s not,” Ross said on stage at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Monday. (You can view the event’s livestream here.)

“It’s based oftentimes on sociological trends—the colors people are craving—and it’s very intuitive,” she said.

Ross is a former metalworker and jewelry designer whose work has been showcased in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She has held top design roles at Gap, Disney, Old Navy, Mattel, Calvin Klein, Coach, and elsewhere.

“I view myself as an orchestra conductor over a very talented and very diverse group of people,” Ross said. “Diversity leads to creativity.”

Ross joined Google in 2014 to liven up its second generation of Google Glass smart-glasses—a product that never made it to the consumer market. Instead, Google pivoted to workplace sales.

Working at Google has had its occasional challenges, Ross said. When she joined the company, she had to get used to the data-driven, fastidious engineering culture.

“Design is subjective. I believe it’s a little bit of art and science,” Ross said. “You can’t quantify it.”

When presenting her vision for the form of the Google Mini, for instance, Ross said she had to persuade her colleagues that the product—which serves as a speaker and virtual assistant—would be better if it had certain distinctive aesthetic qualities. She proposed that the company craft the speaker using multiple materials, and that it be molded so it “feels almost like a river stone” in the hand.

“I really had to convince everyone it was worth the effort to create something that’s not a black box,” Ross said.

Asked what the future of Google’s phone design will bring, Ross offered a few tantalizing clues. “The future is clay, not bricks,” Ross said, meaning that the technology will become increasingly adaptable versus static.

“Things will be more mobile and personalized,” Ross said. “We’re going to need our devices to be more flexible.”

As flexible as humanity’s ever-shifting fashion senses, to be sure.