Courtesy Google
Design 12 May 2024 6 MIN

The woman who came to de-uglify smart home products

Ivy Ross, Google’s VP of hardware design, is injecting colour, warmth, and playfulness into modern home essentials

Back in 2001, Carter Bryant, a former Barbie clothing designer, created the first generation of Bratz Dolls. These dolls were a direct response to Barbie’s legacy of idealised femininity—they were ethnically diverse, fashion forward, and unapologetically imperfect. For the first time, Barbie’s monopoly over the ‘girl toy’ market was under threat. As Barbie sales plummeted, Mattel was scrambling to find itself a new hit. Enter Ivy Ross, the then Vice President of Product Design and Brand Image for the Girls’ Division. She was already somewhat of a maverick: prior to Mattel, the jewellery designer had had stints at Calvin Klein, Swatch, Gap, Bausch & Lomb, and Coach.

She decided to shake things up by bringing a dozen people from different departments together in an innovation lab to boost creativity. She called it Project Platypus, a nod to how the platypus is a composite of seemingly incongruous characteristics from different species.   

“I did crazy, wild things,” Ross laughs over a Zoom call from her elegantly cheery Silicon Valley home. “I saw creativity as part of the human experiment.” She brought in an improv artist to lead a workshop on free association, a Jungian analyst to talk about pattern recognition, an architect to lead a session on forms and connections. A particularly out-there project, conducted in collaboration with brainwave expert Dr Jeffrey Thompson, involved getting everyone to sing a particular note. The aim was to find the fundamental frequency at which all 12 of them resonated and embed it into a song that, when played, would bring everyone onto the same emotional wavelength.

Her experiments paid off. It was through Project Platypus that Richard Manville came up with the idea for the Ello Creation System construction set for girls—the toy that flew off the shelves and won several Oppenheim Platinum Toy Awards.

Now, more than a decade later, Ross is at the helm of a very different ship, heading hardware and UX design at Google. Her goals may be different, but the time is as ripe for innovation as it was when she was at Mattel.  

Today, everyone’s talking about AI. Tech giants are jostling for bigger shares of an increasingly competitive market. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is one of four major market leaders in the AI revolution. Microsoft, thanks to its investment in OpenAI, is poised to lead the GenAI market, but Meta and Alphabet are well placed to lead innovation. But the future is uncertain and public sentiment is ambivalent. Out-of-the-box thinking is the need of the hour, and there's a compelling case to be made for how personal, accessible tech hardware could influence the way we will embrace AI going forward.   

And what is tech, if not a toy for adults? Whether it’s a home speaker system or a smartwatch, technology is constantly becoming more personal, more tangible, more interactive. “When we were starting the hardware division for Google from a design perspective, my team and I took a very different approach, knowing that the days of the big black boxes were going to be over,” recalls Ross. “Technology is going to be all around us—and on us, if we choose—so I think making it fit in and not stand out has been key from the very beginning.”   

Her approach begins with the principles of neuroaesthetics—or the science of how art impacts the brain—a topic she delves into in her 2023 book, Your Brain on Art, co-authored with Susan Magsamen. “When we design for the home, we consider textures and colours,” she explains. “How they’d look on someone’s couch or on the wall, how a person would feel when they see this object. Does it make them feel happy or does it make them feel afraid?” She is trying to find this emotional response through smart objects, which, so far, stood out in any living room with their monochrome design.    

In addition to looking at data—and using their own intuition—Ross’s team members meet people at their homes, so they can observe how people live with technology. Consider the Pixel Tablet. The team found that most people would forget to charge their tablets, which would then often remain unused, forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. In response, the team designed a speaker dock that doubled up as a charging station. A bonus: the tablet has a beautiful nano-ceramic finish that makes it pleasant to look at on your étagère, even when it’s just sitting around unused. She’s also a fan of how her team designed the Pixel Fold, a foldable phone whose hinges close with the comforting snap you’d associate with a Moleskin notebook, and the Pixel Buds Pro, whose unobtrusive design was inspired by how drops of paint pool together on a surface.    

And what is tech, if not a toy for adults? Whether it’s a home speaker system or a smartwatch, technology is constantly becoming more personal, more tangible, more interactive.

Every once in a while, she likes to let her consumers in on her team’s process. Since 2018, she’s been bringing Google to the Salone del Mobile design festival in Milan, and every exhibit has been a deep dive into an idea her team has been tinkering with. In 2018, Softwear showcased a collection of pastel, curvilinear and textured hardware products that introduced Ross’s more “human” approach to tech. In 2019, she collaborated with Muuto, Suchi Reddy’s Reddymade Architecture and Design Studio, and the International Arts + Mind Lab at the Johns Hopkins University on A Space for Being, inviting visitors to use Google tech to track how their physiological state changed in relation to different design landscapes. This year’s exhibit, Making Sense of Color, created in collaboration with arts research lab Chromasonic, is an immersive installation that showcases colour in all its ethereal and material forms. Once again, audiences got a sense of how tech hardware can move away from staid metallics to suffused pastels or rich jewel tones. The exhibitions are also an opportunity to gauge the audiences’ reaction to new developments and apply that information to the Google drawing board.   

As AI promises (or, one might say, threatens) to take certain tasks away from us, Ross sees an opportunity to tech to lean into our “humanness.” She’s not sure what the future looks like yet, but it’s safe to say that in her hands, it’s going to be a whole lot more interactive—and a whole lot more colourful. “My life has been this massive series of questions, and using the creative act to answer them,” she reflects. “We’re in the early stages of seeing what’s possible. I think we have to rehearse the future to step into the present.”