Why I design at Google

Google is an amazing company, but it’s not always known for design. I thought I’d write down the reasons I’ve enjoyed designing products at Google for the past 6 years. As always, I speak only for myself, not for the company.

There are lots of reasons I like working at Google besides design1. But I’ll mostly focus on the specific reasons I *design* there.

My main professional goal right now is learning how to do great design work. I’m still early in my career, and while it’s nice to find some success, I’m mostly focused on learning and growing my skills. Most of my reasons for designing at Google are centered around this.

*1. The huge variety of work*

In six years I’ve worked on online and offline advertising, desktop and mobile communication products, B2B commerce, science-fiction-style interaction concepts, entertainment and media services, and now products for African and emerging markets. As a designer, this gives me a lot of experiences to draw on in my future work. It’s almost like having 10 different jobs, but seamlessly transitioning between them without interviews or moving.

At the same time, I’m able to stay involved with and observe past projects to see how my design work did or didn’t influence their success. One drawback to a consulting role is the disconnection after a design phase finishes; at Google I’m still in touch with (and responsible for!) projects long after my main effort has wrapped up.

*2. Support for conceptual design*

My short-term design goal is to improve my abilities in conceptual design and the early-stage design process. Google’s scale and scope means that I can work on a big variety of product concepts while still building a foundation of resources and collaborators within a single company.

Additionally, a large, established company supports speculative, long-term thinking in a way other companies cannot. In a startup, for example, you probably wouldn’t have a designer spend much time spinning out concept ideas and doing open-ended, foundational research. At Google’s scale, this is valued and supported.

*3. A global presence*

Google’s global footprint is also a great resource. In the past year, we moved to Switzerland and I’ve traveled to our offices in China, Ghana, Nigeria, Israel, Senegal, and England, and I’m soon headed to Kenya. As a designer, it’s incredible to have coworkers based in dozens of places around the world, and to easily travel to and base research out of our offices there. With a single email, I can get people worldwide to contribute research and opinions on my design challenges. These global perspectives make my designs better.

*4. Because it’s hard*

It would be the easiest thing in the world to just design by myself. Designing at Google is training me to do great design in a challenging environment.

Google is, fundamentally, an engineering company, and it excels at building advanced, innovative technology platforms. Design leadership at Google isn’t forced on teams from the top, and there isn’t a long-established history of how design works there. Design and designers have to prove their value every day, in ways that our engineering culture respects.

There’s a lot of debate about this, but in the end I appreciate the challenge. Long-term, I want my design work to influence the direction of large groups and societies, and to do that I need to learn how to work with and persuade people who aren’t inclined or required to listen to professional designers.

Designs at Google must pass through a gauntlet of smart criticism from diverse people, intense quantitative testing, and a culture where everything is shared openly. Good designs become great when they are honed and sharpened by this process, which focuses ideas to their core and makes them ready for the real world.

Of course, this kind of treatment can sometimes discourage designers from trying controversial new things, but if you keep an ambitious attitude and your team wants to innovate, it can be an environment that strengthens rather than weakens your designs. Recently I’ve been learning from business analysts and marketers how to blend compelling business proposals into my design work. After initially fearing this would dilute my product vision, I’ve realized instead that these perspectives helped concentrate it further.

*5. Building my dream team*

When I joined, the user experience team (designers and researchers) was about 15 people. It’s grown to 200+ during my time, and I’ve been part of shaping its growth. As the team grows, I learn more and more from the new people who join. I’ve had an informal rule that I don’t recommend hiring someone unless they’re a better designer than me in at least one way (fortunately they’re often better in several). Over the years, this has led to a tremendous group of collaborators and mentors, constantly reinforced by new people as the design team grows.

And even today, the group is driven primarily by the individuals within it. I’ve always been able to choose what I worked on next, and to define (or invent) my own working style and methods. Designers at Google have the freedom to explore and practice new ways of working, and to redefine how design is done in the company.

*6. The future of design is interactive and networked systems*

It’s a safe bet that technology will continue to infuse itself further into every part of our lives (read [Kevin Kelly](http://www.amazon.com/What-Technology-Wants-ebook/dp/B0043EV51W) if you’re not yet convinced). Design in this world will require an understanding of advanced technologies and how large, interconnected systems and societies work. Even my other long-standing design passions in cycling and transportation will be completely transformed by interactive technologies (see [Strava](http://app.strava.com/athletes/1307) and [the Google cars](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/science/10google.html) for a preview). At Google, I’m learning to design interactive systems at a global scale.

Of course, many of these pluses are also minuses. Variety brings distraction; global scale breeds confusion; difficulty can lead to discouragement. Each of these is a tradeoff, and designers have to choose what challenges they want to face next. At some point it may make sense to move elsewhere as my goals shift and the company continues to change. But for now, Google is a great place for me to learn and grow as a designer, and I’m enjoying the challenge.

1 Some of the reasons I like working at Google, besides design:

* Google is a big company, with tremendous resources. It takes on challenges no other company can.
* I get to see one of the defining companies and cultural forces of our generation from the inside.
* Free food, great facilities. More generally, Google takes care of people. I even came in to the office when I was on sabbatical for three months, to use the gym, machine shop, and cafes. Google supports a great lifestyle.
* I’m a geek, and Google actively encourages and cultivates things that geeks like me enjoy ([Androids in space](http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/nasa_sends_android_phone_to_space.php), [self-driving cars](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/science/10google.html), [organic micro-gardens](http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/growing-our-connection-to-food.html), [solar-powered Priuses](http://www.google.org/recharge/dashboard), etc, etc)
* I admire and respect our ambitious mission: [to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful](http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/).