In the future personal technology will be so seamlessly built into our lives it will be almost invisible. Claire McCall spoke to Ivy Ross, the woman in charge of designing Google’s hardware ahead of her appearance at the Future of the Future conference next month.
Ivy Ross doesn’t see the future. She feels it. It’s intuition that has drawn her along a diverse career highway, driven not by an ambition to make it to the top but by the desire never to retrace her footsteps. “I don’t ever want to do the same thing twice,” says Ross on the phone while driving to the airport.
The only journey where she’s happy to press repeat is the drive – two hours there, two hours back – between her home, a modern tree house in the wooded hills north of San Francisco, and Googleplex, the company headquarters in Silicon Valley. That might be some people’s idea of insanity. For Ross, it’s the opposite. “To me, nature is the most aesthetic place, filled with sound, scent, colour and texture.”
Ross, the vice president of hardware design at Google, is headed to New Zealand to speak at The Future of The Future conference on August 15. She is part wacky Californian hippy – she has a 1000-square-metre ‘sound-bathing’ studio in New Mexico that she says looks like Willy Wonka’s factory, filled with pyramids and toys to climb into – but clearly has a serious side. The combination of those qualities has seen her work in product design at high-profile companies such as Gap, Swatch, Mattel and Google without a great deal of talent and vision.
If her degree, from New York’s High School of Art and Design (majoring in fine arts, minoring in psychology) nudged open career doors a crack, her upbringing gave her the gumption to stride on through. Her father, an industrial engineer at the studio which designed the sporty, glamorous Studebaker Hawk, taught her to see possibilities. “He was always pointing out how things were put together and how you could learn from what you see and adapt it. He stretched my mind and left me hungry and curious.”
By her early twenties, that curiosity meant Ross had developed a technique shaping metals to craft jewellery from titanium and niobium that captured so much attention her work made its way into the permanent collections of museums such as The Smithsonian and the Victoria & Albert in London. It was a high point – and a low one. “Getting into museums was such an ego trip; it lasted about two weeks before life was back to normal,” she says. The experience taught her to focus on the journey, not the end goal.
Ross was named by Fast Company magazine as one of the 100 most creative people in business. For the past five years, she has mentored a team that is driving the aesthetic of Google hardware and her belief in thoughtful design underpins what has been released to date. It’s woven into Daydream, a cloth-covered virtual reality headset that is lightweight, soft and easy to wear. It’s evident in Google Home, a voice-activated smart speaker that can be customised with a grille that comes in shades such as grey, mango, violet and copper. And in the tactility of the polyester and nylon knit cases that enclose the search engine’s offering to the mobile phone market – Pixel. For Ross, these products are the tangible outcome of visceral experience: her tandem focus is on technology ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’.
Which is why at the Milan Furniture Fair held this April, the Google stand was not dedicated to Products On Display but rather a ‘conversation’ within the discipline. A series of three rooms was curated with different furniture, sounds, lighting, colour and even smells. Visitors were encouraged to turn off their phones and to just be, quietly, in the spaces, to take in the artwork, to run their hands over the textures. Visitors wore a custom-designed wristband to measure biometric data which was then collated and presented as an individualised inkblot drawing – a circle with colours to represent what the wearer was feeling. “I am a luminary scholar in neuro-aesthetics,” explains Ross. “The idea was to give people consciousness about what artists and designers have always known – that our physical body reacts to what we see and what we are feeling all the time.”
Fortunately, says Ross, we have agency over what we surround ourselves with. Hence her mammoth commute to Mill Valley, to the forest and hideaway hills where the living room of the home she helped design is softened with colours of the earth and a 50s-style fireplace is the snug counterpoint to a deck that cantilevers beneath a magnificent oak tree.
Ross’s husband, photographer Arthur Drooker, is another treasured aspect of a life designed to feed her voracious spirit. They met as teenagers when she dated his best friend and hung out, listening to 70s rock. Decades later, they reconnected through Facebook and seven years ago were married. Drooker is the perfect foil to his on-the-move wife, freeze-framing moments in time before Ross, still so dynamic at the age of 64, darts off in a new direction.
“The future is so dynamic that we have to stay incredibly flexible as it reveals itself,” she says.
Ross has always moved towards the future faster than most. She grew up in Yonkers, a suburb just north of the Bronx, in a house designed by her father with architecture so avant-garde that it caught the eye of pop artist and director Andy Warhol. He used it as one of the settings in the movie Bad, a 1977 comedy described these days as “a subversive cult classic that imagines a world of empowered women.”
By the time futurists such as Warhol were conjuring tomorrows where women left the kitchen Ross was already breaking down barriers. That hasn’t changed. As one of the most successful women in Silicon Valley, she believes today’s technology attention to our thinking mind is creating new opportunities. “Everyone is craving the more sensorial aspects of life. That is why women are increasingly thriving in the tech workforce.”
Our future, Ross believes, holds technology that amplifies our humanity, technology which is so integrated into the background of our homes and lives that it will all but disappear. It’s a curious conundrum that, when that day comes, the woman who wants to shape how it feels to “hold Google in the palm of your hand” will have, effectively, designed herself out of a job.
Ivy Ross is one of six global thought leaders who will speak at The Future of The Future presented with Spark Lab to be hosted at Auckland’s Aotea Centre on August 15. To learn more, see www.futureofthefuture.co.nz
This content was created in paid partnership with the Future of the Future festival. Learn more about our partnerships here.