Part 1 of 2 (here’s Part 2)
Today is my last day at Google.
I started working in-house at Google almost three years ago. I built a team from scratch. I was fortunate to hire a team of a very talented designers. We introduced Visual Design as a discipline to Google. And we produced amazing work together. I’m very proud of my team, and I wish them well. They have a lot of challenging work ahead. But for me, it’s time to move on.
Do I have something else lined up? Yes. That will be covered in Part 2. So I’m not leaving just to leave. But I’m not going to sugarcoat the reasons for my departure either. The scale at which Google operates was an early attractor for me. Potential to impact millions of people? Where do I sign? Unfortunately for me, there was one small problem I didn’t see back then.
When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
I can’t fault Google for this reliance on data. And I can’t exactly point to financial failure or a shrinking number of users to prove it has done anything wrong. Billions of shareholder dollars are at stake. The company has millions of users around the world to please. That’s no easy task. Google has momentum, and its leadership found a path that works very well. When I joined, I thought there was potential to help the company change course in its design direction. But I learned that Google had set its course long before I arrived. Google was a massive aircraft carrier, and I was just a small dinghy trying to push it a few degrees North.
I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to work at Google. I learned more than I thought I would. I’ll miss the free food. I’ll miss the occasional massage. I’ll miss the authors, politicians, and celebrities that come to speak or perform. I’ll miss early chances to play with cool toys before they’re released to the public. Most of all, I’ll miss working with the incredibly smart and talented people I got to know there. But I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.