The boys from the lab

Google Creative Lab has built a reputation for creating imaginative and fun websites and exhibitions that show us just how magical the internet can be

Currently on show at the Science Museum in London is Web Lab, a year-long interactive exhibition from Google Creative Lab, which features a series of installations that visitors can play with, both in the  show itself and online. These include Sketchbots, custom-built robots that will photograph your face and then draw a portrait of it in sand (and automatically create a YouTube film of the whole experience),  and Teleporters, periscopes that allow you to pop up, via a webcam, in different places around the world, including a 24-hour bakery in the US, and a shark tank in South Africa. The show is quintessentially Google: it is playful and fun, but at its heart beats an educational message, about the magic of the internet, and how it can be used to make our lives better.

Web Lab is one of the latest works from Google Creative Lab, the department within Google tasked with bringing the company’s products to life, whether they be Google’s browser Chrome, or its phones, tablets or Google glasses. The Lab has been up and running for nearly five years now, and is located in four offices around the globe. Its main space is in New York, helmed by Andy Berndt, Robert Wong, Kevin Proudfoot, and, most recently, lain Tait, and it has a smaller office in London, led by Steve Vranakis, a satellite space in Sydney, consisting of Tom Uglow, and then Data Arts in San Francisco, run by Aaron Koblin.  Together, the group have produced some of the most exciting design and advertising projects of the past few years, skipping across online and physical exhibitions, as well as traditional TV spots. While  other ad and design agencies have struggled with how to make effective, appealing work in the digital space, Google Creative Lab make it look effortless. So how have they done it?

Start with the product

Berndt describes the Lab’s core mission in simple terms: “know the magic, know the user, connect the two”. The ‘magic’ in this instance is that which comes from the engineers at Google, whom Berndt and Wong are quick to describe as the real stars of the piece, with their own skills lying with how this technology is translated to the audience. “We try to do what we’re relatively decent at, which is creative arts, we’re storytellers and designers,” explains Wong. “That’s how we try to add value to Google, because this place is amazing, it has the smartest engineers on the planet building the most awesome technology in the world.”

When it launched back in 2007, Google Creative Lab’s emphasis was solely on marketing the brand, though this has now evolved into a more collaborative relationship with the rest of Google, and the Lab consequently contains individuals with a wide variety of creative skills. “Today we’re still a pretty small group, of all kinds of skills, like writers, art directors, illustrators, data visualists, editors …. who all take the skills that they have and try and mix them up with all the other skills at Google,” says Berndt. “I know that’s a bit vague but what we do spills out into all different kinds of projects, from marketing to  helping a little bit with product things to helping with thinking about the positioning of products and how to explain products to people …. [We] use whatever skills our department of people have to connect  all the goodness of stuff that Google makes to the people who’d benefit from it.”

This has resulted in a wildly varied selection of projects emerging from the Lab. As well as Web Lab opening in London this summer, Tate Modern is also hosting a Google Creative Lab exhibition, This Exquisite Forest, which invites visitors to create short animations in response to sequences created by contemporary artists, in an animated version of the parlour game Exquisite Corpse. Users can  interact with the project in the gallery space, and can also play with it online. The project is the brainchild of Aaron Koblin and director Chris Milk, who previously collaborated on The Johnny Cash Project,  where audiences were invited to contribute illustrated stills to a Cash video, and the Wilderness Downtown promo-cum-website for Arcade Fire, a project credited with demonstrating how online music videos can retain the emotional depth of film.

Google Creative Lab’s conventional advertising offerings have been more straightforward, but no less powerful. In Dear Sophie, an ad from 2011, a father uses the web to share his daughter’s early life  story online. While essentially a product demo of how to use the web’s various social products effectively, including email, YouTube, as well as Google Maps, the spot is brought to life by the sweet family story and emotive music.

Another ad, from later the same year, saw Google work with Dan Savage, founder of the It Gets Better project, to create a spot that showed how audiences can use the web to spread messages of hope to gay teens who are experiencing bullying. Both these ads fly in the face of the common perception of the internet and technology in general as being responsible for increasing isolation amongst adults, by  showing how it can instead be used to create communities online as well as be a means of keeping in contact with family and friends.

In all these projects, the product is the starting point. “You build a story around these bits of technology, and you humanise them and come up with incredibly creative ways of engaging people with them,”  says Steve Vranakis. “The creative idea is baked into these things already, and all you’re really doing is telling a story. If you look at our best work, it is a product demo but it’s been told in a really interesting way.”

Experimentation and speed

While the Lab has experienced great success with these projects, and many more, the team there are quick to play down any suggestion that they’ve ‘cracked’ digital advertising or come up with a formula for permanently creating successful design projects online. “I’m wary of saying we’ve discovered some magical way of working,” says Berndt, “I don’t want to create that impression. I think it’s like a lot of creative stuff that people do- it’s non-linear, and some days it’s really working and some days it’s really not. It’s constantly putting pieces together.”

This sense of experimentation runs deep at Google Creative Lab. The team in the New York office has now grown to around 50 people, with the London office containing nearly 20, though growth is not  foremost on their minds, and they would rather collaborate with a wide range of people outside the Lab than bring it all in-house. “On projects we work with tons of great partners, and agencies, freelancers, little boutiques,” says Berndt. “We’d rather do that, there’s no goal to be big.”

“From a scale point of view, being quite small actually culturally means that you’re quite different from the rest of Google, which is quite big,” continues lain Tait. “We’re able to think and act differently, which is what allows us to be lab-like and slightly challenging in some of the things that we might do, and the way we might behave. Some of that comes about through the difference in scale. If Creative Lab was scaled up to feel like a Google-sized department, then it would start to act like a big department, whereas being small we can behave like a lean, start-up entity, which has certain advantages.”

The team in New York describe the company as having a “maker environment”, with an emphasis on quickly trying out ideas, and also releasing projects to an audience in beta so that they can help develop them too (this even extends to the Web Lab exhibition at the Science Museum, which is currently in beta, with a view to a more polished version launching in September). “The general approach is super-fast prototyping of ideas and quickly getting to something that you can see, and other people can see,” says Berndt. “And very quickly make decisions about.”

“I think there’s something to be said for not trying to over-intellectualise things sometimes,” agrees Vranakis. “You go with your gut instincts, you get to somewhere, and if it’s not right, you fix it along the way, because it’s not the end of the world,” he says.

The Lab’s speed of working is something that Tait, who joined recently from Wieden +Kennedy, has noticed is a difference from his experience within advertising agencies. “Having just made the leap from an agency to come here, it’s interesting how different the cultures are,” he says. “Even agencies that I think pride themselves in being quite fast are actually quite slow…. It’s been a real shock for me just how quick you can be when you actually take a lot of the nonsense out of the way and get everyone pulling in the same direction.”

It helps, of course, that the Creative Lab are working in-house at Google, a company that itself is entrenched in the digital world and works at a speed that allows the team to respond to the pace of change that occurs online. “The engineers here, the product people here, can think of something and then cobble it together overnight,” agrees Berndt. “That’s a very weird product development thing, if you think about other businesses: you can’t cobble together a car overnight.”

Having quick reaction speeds has allowed the Lab to take advantages of world developments in real-time, and create headline-grabbing work as a result. One example was when the company created a  ‘hang out’ on Google+ for the Dalai Lama, allowing him to transmit a speech during Desmond Thtu’s 80th birthday celebrations after the South African government failed to complete his visa request in time for him to visit in person. The successful online meeting was written up in newspapers and blogs all over the world, with Google’s technology featuring prominently within the story.

Collaboration is key

Alongside their experimental approach, the team at Google Creative Lab also cites collaboration as being key to their way of working, with the Lab regularly working with freelance designers, artists and directors on projects. They also partner with ad agencies, including BBH and Johannes Leonardo, on projects, and try to inject some of their ‘maker environment’ into this process. For Leo Premutico,  cofounder and executive creative director at Johannes Leonardo, this has been a positive experience.”Google moves quickly and there is often rapid proto-typing involved,” he says. “Getting used to operating at that speed only makes you more nimble and less prone to navel-gazing.

“There are some great minds in the Creative Lab whom we’ve learnt a lot from,” he continues, “not just as it relates to Google, but also as a sneak peek into how technology is going to change the way  people consume content …. When we attend a project briefing with their team, we usually walk out knowing something we didn’t before, and feeling inspired because the product you’ve been tasked with  getting out into the world is usually something that will make the world better.”

Many of the team at Google Creative Lab have a background in advertising, and for Wong, the process is helped by having a strong creative team at both the agency and client. “I think there’s a benefit of creatives sitting on both sides of the fence,” he says. “I think more companies would benefit from having creatives on the other side, helping make the decision. The creative can translate a little of what’s going on internally to the external partner, but they also have the empathy of having been in their shoes to translate what the agency is going through to the organisation.”

In addition to working with existing agencies and creatives, Google Creative Lab is also keen to encourage the next generation of creative talent, through its Google 5 programme, operated by both the New York and London offices, which hires five graduates straight out of college to work inside the Lab for a year, on real projects. In London, the Lab also runs Google Campus, a space in Old Street that hosts mentoring programmes and events for young creatives as well as offering workspace for entrepreneurs.

The user is the hero

Perhaps the most central collaborator for Google Creative Lab, however, is the end user, the person they are trying to reach and engage with Google products. This is why so many of the Lab’s projects are open-ended, with the audience crucial to their creative development.

“Our whole thing is to create these incredible things with our technology and our platforms that inspire the creative community and show them the possibility of what you can do,” says Vranakis. “But also to get them engaged with working alongside us to help us realise these ideas: I think the best way to do it is when you collaborate with them. In other environments, people are much more precious and they want to own the project, and they want to be the sole voice and give direction to a lot of people, we’re much more open.”

“I think we all feel best when we we make something where the user is the hero,” sums up Berndt. “I think generally people at Google feel best when a user takes something we’ve made and does  something awesomely amazing with it that we never would have imagined anyone to do …. When the user’s the star and we’re the stage, that’s ideal.”

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