As an industrial designer at Google, Kristen Beck belongs to a tiny but powerful faction of employees.
“I always refer to us as ‘albino deer,'” she tells Business Insider. “There’s not a lot of us, but you know we exist!”
She’s not exaggerating on her rarity: Of Google’s ~57,000 employees, fewer than 30 hold industrial design positions.
Beck and her colleagues work on all of Google’s hardware products — think Chromebooks, Google Glass, Nexus smartphones — as well as their packaging.
Personally, she leads design for Google’s “Living Room” team, which created Chromecast, the popular little dongle that plugs into TVs to let users stream internet video from their computers or phones.
Google released its first Chromecast in July 2013. Beck joined Google only a few months later, and was promptly put in charge of thinking about how the next edition would work, look, and feel.
She ended up taking the device from a simple black stick to its current iteration: A colourful, hockey-puck system that’s more powerful than its predecessor.
Through the hundreds of sketches and prototypes, Beck says that the search giant is “the most interesting place” she’s ever worked as a designer.
“It’s like the heavens have opened up and you just have all these resources,” she says.
She has full-access to a 3D printer, and while she and her partner nailed down the final design for the Chromecast, they would constantly finish quick’n’dirty designs by day and then print them overnight. She also describes the treasure-hunt-like nature of working with Google’s various engineers and researchers: “You can consult with the most talented, intelligent people you’ve ever met in your life — you just have to know where to find them.”
The design process at Google is packed with user research, data crunching, and gut instinct.
Beck says that some of the early Chromecast designs seem wacky in retrospect.
“We tried stuff that would bend and then retain shape, we had stuff that snapped together…” Beck says. “There were so many times we would have a prototype that we’d just look at and realise, ‘Wow, I actually hate this.'”
Here are some of her sketches:
Beck also adds that it’s “an exciting time for Google hardware,” and that the company has started hiring more and more “rockstar industrial designers.”
To convince designers to come to the Googleplex, though, the company has had to shed its old stereotype.
Until 2011, when Larry Page took back the CEO title, the company’s design principals revolved entirely around data. Hardly anyone cared whether products looked or felt nice, as long as they were efficient and accurate. When Page declared in 2011 that Google would start prioritising user experience and making products look pretty, employees felt like it was an “almost hallucinatory moment,” according to Fast Company.
The company’s biggest design change since came in 2014 when it introduced “material design,” an overhauled aesthetic that’s sleeker and more brightly coloured than its previous look. That switch influenced Beck’s colour choices for Chromecast: Black, “lemonade,” and “coral.”
She adds that since she arrived, she’s felt more and more appreciation for her role from other product-focused employees.
“Even in the two years that I’ve been here I sense it, more and more, I hear, ‘When can we get industrial design involved?’ even earlier,” she says. “There’s so much work to be done here at Google, because there are so many projects going on at once.”
Ultimately, though, Beck focuses less on her “albino deer” status and more on doing the work she loves.
“If someone picks up one of our products and says, ‘I love this,’ I’ve done my job,” she says. ” I want to create love between humans and objects.”