This Is What Happens When Google Creates a Schoolhouse

The tech giant's Grow With Google education center in New York City mixes retro analog styling with a plugged-in wifi flavor.

Anyone who grew up with the privilege of traditional education shares certain memories and a familiarity with certain forms: the chair-desk combos, the look of the—usually—linoleum floors, the hallways covered in bulletin boards, student art, and safety posters. As good, bad, or confusing as school might have been for any of us, there’s something reassuring and natural about working with those old design motifs.

That’s perhaps what inspired Google to turn its new tech education center into a showcase for them. Based in the Chelsea neighborhood, Grow With Google New York Learning Center offers free classes and tutorials for locals of all ages, bringing them up to speed on off-the-moment skills including coding, web analytics, online marketing, and more. With a mission to serve children and adults diving into dauntingly new, unfamiliar territory, it would make sense if those behind the Grow With Google center decided to put them in a charmingly familiar space.

But this is, of course, Google, and the skills are, as said, new. While a touch of the old schoolhouse is warranted here—and evident in the chairs, woods, and study nooks that fill up the space as well as the emphasis on natural over florescent light—the Grow With Google center couldn’t be stuck in the past. Thanks to the team at brand experiences firm, Jack Morton Worldwide, that’s not an issue.

In fact, the balance between the old and woody and the new and digital here feels natural, playful, inspiring even. It recasts tech as something far more approachable and human and far less alien and, well, technical. “Our intention [was] to create a relatable, comfortable environment filled with unique experiences that surprise and delight,” Jack Morton designer and project manager Doss Freel says. He adds, “The classrooms are designed to be familiar and are designed intentionally to eliminate any possible intimidation.”

And, certainly, the classrooms here do not intimidate. Comfortable and perhaps a bit more cosy and humane than that homeroom you remember, the spaces feature dangling Edison-bulb fixtures, crisp white walls, and, as Freel notes, wonderful natural light. “The street-facing windows allow for a level of transparency that ties into our overall goals, he notes. “We want people taking classes to look out onto 8th avenue, and we want to evoke curiosity in those who pass by.”

A particularly delightful, retro-facing centerpiece for the two-floor schoolhouse is the custom Split Flap Display by Oat Foundry that offers information and animation to visitors as they enter. “When you walk into the lobby, you may not immediately recognize what it is,” Freel says, “but every 10 to 15 minutes the split flap will move, creating a moment of pure excitement that brings smiles to visitors’ faces. Displays are normally used to convey a message, but the Split Flap adds an element of magic to information. It’s a signifier to visitors that this space differs from the norm.” 

And, yes, the space has achieved distance from the norm, but only by referencing it, by collecting and celebrating the very normal, very old signifiers of the schoolhouse to create this new effect. “By using natural elements, colors, nostalgic design, and analog technology,” says Freel, “we’ve created a physical space where inspiration is encouraged.”

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