The Boundaries Issue

Google’s Ivy Ross Wants You to Simply Be

Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design and user experience at Google, has embarked on a lifelong journey to ascertain how art and design impact our physiology.

Ivy Ross

Tucked away within Google’s sprawling Silicon Valley campus is a building unlike any of its neighbors. It’s welcoming by design—a double-height atrium, flooded in sunlight and anchored by a sculptural birchwood staircase, immediately greets those lucky enough to enter. Access is highly restricted. Inside, more than 150 industrial designers, engineers, and sculptors are busy collaborating to envision how the brand’s consumer hardware products will look and feel years into the future. The environment is relaxed yet energetic, clearly tailored to optimize creative thinking. Glass windows, employed throughout, lend an airy atmosphere that let staffers peek inside such facilities as the Color Lab and Materials Lab, in which a cornucopia of artfully arrayed objects suggest what colorways, materials, and craft techniques are top of mind.

The operation is led by Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design and user experience, whose laid-back enthusiasm shines through Google’s recent spate of light-hearted, approachable home tech products. For example, the Google Mini Home, available in an array of pastel colors and delicate speaker fabrics, eschews convention—its rounded contours seem to resemble river stones more than a traditional audio apparatus. This subversion is intentional, yet doesn’t seem too off-brand considering Google’s colorful logo and playful daily Google Doodle—a foil to the stark, pared-down minimalism of Apple, perhaps the brand’s biggest competitor.

Ross is leading the conversation around neuroaesthetics, a nascent yet revolutionary field that explores how design impacts our biology. A lifelong fascination with sound, vibration, and experience has launched her on a 35-year autodidactic adventure in which she mines far-flung locales to quench her thirst for universal knowledge. Throughout this journey, she has lent her immense talents to reinvent such retail mainstays as Coach, Avon, Mattel, Old Navy, and Liz Claiborne. Of course, this was after she studied jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and placed her work in ten major global museums, including the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, by her mid-twenties. (Ross pioneered the use of titanium, tantalum, and niobium, metals that reveal a spectrum of colors when charged with electricity.)

During Milan Design Week, visitors experienced their first taste of neuroaesthetics in “A Space for Being,” an interactive installation that Ross devised with Johns Hopkins University’s Arts + Mind Lab, designer Suchi Reddy, and Scandi furniture brand Muuto. Visitors strapped on a sensory bracelet and wandered through three rooms, each designed in slightly different styles. The directive? Simply be. At the end, a custom watercolor painting visualized each participant’s own physiological reactions to the rooms, revealing insights into which vibes offer the most comfort. All data, sans the souvenir watercolor, is promptly deleted—Ross has no interest in hoarding personal information. 

“A Space for Being” validates a universal maxim we subconsciously accept as truth, but rarely can buttress with quantitative analysis: Art and design have the power to impact our physiological, psychological, and emotional well being. This teaching comes into full force in the Google Design Lab, as well as Ivy’s own home in Mill Valley, California, which is packed to the brim with museum-worthy artworks, jewelry, and crystals.

Surface recently visited both locations to hear more about her illustrious career, how neuroaesthetics will change our lives, and how we can look toward universal truths to restore equilibrium during turbulent times. 

Ivy, you began as a world-class jewelry designer.

By my mid-twenties, my jewelry was in ten museums because of my use of breakthrough technologies. Some people spend their whole lives working toward this, but my ego trip lasted about two weeks, and then life returned to normal. That was the greatest gift to have at such an early age. I realized life is about the journey, not the end game. 

What was next on your journey?

Avon had acquired Tiffany’s and wanted to start a mail-order catalog. I told them that if they gave me boundaries—the technical considerations—then I could create or design anything within those. 

From Avon, I went on to design for Liz Claiborne, Swatch, Bausch & Lomb, and Coach. I was getting a reputation for bringing my full self into these situations. Swatch had recently launched stateside, and I selected watch faces and developed new products. I learned so much about marketing. On Fridays, the company would give us—mostly kids in our thirties—an armful of watches to wear at the clubs. We’d be seen at Limelight and Studio 54 with watches up and down our wrists. It was brilliant—cheaper than running ads, and powerful guerrilla marketing.

You then had an out-of-body experience.

Yes! It was triggered by a personal, emotional event: I asked the Universe a question, and it answered by literally pulling me out of my body. I felt what it feels like when we’re pure spirit, floating in a sea of unconditional love. It was so incredibly beautiful and comforting. When I came back into my body, I was feeling deeper-than-ever appreciation for touching and feeling, and living through all my senses, which is what defines design. It’s how you use materials, shapes, and forms to create a feeling. Recently, this memory came rushing back because of my work with neuroaesthetics: the impact that art and design has on our biology.

The Google Design Lab’s double-height atrium and library at the company's Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Let’s talk neuroaesthetics. How does it influence Google’s design language?

It always has, which explains why we did “A Space For Being” in Milan. Neuroaesthetics involves how we feel alive within the senses. We champion “thoughtful design”—thinking about how something feels, not just how it looks. For example, people tell me that Google Mini Home feels like a river stone. We try to be conscious of that feeling.

That must have something to do with Google’s use of color.

My team was tasked with answering “What does Google feel like when held in your hands?” We had to figure out the company’s DNA, which didn’t originate in physical products. The words we landed on were human, optimistic, and bold. That’s where thoughtful design comes in. You want to feel good when you hold it. Curves are subconsciously more appealing to humans. Pointy, sharp edges remind us of harmful objects in the forest, like sticks or antlers. 

We deliver optimism by owning color. Google’s red, yellow, and blue logo comes to mind, as well as the daily Google Doodle. When we launched our color studio, we crunched shades of gray to find the perfect one for speaker fabric. Our partners and executive staff were dumbfounded, but we brought them through the color studio so they could see the process firsthand and realize why we spend time dialing in what we think is the right change, and how it makes a difference.

So, what is the perfect shade of gray?

Come to the color studio and see! We actually didn’t name it.

If you’re taking suggestions, Google Gray is a nice alliteration.


What did you learn from “A Space for Being”? 

Creativity comes from seeing a diversity of perspectives: age, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Realizing how others see things helps us create something new. I spoke to a South American woman at “A Space For Being” who felt she didn’t deserve two of the rooms. We were astounded. Her body only felt comfortable in the most fun room; the other two were more sophisticated. With her upbringing, she felt like she didn’t deserve to be there. I never considered that. Her perspective was such a gift. That room intentionally pushed you a different direction, but some people only resonate on that level of engagement.


Maybe. I’m definitely not one! Whenever someone reads my tarot, I’m always the hermit, yet people view me as being so out there. I constantly need to retreat to deep inner thinking.

Scenes from Google’s Materials Library and Color Lab.

You seem like a student of the universe.

I refuel on the weekends by taking classes. I’ve studied sound and vibration for 35 years. My house near Santa Fe looks like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of sound equipment.

Playing drums comforted me as a kid. I now realize the beat resonated with and regulated my heart. We all grow up with music—it’s an emotional trigger. I was curious about it, so I researched its impacts. For example, this jazz musician bombarded cancer cells with sound. We use ultrasound to break up kidney stones, opera singers break glass with resonance… I felt in my body that it was true!

Now, I’ll hop on a plane on Friday, study over the weekend, and return on a Sunday red-eye. New connections spur my adrenaline. Gaining information is a creative act.

And figuring out how to store it for later.

Yes, seeing how it erupts and emerges. I did sound baths three decades ago and have friends who now say “You were so right back then! You even named it a sound bath!” No one understood what I meant. It dissolves the ego. I get so much brain activity from that state of being where you stop digging the same story and start detecting new ideas.

Music triggers emotion like nothing else. Certain musicians—Mozart, for example—actually created chords for what society needed to hear at that time. It was almost medicinal how the harmonics and dissonance affected their cells. We’re all vibrating atoms. When you experience a new chord, cells resonate and vibrate with it. It’s fascinating to see and feel the invisible. The future will be about making the invisible visible.

I’ve always been into fractals, as seen in the Powers of Ten video by Charles and Ray Eames. They zoomed out to the universe and back into someone picnicking in the park, eventually into their skin cells. The more I study these concepts, the more I can make those connections. 

You can discover how everything is interconnected. 

We’ve always been tribal. Once our ego developed, we individually built it to extremes. We need to reconnect—not tribally, but by creating a new communal way. That’s what happens when things get extreme: They break, and you rediscover balance.

Does that pertain to the American Dream? 

We need to create a new form of capitalism that serves everyone, but I’m not sure what the solution is. Some younger companies espouse this idea of using their power to help the world.

Tech is accruing millions while people don’t have access to fresh fruit or vegetables.

My daughter once worked for Teach for America, and she could only increase her students’ test scores to a certain point. The principal sent her into their homes and and said “It’s beyond you. Look at what they’re eating.” They only eat sugar. We’re not addressing the root of the problem. I love watching the next generation figure out how to support one another and use their talents for the greater good. It’s an intimate exchange.

Online communities can do this. Tumblr was instrumental in teaching me empathy.

That’s the internet’s gift. Technology has the power to spur evolution. It gives us access to people and thoughts from around the world. Before the internet, we occupied our own little caves. We were insular, only learning from those immediately around us. 

My husband wrote a book called Conventional Wisdom where he attended conventions like the furries and mermaids who experiment with different ways of being. They demonstrate how people from around the world find each other online. They’re each other’s families. They couldn’t have formed that tribe before. They’re creating alternate universes they can thrive in.

Ross’s home in Mill Valley, California.

Is “A Space for Being” helping people realize they can do the same thing?

It’s meant to prove these factors matter and your body is always sensing. We’re so in our heads that we lose sight with the constant communication between mind and body. It’s meant to stimulate moments of insight and awareness. I don’t want to exist in a world where something tells us if a sofa is right. More than anything, I hope people will think it’s just fascinating.

I wish there was a forum for participants to submit feedback.

In retrospect, I regret that, though we had to be careful. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to assume we’re collecting data. That’s why, at the end, we made it clear that we deleted all data. Feedback isn’t data.

Technology should be in service to humanity and serve information with purpose. We were trying to learn anecdotally. It’s interesting how participants wanted to talk to my team afterward. 

Feedback is inherently rooted in emotion. Without context, who knows where that emotion is coming from?

Afterward, my team went to dinner and shared our observations. For example, these two women recognized the connections that registered in them at the same time. It shows that when we connect, feel a moment of joy, or see another human experiencing the same thing, it sends a signal through our body.

It’s validating to know that your feelings register in someone else.

Yeah. We’re getting interest all over the world. Can we use the band here? Can we bring the exhibition there? I said “Nope, it was a moment in time and now we’re on to something else.”

We glorified the rational mind and tossed art aside, but now society has become flatlined and unhappy, and we don’t realize why. We’re missing gifts and joys that make us feel alive. Art exists to save our lives.

Are you developing that research further?

We have to get the world back in balance. Centuries ago, art and music were rational pursuits. These disciplines became second-tier with the advent of science. We glorified the rational mind and tossed art aside, but now society has become flatlined and unhappy, and we don’t realize why. We’re missing gifts and joys that make us feel alive. Art exists to save our lives. 

My dad was an industrial designer for Raymond Loewy in the 1950s when everyone subscribed to the mid-century modern ideal. Now there are so many more aesthetic movements, which harks back to a tribal notion.

Like preferring Memphis versus Shaker furniture?

We have agency over our surroundings. When you’re in an environment that feels more like you, it changes your physiology. At Google, they gutted a building to create my team’s office. I collaborated with the architect so our space expresses Google’s aesthetic. I’m so grateful they gave us that option. The quality of my team’s thinking changed, I swear. Our office supports the notion that designers need to act as a blank canvas. 

I insisted on building a design library. People said, “Hold the books, Google digitized the world’s information!” Designers need to hold and touch things. It’s magnificent—we stacked books three stories high behind the staircase. You can feel the balance of digital and physical.

Man and machine, analog and digital.

It changes your way of thinking. I’m a light junkie. I was buying a house in New Mexico, where buildings have smaller windows. I told the realtor “I need light, vistas, possibilities, land…” We came over this hill into a basin, and I later learned it had once been underwater. My hands pulsed because I felt it. The energy there was amazing.

I do my best thinking when staring at seas of possibility—in this case, wide open spaces. When Einstein couldn’t solve problems, he’d take a bath. Changing your space changes your perception. The subtleties we overlook transform our thinking. 

I recently purchased an emotionally resonant artwork that transformed my apartment.

Emotional resonance is so important when buying art. I collect art, but it’s never about how famous the artist is. I couldn’t care less about resale value. Art transmits something important and I need to feel that. Great art is very personal.

Ross at home in Mill Valley, California.

Back to neuroaesthetics. Where does that conversation go from here?

Right now, it’s a bunch of spinning plates. My team is already working two years out!

Keeping the apparatus in constant motion?

My team has the same core philosophy about how technology is helpful. It gives me a renewed sense of forward momentum. The days of “technology for technology’s sake” are over. It has to be current—why are we making this and what is it doing?

Does this tie into how Google is implementing augmented reality into search?

Yeah, it’s multi-dimensionally rich. People now feel more comfortable voice-recording than typing, so beyond languages, we need to address speech impediments. How do we train machines to understand phonetic nuances? Once we understand speech, how can we bring sight to those who can’t see? That’s where we need to take technology, but it requires empathy. Serving yourself instead of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is so easy. Technology has always come on strong—when society engages with it, who knows how we’ll use it? It’s an issue of accountability and moderation. 

Technology shouldn’t be perceived as evil. It’s simply the toolkit—you can use a hammer to build something or bludgeon someone.

Technology is anything manmade—a window, door, or car, for example—and there’s always a dual use that depends on how people use it. On the other hand, technology does remarkable things. Machines completely upended production during the Industrial Revolution. We’re now facing another revolution that’s enabling another time period. 

Technology also enhances creativity. I’ve loved watching different technologies emerge throughout my lifetime. My dad fostered a forward-thinking home in terms of materials and vision.

Creativity comes from seeing a diversity of perspectives: age, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Realizing how others see things helps us create something new.

You mentioned your father was an industrial designer.

After he worked for Raymond Loewy and the Studebaker Hawk, his practice transitioned into supermarket design. He was the first to suggest changing the lighting during the Energy Crisis. Grocery stores didn’t need to be ugly, clinical places with bright signage. Transforming them into aesthetic places made people linger and spend more money. 

When I believe in something, I follow my father’s footsteps and pursue it with my own resources. He worked at a supermarket chain and implemented his design ideas, only charging fees if revenue increased. He totally changed the grocery store’s environment and aesthetic. He conceptualized what now looks like Whole Foods: selling wine, color-coding aisles, painting murals of cows… He was offering a neuroaesthetic experience. 

So he laid the foundation for you to take neuroaesthetics to the next level.

Yes! From zero to five, kids are sponges—blank canvases. Your brain is in a theta state, absorbing your surroundings in trance-like motion. It’s halfway between reality and sleep. 

At that point, your only knowledge is your own intuition.

That’s why I’ve tried to learn as much as possible. It’s fun seeing how new inputs connect with old inputs to create something unexpected. I’m not simply observing things I want to know—rather, they’re things I want to understand, journeys to embark on. I appreciate the aging process in terms of coupling wisdom with new information. It’s a continuum of art that I love. 

I’ve been driven to be my best self by being true to the essence of who I am, making bold moves, and continually learning. Design has the power to impact our mutual wellbeing, so wield your talent wisely. 

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