This article appeared in Collective Magazine, and also, somewhat surprisingly, on news.com.au
AS THE creative director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Tom Uglow has a job many of us dream of, but what really goes on behind the colourful doors of one of the most innovative companies in the world?
Here, he shares what he has learned with The Collective magazine.
I THOUGHT THE INTERNET WAS AWFUL.
It was 1994, the Internet was four years old and you could count the number of servers in the hundreds. My dad was a computer enthusiast so he made me go to the computer centre and get an email address – something wonderfully ridiculous like “T456J32@new.org.co.uk”. I remember we had to queue up to use the one machine in the centre. Websites back then consisted of columns of text with very small pictures that had big, blue squares around them. I remember thinking, ‘this is rubbish!’ It was a good four years before I recanted.
I THINK A LOT OF EARLY CAREER DECISIONS ARE BASED ON SURVIVAL.
What changed my opinion of the Internet? I had no money! I was starving and penniless because, when I left university, I wanted to go into book design. I don’t know if there is any career that pays less! But it did teach me fundamental design skills, so when a friend asked if I wanted to do a “few hours” a week at his web design company, I said yes. The company ended up being incredibly big and suddenly I was employee #1 at a dotcom company during the dotcom boom.
VERY LITTLE ABOUT MY CAREER WAS SET IN STONE BEFORE I WAS 30.
I currently have a wonderful group of five very young and very talented creatives working with me at Google Creative Lab and I remind them of this daily. But, you have this amazing opportunity to throw yourself towards different passions at different times and the most important thing is to keep moving and gaining skills.
In 1999, the dotcom bubble burst and we all lost our jobs, but as part of my severance package I took home a laptop and a camcorder, sat in my garden and taught myself the most basic level of [Internet] language – HTML.
IF YOU WANT TO BE IN CONTROL OF WHAT’S ON THE PAGE, YOU MUSTN’T ACTUALLY BE THE PERSON PUTTING IT ON THE PAGE.
You need to step away from the computer and be the person standing behind the person putting it on the page. This is one of the most significant realisations that I had, and why I went off and did a night course in design management.
I ENDED UP AT GOOGLE BECAUSE I SUFFERED FROM LOW SELF-ESTEEM.
I had spent two years working as a design manager at different charities but the last one wasn’t a great experience so I decided to go freelance. But, one shouldn’t freelance when one has low self-esteem because you’ll pretty much take any old job, on any old pay. When a friend said, “would you like to come and do a month designing PowerPoint presentations at Google?”, the answer – for anyone who isn’t feeling low – should be no. It’s not what I am; it’s not what I do. But, that wasn’t my decision, which in hindsight was lucky. I came and did a month, which turned in to two and three…
AT GOOGLE, IF YOU HAVE A GOOD IDEA AND NO ONE CAN THINK OF A REALLY GOOD REASON NOT TO DO IT, THEY GENERALLY LET YOU EXPLORE IT.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing? In the early stages, it was gently organised chaos, an astonishing place, so full of energy and self-belief – and still is. There is great freedom to expand. While you’re doing what the company needs you to do, you can create space to explore what they don’t yet know they need.
WE SPEND A LOT OF TIME PULLING PHONES APART AND HIDING THEM IN ORGANIC FORMS.
My general rule of screen-first design is not necessarily the right approach, and so we make a compromise. As part of our Cube project, which opened in New York in April, we realised you could use a phone as a physical controller for a video screen. It’s hard to explain [search on YouTube for “behind the scenes” + “Google The Cube”] but effectively we hid a phone in a cork cube that acted as a screen… and everyone [just] lost it! Because we’d broken that framed response to a computer and suddenly it appears magical.
I WANT TO GO BACK TO THAT WORLD OF OBJECTS AND ENCHANT THEM.
How about wallpaper that attends to your mood, coffee cups that give you diet advice or trees that tell you how to move? There are a lot of interesting children’s cuddly toys coming out that are digital, because parents don’t like screen time but do like the educational quality. I think Disney’s MagicBand is interesting [an all-in-one device that allows wearers to enter Disney’s parks, unlock their hotel room and buy food and merchandise]. They’re moving into a space where we become the object, a little piece of information in their closed site, so they’re able to tailor the experience because they can see the flow of information, right down to spending money and restaurant queuing. The obvious thing would be to put it on a screen and let the adults deal with it, but instead they put it all on a band and it gives them control.
I DON’T THINK BOOKS, THEATRE OR ANYTHING THAT HAS OLD MAGIC IS IN ANY DANGER [OF EXTINCTION].
The question is how we manage the balance of old magic and new magic, how we begin to allow writers who are still working in an old form to explore these [digital] spaces. It’s hard to find the words to describe how powerful the experience was for me working on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we did with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a great starting point for long-term projects exploring the role digital has in theatre, not just in terms of booking tickets or finding seats. If people are going to make theatre about daily life then it’s going to have to reflect daily life. Going to a theatre where everyone has to turn off their phone at the start of the play isn’t reflective of this.
IT’S FUNNY TO ME THAT MY JOURNEY HAS TAKEN A FULL CIRCLE.
I’m just getting a project on art books underway, which is exactly where I started from all those years ago at university. We’re not looking for replacements or ways to disrupt industries. But if we don’t explore, the great danger is that we end up with a lot of preserved art forms, which is not always a good thing. There’s a big difference between supporting and preserving a classical way of working by helping to develop them.
NOSTALGIA IS BUILT ON THE MOMENTS OF SUCCESS THAT OCCUR WHEN WE’RE OPEN-MINDED ENOUGH TO EXPERIENCE THEM…
and moments of failure that we’re unlikely to be open-minded enough to experience again. I have recently been reading The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. Every day I sit in the park and get 20 minutes alone in her world, a different, Victorian time, among a lavishly detailed cast of souls. I have recently taken to reading books on my phone. To be honest I find this behaviour somewhat scandalous, yet there I am, swiping page after page, rattling through fairy kingdoms and lustful teenage yearnings.
OUR ENGINEERS ARE OFTEN IN AWE OF THE WAY PEOPLE USE OUR TOOLS.
Not always in good awe, but it’s an important point. It’s like skateboards: we may make them, we may sell them, we may even build ramps, but we don’t ride them hard. Trying to teach the world to ollie is one thing, but landing the world’s first “1080”… we just don’t do that enough yet... I love ingenuity. Someone wrote a book on Instagram the other day by writing each letter in the snow to tell a story, which is painstakingly crazy but also wonderful. Or in the Philippines, where they’re using their social accounts as shopfronts. I’m not sure that’s how it was designed to be used, but it’s how the world moves forward.