Overtime

Design at Google: An inside look with Creative Director Christopher Morabito

Creative Director at Google Christopher Morabito shares insight on what goes into working on Google’s oldest and newest products, Search and Assistant. We dig into the weight of designing products used by billions of people around the world, and Chris explains to what extent the team uses data vs. a human point of view to inform major design decisions.

You can look at historical information to inform a point of view, but at the end of the day (and this is especially true as a designer), you have to have an opinion, and data is not an opinion.

Learn more about Google’s company culture, how creative teams are structured, and get a glimpse into the challenges of designing for voice in today’s modern landscape.

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Christopher Morabito

Transcript

Dan Cederholm: Chris, thanks for being here. I’m excited to talk to you about everything.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. No. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, that’s super good. You’re currently, correct me if I’m wrong here with the title, but Creative Director at Google specifically for Search and Assistant products. Is that right?

Chris Morabito: That’s what they tell me. Yup.

Dan Cederholm: It’s awesome. I got to start off with a question. I was going to say a funny question. I don’t think it’s that funny actually though, but does the weight of what you’re doing ever affect you when you come into work in the morning like, “I’m working for the most important web address in the world?” Does that ever hit you in the morning when you get up and go to work?

Chris Morabito: Yes.

Dan Cederholm: It does. Yeah.

Chris Morabito: Well, I mean, I don’t know if it… I don’t know whether or not that’s the most important web address in the world, but I do definitely feel the weight of the billions of people on the other side of the work that we do.

Dan Cederholm: Hmm, yeah.

Chris Morabito: I don’t know. I mean, it’s a way and it’s a responsibility, but it’s also an exciting opportunity because the things that you’re making… Yeah. I mean, have impact beyond what you could just even wrap your head around, which is a pretty cool thing to think about as a designer.

Dan Cederholm: Ah, I bet it does. Well, I said the most important website, and I kind of mean that in that like it’s almost like we take it for granted or at least I do sometimes that it’s there and that I can literally type anything and get all this information instantaneously. And there’s still some… There should still be magical, but it’s almost like we take it for granted and the fact that it’s so reliable and the interface is almost… It’s almost like… This is not a knock on it at all. It’s almost invisible in a way where what’s there is the web. I don’t know. That sounds weird, but tell us about like designing for that in the sort of… I’m thinking about the history of Google too, and the simplicity of it, and…

Chris Morabito: Yeah. Well, you do. I mean, you do. It’s easy to take it for granted, right? One of my favorite parts of the Search product is this like tiny little line of text at the top of the page after you do a search and it’s like, “Searched 7 trillion results in six-tenths of a second,” or something like that.

Dan Cederholm: Yes.

Chris Morabito: That is… It’s like, “Wow. How? Just how? How is that possible?” Then, the results that you get are usually pretty good. You usually get to where you need to go, and it’s true. It’s easy to take that for granted just because it’s been such a staple of the internet for so long.

Dan Cederholm: Right. Totally.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. Again, it’s exciting to feel like you’re sort of in, I don’t know, just the center of it all, and designing for that space, and trying to figure out how you use design to not only not get in the way of the information that people are looking for, but somehow figure out a way to have the design enhance the information or make it easier for people to understand or give them sort of a different context that just the pure data alone might not have.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Right. I mean, because the data is so important, and it should be in most cases, but especially with Google. Do you ever get the urge to be like, “Let’s change everything?” That’s maybe a dumb question, but from a visual design standpoint, it’s remained remarkably similar to what it was ten years ago or more in a way. I guess you could argue that it’s not, and I think we could get into that actually, because we’re not just showing blue hyperlinks anymore. There’s so much more that goes into it.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. I mean, in a way, it’s funny, I think. You might think the standard search results page hasn’t changed all that much, but go back and look at screenshots of what Google Search looked like a few years ago or five years ago. Even two years ago. Right?

Dan Cederholm: Yeah.

Chris Morabito: The progress is slow and steady, but it’s unmistakable, and it’s not just like, “Oh, we’re changing fonts and colors for the sake of it.”

Dan Cederholm: Right.

Chris Morabito: It’s more that the product has really changed a lot. I mean, a few years ago, Google Search was basically, yeah, like you say, 10 blue hyperlinks that point into whatever web documents were floating out there, and now, if you do a search on Google, there’s access to video content, to user-generated content, to images, to shopping, to music.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Right.

Chris Morabito: There’s just such a wide range of content and information that the product now makes available, and so in a way, that’s the design brief of Google Search moving forward is, “How do you create a design system that helps users make sense of that kind of diversity of content, again, in a way that somehow add something to the experience and doesn’t get in the way?”

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Right. I mean, that’s so true. I was thinking about this just preparing to talk to you that… I said earlier it looks like it hasn’t changed, but really that’s a testament to I think the interface design of the results in that if you look at results now and you really look deeply, there is like so much information aside from those just web document links as you said, but you’re showing people… If you’re searching for a person, you’re showing social media, showing images, and video, and all these things. Over the years, to me, they sort of gradually bubbled in here, and it never felt like there was this jarring, “Okay. Now, we’re showing these different types of results.” It sort of just happen organically. Was that the goal from the backside of this? Is there a sense inside Google Design that any changes need to be gradual and almost invisible or detectable?

Chris Morabito: Not really. I mean, I think honestly, the focus is really on the user and how it’s like… We’re creating all of this, all these new parts of the product, new features, things that we think are interesting or useful to people in some way, and so again, the design is sort of like we need to be as aggressive or as incremental as we need to be in order to really bring that information to life.

It’s a pretty refreshingly pragmatic approach to design because it’s neither overly cautious and incremental nor is it gratuitous, and fleeting, and fashionable. I’ll give you an example. A lot of times, people think of Search as just like, I go to a browser, and I type something in, and that’s Search. But actually, the way we sort of think about Search within the team is a lot more expansive.

It’s really like every place you might bump into Google and have a question about the world, and that’s… Sure, that’s a web browser, but it’s also all of the Assistant products that we make. It’s your television. It’s your car. It’s a wide range of surfaces where users might have a question about the world, and so the design system, again, it’s an example of really like letting the needs of the product and the advancements, and the content, and the technology drive the design, but like it’s just like a very different, much more expansive design problem than it was even a few years ago.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Yeah, it really is.

Chris Morabito: I don’t think people always… It’s not something that you would think about if you’re not thinking about it every day, if that makes sense.

Dan Cederholm: No, it totally does. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, the idea of searching and retrieving information from Google, it means so much more than just Google.com.

Chris Morabito: Yeah, for sure.

Dan Cederholm: That means your job is even harder than I thought it was.

Chris Morabito: I mean, I guess, but I mean, again, it makes it exciting.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah.

Chris Morabito: A lot of times, my designer friends will ask me like, “Well, what is there to design on Search?” It’s like, “Yeah. It’s blue. It’s text. It’s like a word document or something.” It’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s so much more than that and there’s so many interesting kinds of design challenges,” and then when you add sort of the scale and complexity, it’s actually like a surprisingly rich playground for a designer to play in.

Dan Cederholm: Well, that’s awesome. There’s so much I want to ask actually. This is crazy. For instance, maybe you could tell us a little bit about specifically what your day to day is like because I think that could maybe inform us on some other stuff to dig into. I’m just curious, there’s so much… There are so many people like you mentioned. There are so many people using this, and you’re getting into work, and you know at the back of your mind that there are billions of people using it or whatever. What do you look for to improve? I imagine data plays a huge role in this, but maybe not. I wonder if you could get into that a little bit.

Chris Morabito: Just as far as how we use data?

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. I mean, you have the ability, because so many people are using it, to tap into one little minute change and see how that affects almost instantaneously probably, so does that happen a lot there?

Chris Morabito: I mean, there definitely is this kind of butterfly effect in Search where even small changes have a big effect. Again, when you’re thinking about this scale, and that’s definitely the dynamic that we have to think through and manage I guess, but there’s this kind of classic trope of like data, data-driven versus data-informed. Right?

Dan Cederholm: Yeah.

Chris Morabito: Man, that is so relevant to our team. I mean, I think we try really hard to be data-informed, and for me, what that means is that you can collect all the data in the world. In fact, sometimes, I think like we have too much data and we don’t know what to do with it, but you cannot substitute any amount of data for a point of view about what you think you’re trying to do for a user and why you think that’s going to be interesting and valuable. You can have a hypothesis. You can test them. You can look at historical information to inform that point of view, but at the end of the day, and especially this is true as a designer, you have to have an opinion, and data is not an opinion.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, it’s true.

Chris Morabito: We talk about this a lot within the team and just around org, and really just having that sort of clarity and courage to, again, have a point of view about what we think is the right thing to do for people, and then try our best to make something that they’ll find interesting and valuable.

Dan Cederholm: Hmm, yeah. Data is not an opinion. I love that. It’s true.

Chris Morabito: It’s totally true.

Dan Cederholm: Some of the work you’re doing there is not entirely dictated by data then?

Chris Morabito: No, it’s really not. I mean, it’s definitely not the case on our team that we A/B test every single design decision, and the execution that performs like .01% better is the one that we launch. That is just not how it works at all. There’s a much more expansive… I think to the credit of our leadership, there’s a much more expansive view about how we make decisions on the product, and honestly, sometimes that means that in the short-term, we may have to take a step back to take a step forward down the line because we have a conviction about a longer-term point of view that we think is going to be, again, valuable for people, so it’s a balance, but it’s definitely not as like a mathematical decision-making process as I think you might expect.

Dan Cederholm: You’re responsible for not only Google Search, but also Assistant, Google Assistant?

Chris Morabito: Yeah.

Dan Cederholm: That’s a whole… Man, that’s a whole another crazy topic, but that’s a lot to handle, and I imagine it’s because those two things are very intertwined. But do you find it difficult to straddle the two or is it in your mind, maybe it is one cohesive thing?

Chris Morabito: Well, I mean, I don’t know how to answer that other than just then as a designer, and as a designer, I love it because the challenge in Assistant is almost the kind of the inverse of some of the challenges in Search. In Search, you have as you said earlier, you have a product that people almost take for granted now because it just works really well and it’s been there for forever, and people know how to use it, and have expectations there.

In Assistant, it’s kind of the opposite. First of all, you have an experience that’s pretty new. I think it’s a couple of years old. You have an experience that’s primarily voice-driven, which even today is not something that most people… It’s not a natural intuitive thing to talk to a computer, and so I think there’s that sort of challenge. And then the actual value of the experience itself, just really trying to hone in on like, “What’s going to make this interesting and valuable for people?” In that way, it’s a different problem from Search, and I love getting to think about the two because I get to exercise different parts of my mind as a designer.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Oh, I bet. Totally.

Chris Morabito: Yeah.

Dan Cederholm: Is it bad that I haven’t… I don’t really talk to computers yet? I’m getting there.

Chris Morabito: Well, you’re not alone. I mean, it’s a weird thing to do. Right? Again, part of the challenge is how do you make that feel natural because if we get that right, it’s super powerful. You can just imagine.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah.

Chris Morabito: I don’t think anybody has quite cracked it yet.

Dan Cederholm: I agree. I think maybe it’s partly because I don’t enjoy talking on the phone either… and yet I’m interviewing you on a podcast.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. I think you could be a podcaster.

Dan Cederholm: Exactly. I’m a mess over here, but I think you’re right. When that’s nailed, it’s so powerful, and it’s like a whole new problem to solve.

Chris Morabito: Totally, totally, and then you also have this interesting design problem of choreography at that point where you’re thinking about the voice of the user, the voice of the…I guess the Assistant. You’re thinking about how that is choreographed with the movement of information on the screen, other sound elements, visual elements, so there’s a whole different level of richness there to get to dive into as a designer, which again makes it super challenging and exciting.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Totally. Now, I hear that some of the work you’re doing is around more emotive design, and motion, and photography, and that’s all I know. So I’m curious how that fits into your work on Search and Assistant because we don’t… Normally, we don’t think of that design problem as something that might need those things. Right?

Chris Morabito: Well, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, if you think about the way people understand the world around them, it’s not through text documents. It’s through a richer layered connection and understanding of context, and all of that nuance and subtlety really needs to come through in the visual presentation of the information, so yeah, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to be expressive with information in the right ways, like how to create some degree of emotional resonance, and again, not just a sort of like a design parlor trick or anything, but honestly, as a way to help people better understand the information that we’re giving them.

I mean, the same is true. I spent a number of years in print design and designing books for artists, and museums, and things, and it was in a way a similar challenge. You start a book project like that with these amazing plates of just this beautiful work, and as a designer, your job isn’t just to put the plates in some kind of random or alphabetical order, and you bind the thing together as a book, and you’re done. You have to figure out how to tell that story, how you pace the information, what the overarching narrative is, how you create relationships visually between different parts of information. It’s all that same kind of challenge when we’re thinking about Search. Again, yeah. I mean, it’s expressive, but for that purpose. Does that make sense?

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, it does. It totally does. It’s almost like I’m glad that… I was like pleased and surprised by your answer because I almost took the counterpoint right from the start, but that makes sense, And so how is your team structured over there in terms of what you’re tackling each day? I think it’d be interesting to hear what the setup is like and what the responsibilities are there.

Chris Morabito: Overall, the team, as you can imagine is pretty big.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. That was my assumption. Yeah.

Chris Morabito: Yeah, but I mean, I think within our sort of little corner of the world of creative, I mean, we have a few jobs within our team, and it’s really about, again, thinking about those sort of like kind of expressive aspects of design and how we somehow make the parts greater than the sum or the sum greater than the parts I should say, and then it’s also thinking about coherence. Right?

I mean, there’s all these different… Even within Search or Assistant, it’s almost oversimplification to think of them each as one product. They’re actually many, many products, and so part of our team’s job is to think about how do all these various parts of the experience stitched together in a way that feels cohesive and that a user can somehow intuit the hand of the designer really taken cared and make sure that you know what? This feels good. This is nice to use, and it feels consistent. When I talk to the Assistant on my phone and I talk to the Assistant on my… whatever, my TV, that feels like I’m talking to the same thing, and so coherence is a big part of what we think about on our team as well.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, so tell us about your team and the structure over there.

Chris Morabito: Yeah, so I mean, the creative team is pretty multidisciplinary, and so we have folks who are coming from really traditional kind of graphic design backgrounds. I guess myself included. We have folks who are coming from a more digital product design background, motion design, writing, illustration, and that sort of crew of just various creative types just converged together on projects as needed and just figure it out. It’s cool that the team is so multidisciplinary and cross-functional, and there aren’t really bright lines between different flavors of designer I guess on the team, which I think is to everybody’s benefit.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, that’s cool. That’s really cool to hear actually. From an outsider’s perspective, I would think there’d be like more of an emphasis on the… I was going to say which brain that is…

Chris Morabito: No, I do that too. I can never remember. Left brain? Right brain?

Dan Cederholm: Left brain, right brain. Yeah. Exactly, or more engineering focused or…

Chris Morabito: Yeah, yeah.

Dan Cederholm: And to hear you say that the team is multidisciplinary actually within visual design and creativity is really cool.

Chris Morabito: Yeah, yeah. Again, we’ve needed to be. I mean, back to just what we were talking about a minute ago with just the nature of the problems that we’re trying to solve for, you can’t do that without really being attentive to all those different aspects of creativity and expression. You can’t just do it with one kind of person and you certainly can’t do it with purely sort of a traditional HCI background. Although, that’s super important too, it’s just like one of many critical ingredients in the recipe so to speak.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, yeah. No, that makes sense. What’s cool to me is that, say, you’re an illustrator, for instance, and it sort of opens up…I think the way things are going, technology is going, and problems we need to solve that it opens up possibilities for work, immensely. Right? You’re not just drawing pictures for books. Those skill sets can be applied to seemingly data-driven things. I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. No, 100%. I mean, Doodles is the obvious example at Google where there’s a pretty rich history of pretty amazing illustration work even within Search, which is obviously the oldest product of the company.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah.

Chris Morabito: There are other opportunities too for things like illustration, motion, and sound. It’s not just like, “Here’s a box at the top of the page. Just go fill it with something that kind of looks fun.” It’s way more kind of… At least we try to make it way more integrated into the experience and find those little moments of serendipity into light that we can inject some of that stuff into.

Dan Cederholm: Hmm, yes.

Chris Morabito: For illustrators, again… I mean, we have a bunch of illustrators on the team, and Search is just an amazingly rich, exciting place for them to play because there are so many opportunities.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. Yeah, that’s great. I mean, yeah, you’re right. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is the Doodles, which I’m sad there’s not one today that we could talk about.

Chris Morabito: Oh, no. Well, there usually is.

Dan Cederholm: Your team is made up of a bunch of different folks from different creative disciplines?

Chris Morabito: Yeah.

Dan Cederholm: Do you find that you’re working together to solve problems regardless of whether it is focused on one of those disciplines? Does that make sense? Do those people bring to the table their area of expertise on things that may not directly look like their part of their expertise?

Chris Morabito: Yeah. 100%. I think there’s actually two ways that comes into play. One is when you first start a project, you probably have a very limited understanding of the problem that you’re solving because you really haven’t gotten into it yet, so you don’t know what you need, and so at that first step, to assume that, “Oh, we don’t need…” I don’t know, writers or, “We don’t need illustrators.” You don’t know enough to make that decision at least in my opinion, and so that’s one thing.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, good point.

Chris Morabito: Then, when you get this group together who bring these different skills and perspectives, just good surprising unexpected things happen through those collaborations that you just can’t anticipate, and so there’s just so many reasons why it makes sense to build teams more diversely like that and it’s… Again, it’s not a one-to-one. It’s not like, “This is… Yeah. This is a visual design problem, so we’re just going to throw a bunch of visual designers on and see what happens.” It really needs to be more cross-functional from the start.

Dan Cederholm: Right, right.

Chris Morabito: We’ve had pretty good luck honestly trying to operate in that way as much as possible. I just see it on the team where totally unexpected things happen when you throw a… whatever…a motion designer and an illustrator together, or a writer and a motion designer. Whatever the case may be, those pairings are super fruitful, at least we find.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. Yeah. That’s awesome actually. That’s really cool to hear because it’s not something I would’ve expected to hear, but now that you’ve said it, it makes sense. Right? It’s probably why their success… Well, there’s a lot of reasons for success there, but why it is delightful to use, and that’s a good point putting it there.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. Well, it’s the goal anyway.

Dan Cederholm: Now, Chris, how did you get to where you are because I think for the folks listening, who are like, “Well, geez, he’s the Creative Director at Google for Search like how…” What’s your background, and how did you end up there?

Chris Morabito: I guess what I would say is if you would ask me a few years ago to predict where I would be in my life, in my career, I definitely would not have guessed working as a designer at Google. It just wasn’t even on my radar.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Really? Even a few years ago?

Chris Morabito: Yeah. I mean, how long… I guess I’ve been at Google for three or four years so before then. But I had been working in various UX capacities for a really long time, and I just one day decided I needed to do something different, so I quit my job. I took what savings I had, and I went back to school.

Dan Cederholm: Wow, wow.

Chris Morabito: I went to like a master’s program in graphic design. Very both conceptual, but then very traditional and it’s print-focused just kind of approach, and I did that for a few years, and I loved it. It was the best thing I ever did. When I got out of school, I decided, “Okay. I need a really diverse set of things to work on as a designer to keep myself interested.” So I had this idea that I was going to like divide my practice into thirds. Is this interesting?

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. No, it is. Definitely. Yes.

Chris Morabito: I had this idea that I was going to divide my practice into thirds, and so I spent a third of my practice doing, again, print design, so books, posters, just collateral for… mostly, for cultural institutions and nonprofits, museums, artists, etc. And then I spent a third doing more I guess what you would think of as traditional UX freelancing to pay the rent.

Dan Cederholm: Okay. Yeah.

Chris Morabito: Then, the last third of my practice was about teaching, so I taught graduate students in design, and I was happy. I loved that. I thought I had a really nice balanced diet of different contexts and people to interact with and really didn’t have any particular interest in changing. Then, through just a random series of events, I got a call from Google and had this opportunity, and it was right about the time that I was starting to get a little bit… I don’t want to say bored, but a little bit like… I’ve been doing the same thing for a while. Maybe it was time to try something new, and I just thought, “You know what? Why not? What could I do that is as different as possible from what I’ve been doing? I’m going to from like making artist books to working on Google Search. Sounds good. Sign me up.” Yeah, and I showed up. I moved to the Bay Area, and yeah, I’ve been here for the last three or four years and actually really enjoying it.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. Well, it’s cool because what you described, the team makeup being before, it sounds like your background in not only UX, but print design and teaching even, has probably helped you be in this role and be successful. Is that accurate?

Chris Morabito: I mean, honestly, what I’ve really just tried to do for myself is just build that same sense of design community and energy in a studio at Google that I have had in other places in totally different context, back in school, or in the classroom, or in the studio. And getting to do that to build that sense of a studio energy and a really rich dialogue about design within a big tech company is itself a really interesting challenge for me and part of what makes the job so exciting even just beyond the things that we’re actually designing and shipping.

Dan Cederholm: Wow, that’s awesome. Well, Chris, look. This has been cool. It’s been so cool to hear some inside things about Google, and the Search, and the design of it. Thanks for being here first of all, and we can’t wait to see how this evolves and how Google Search and all that expands as technology does.

Chris Morabito: Yeah. I mean, thank you so much for having me. This has been great.

Dan Cederholm: Awesome.

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