Designers Talking

Insights from Google’s fifth annual VisD Summit

In 2019, a hundred and sixty visual designers from across Google gathered in San Francisco for a day of talks, workshops, and swapping stories. They were already there for the internal conference called UX University — and they realized that they could take advantage of the opportunity to foster creative connections specific to their field. They needed their own space: while often framed as part of the tech industry, visual design is a distinct and unique world. With talks, hands-on workshops, a digital art exhibition, and a party, the day was full of lively, dynamic, personal conversations about the challenges and opportunities of working with visual media today. Once these designers started talking, they didn’t want to stop.

Fast forward to 2023, and this chatty discussion has organically grown into Google’s fifth annual Visual Design Summit, a passion project that brings the most exciting voices in the field together in a structured but dynamic way. The goal of this year’s inclusive online event format — a series of keynotes and super-quick lightning talks — was to provoke unexpected conversations and coincidences. As Ryan Henbest, a senior designer for Google Search and an organizer of this year’s summit, put it: to be a creative in any field means “you’ve got to try some things on, you’ve got to get weird!”

VisD’s evolution is indicative of the way Google has become a catalyst for design culture. From the advent of Material Design ten years ago, the company has rapidly evolved into a thriving hub for design, from the practical to the speculative. While the roster of in-house designers diversifies and expands, it’s also vital to invite non-Googlers into regular conversation to keep the spirit alive and the work fresh. Design, after all, is fundamentally collaborative and social — stifled when makers are siloed into strict boundaries like UX, UI, and product design, as well as when in-house is cordoned off from out-of-house. VisD brings the outside in, with the goal of flipping the inside out. And thus: the importance of designers hanging out in earnest.

In the spirit of community-building, the fifth annual VisD Summit in fall 2023 was themed “Resilience,” exploring how creatives adapt to an ever-changing landscape. With that keyword in mind, we asked the Googlers who planned the events to report back with their favorite quotes and takeaways that they don’t want to forget. These incisive and often intimate insights show why we need to get designers talking. Let’s keep the conversation alive.

“Being resilient means bringing in more narratives and continuing to advocate for your story, culture, and history.”

Mitzi Okou

Co-Founder of the conference and nonprofit design advocacy organization called WATBD?

About the talk:
Mitzi Okou is the founder of the conference and nonprofit design advocacy organization called WATBD?—which stands for “Where Are The Black Designers?” In her talk, the interaction and visual designer emphasized how she relies on her inner resources to bring activist principles to her design work and create community in the process.

“We see play as a tool for collaboration. It’s a lens through which to shift our perception, bringing to life the wondrous, the humorous, and the magical in the everyday.”


Brooklyn-based collaborative practice

About the talk:
CHIAOZZA is the collaborative practice of Adam Frezza & Terri Chiao, who are based in Brooklyn, NY and who frequently exhibit their work in art institutions. The studio is known for its focus on play and craft across mediums from sculpture to painting and public art, and their talk focused on fostering collaboration through experimentation.

“Moments of downtime can scare me at times, but they also provide clarity. They allow me time and space to envision the next phase of my career.”

Shanée Benjamin

Art director and Illustrator from Brooklyn

About the talk:
Shanée Benjamin is an art director and illustrator from Brooklyn focusing on gen-z and millennial content, whose clients have included Harper’s Bazaar, EleVen, and Snapchat. At VisD she shared her successes and failures as an independent digital creator who took a chance on herself and quit her corporate design job to strike out on her own.

“Rejection is really just redirection. When I experience feelings like anxiety, imposter syndrome — and joy — I often channel those feelings into my work. I think the ability to be vulnerable is beautiful.”

Sophia Yeshi

Brooklyn-based designer

About the talk:
In her cleverly titled talk, “Yes, She Designs,” Sophia Yeshi explained her journey to create culturally relevant work centered around topics she’s passionate about—like LGBTQIA+ pride, support for underrepresented business owners, and mental health awareness. The Brooklyn-based designer has worked with brands such as UPS, Adobe, Netflix, Spotify, and Madison Square Garden.

“Digital technology is here to stay. How can digital experiences help enhance the rich physical world instead of pushing us away from it?”

Wang & Söderström

Copenhagen-based art and design duo Anny Wang & Tim Söderström

About the talk:
In their talk, Tactile Thresholds, the Copenhagen-based art and design duo Anny Wang & Tim Söderström reflected on how we can more fully engage technology with all our senses. As activities like dining, writing, and socializing increasingly involve digital technology, they proposed ways that designers can make multisensory experiences come alive, such as in their recent project “The Liminal Eatery,” a “phygital” dining adventure.

Special thanks to our speakers

CHIAOZZA, Chris Burnett, Phillip Kim, Shanee Benjamin, Stephen Kwok, Studio Werk, Wang & Söderström, Mitzi Okie with WATBD?, Yeshi Designs

Aya Kanai, Bakary Diarrassouba, Corey Koberna, Estelle Kim, Jerome Healy, Jessie Zo, Judy Zhao, Kai Yee Tay, Lisa Fisher, Megan Lynch, Shannon May, Tobias Kunisch