Five Lessons in Managing Ambiguity
One design director’s advice on building and nurturing creative talent
Whether you’re sussing out a small-scale design flow or overseeing a growing team of multi-disciplinary experts, professional life at Google requires comfort with gray areas. We asked Joshua To, a design director for a team building Google’s next generation of AR and VR experiences and products, to share some of the lessons he’s learned driving talent, nurturing creative culture, and embracing uncertainty
Conduct your team like a creative orchestra
As in film and game design, VR and AR present a big shift in focus for the typical product or interaction designer. A lot of my job has been to figure out how to bring together the right combination of people to take on this complex work: those who’ve been at Google for a long time and provide a foundation of experience, and industry experts who can help build up some of the muscles that are missing. Concept and technical artists, character riggers, lighting and animation pros—it’s like this orchestra of creative talent operating with humility and open-mindedness toward one another.
Encourage artistry around the office
I’ve been thinking a lot about how designers’ hands-on spirit and culture can permeate across the company. I want people to feel like they have some amount of agency over where they work—to give folks permission to make changes they feel would make the space better. I’ve recently kickstarted an artist-in-residence program that has invited about a dozen artists to paint murals and do installations in a number of Google offices in and beyond Mountain View, CA, which has helped inject that “maker” spirit into our office spaces. I also started The Hive, which is like a tactile makerspace for designers; tools for things like letterpress or embossing projects can be very life-giving. People here should feel inspired and empowered to go screenprint a poster and staple it on the wall.
Don’t abandon the real world in the digital
Screens and phones are great constraints for designers, because you have X by Y number of pixels. In VR and AR, the canvas is much bigger and it can be easy to get carried away by thinking, “We could do this, then put that there, and it'll be amazing.” But for users that can be overwhelming. Focus becomes a huge issue. We have to remind ourselves what humans are really good at, and lean into how we actually live and interact with objects. Would this feel right in the real world? Is this believable? Even if it’s fantastical, it should still have a physics engine. Gravity might be turned up way high or way low, but there still needs to be an underpinning framework so people can reason why things are happening around them.
Lead by example
I’ve learned over time that my conduct impacts how people feel. Design reviews are an opportunity for me to enforce values that hopefully then cascade down to individual teams and projects. I try to be as present as possible, so that everyone gets the feedback they deserve. I also know that I need to be prepared for those moments of feedback myself. It’s my responsibility to set the right expectations and clearly communicate them to my team, to prevent issues from snowballing. It’s important to own up to mistakes and misunderstandings, instead of glossing over them; to ask questions; to be genuine—to be my full self—but also modulate and recognize areas where I could improve. It’s always a balance: Being a good human, yet setting and keeping a really high bar.
A leader’s job is never “done”
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in front of a computer or sketchbook and been so deeply focused on one problem that I looked up and thought: “Wow, 90 minutes just passed by.” As a design manager, I'm often running from a review to a strategy session to an interview with a candidate. I judge myself on the interpersonal: Did I give that person that piece of important feedback? Did I align people so there aren’t miscommunications down the line? On the flip side, the things I accomplish with my team have orders of magnitude over what I’m capable of on my own—especially with the diversity of skills needed to make some of these things happen at scale. I can’t think of a better job to have, but it’s just never done.