Isabelle Olsson
Rehearsing the future
In the quest of seamlessly infusing tech into our lifestyles, Isabelle Olsson is nothing short of a luminary one. Her work as Design Director at Google comes with the responsibility of humanising all of the tech giant’s hardware. As the internet of things is connecting our homes, Olsson doesn’t want you to notice it.
18 Aug 2021

— I believe the future is a better version of today, says Isabelle Olsson, speaking from her very white, fresh, minimalistic Californian home.

— There’s going to be a constant evolution, a constant quest to make things better, more seamless, more simple. If you have a way to make something better, incrementally, that’s what drives me. That can be applied to pretty much anything, whether it’s physical or digital or an experience.

Isabelle, who with the title of Design Director for Home, Wearables and CMF across all ­Google Hardware, has a huge impact on the global ­arena when it comes to smart home devices. The ­products she designs play an instrumental role in how we interact with the world, not only from hanging out with friends and colleagues, but also in how we search and collect information, entertain ourselves, or shop.

I wanted to explore how Isabelle, and her team, develop these products, her views on the interaction between design and technology, and potentially how the future might look. When speaking to Isabelle during several online sessions, I quickly realise that she has a Scandinavian down-to-earthiness that has been appreciated on the global arena. As when I ask her how she ended up at X, Google’s mythical innovation studio, she simply replied: 

— I actually don’t know. They called me and I was like, ”Are you sure you have the right number?” That was back in the day when Google wasn’t really doing much hardware, so it was definitely a surprise to me that they called me up.

We probably feel more or less disconnected after more than a year in pandemic mode and many of us are now actively ­engaging with friends, family, and colleagues through different smart ­devices, a habit that of course started already some years ago, but that finally reached a tipping point during the Covid-19 lockdowns and working from home directives. Then, of course, using devices such as computers, tablets or smartphones does not make your home connected per se, however, they are part of an ever-­growing ­ecosystem of devices that connect your living habitat with the world. According to Statista, in 2025, there will be approximately 470 million users of Smart Home devices.

”They called me and I was like, ’Are you sure you have the right number?’”

The global single-family smart homes market is growing at the highest speed. In 2021, a global market valued at $62.3 billion is expected to reach $114.93 billion by 2025 (The Business Research Company, May 2021). The single-family smart homes market consists of sales of smart appliances and their related services used in single-family homes. Smart homes are futuristic buildings equipped with advanced electronics and wireless devices. Putting this into an even larger context; the smart homes market is part of the even larger IoT (Internet-of-Things) market; where it is almost impossible to calculate the number of smart devices globally. But it is estimated that in 2023 there will be 43 billion connected IoT devices in the world. 

It is with this in mind you have to think about Google and their development of the smart home market. It is a huge market opportunity, fitting perfectly in the ecosystem of services that are part of Google and Alphabet, their parent company. At the centre of this we have data. Data pulled from your every search and behaviour when using smart devices on-the-go or at home. Google can analyse every step you take and develop better, smarter and faster services, and at the same time engage you for the long term. The same goes with other platform companies such as Amazon, who in their ecosystems offer many smart home ­devices, where Alexa is the most well known.

At the heart of Google’s smart home development, we can find Isabelle and her team. With the devices they develop and design, millions of users across the globe are influenced when they interact with their smart devices. The products are also the early phases of an ever-more connected world, where we gradually will connect every physical object to the Internet.

Isabelle, as a starting point, and I know this might be difficult or even impossible to answer, but would you be able to pick one of the products you have designed with your team at Google that stands out, that you’re most proud of? Is that even possible?

— Oh my goodness. I should have been prepared for this ­question. It’s like asking who your favourite children are, right?

Exactly. We all have them.

— Wow! [laughs]

No, I’m joking of course. [laughs]

— Which one should I say? They’re all really interesting ­challenges. Picking something more recent, we designed a new Nest thermostat. There was this incredible challenge to design something that could be a worthy followup of the original, iconic Nest thermostat but at a price point that’s much more accessible, almost half the cost. We had to get very creative. We knew we couldn’t have big displays, so we had to find creative ways of how can we make this look and feel modern for years ahead.

The team Isabelle is referring to is the one she leads at Google HQ in Mountain View, California. 

A cross-functional and genuinely diverse team working together in designing all the connected hardware products of the home, such as the mentioned Nest Thermostat but also Google Home, Nest Hub, Nest Wifi, Nest Mini, Nest Cam, Nest Secure, Chromecast and many more.

— We came up with this idea, and really inspired by the home, to use mirror as a material. We’ve been surrounding ourselves with it for hundreds of years in our homes. That helped us create this magical look where when the thermostat is off, there’s nothingness. Then you approach it, and this magical screen turns on.That’s an example of a recent product that I’m just so proud of. We built it as a team, and in collaboration with engineering too, to keep this price point, to deliver a product that’s important for the world, that saves energy and that looks beautiful.

Isabelle was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, but has embarked on a truly global career. Her Swedish background is apparent during our conversations that take place online; from the Google Campus and from her very Californian home (think white, fresh, minimalistic). There is a relaxed relationship to her career that one can see in many Swedish entrepreneurs and business leaders. Also, there is the familiar security that she got from growing up surrounded by a Scandinavian safety net — where one has many opportunities to take the jump and risk things, if you fail, there is always something else to fall back on.

— I’ve never been afraid of authorities. I mean, I respect people, and I admire a lot of people. But I have never been afraid of them, and I think that is kind of Scandinavian, says Isabelle when I ask her about what would be typically Scandinavian about her.

— Yeah, questioning the status quo and getting to work, working hard and getting shit done. Those are some of the mindset things. Then there are the aesthetic things that influence the way I think about design.

— That’s why it’s so important to me to have a team from all over the world, so that we get different perspectives. I don’t tend to lean too much on that Scandinavian aesthetic, but I can’t deny that parts of the minimalism influence the products. It’s a bit of both.

You’re obviously working very hard. As a Scandinavian, I assume you would also have a natural tendency to find balance in your life with family and juggling the kids. Has that been a challenge in your career?

— I’ve managed to create a life in which I get to work on the things I love. Having kids is a forcing function. You can’t work all the time. You have to shut off. There’s no choice. When I first moved here with no kids, I would work all weekends, all nights. I just had this hunger to get better, improve, move faster. There are no shortcuts. You just have to squeeze it in a short amount of time. Now, the kids force me to disconnect. Plus, they’re a huge inspiration too.

How do you mean?

— My daughter is actually a great helper in the design process. Kids are extremely honest and very pure. I show her ­objects, and I ask her, ”What is it?” If she says, ”Google,” I’m like, ”OK, good.” I’ve tested this with competitive products too. Even the other day where I was showing her, I was asking, ”Which one do you prefer?” Something was a square, rectangle, and one that was more rounded. She thought a long time, and then she said ”Well, I prefer the rounder one.” I was like, ”Why?” ”Because the sharp one, you can cut yourself.” By the way, she’s four.

I love this idea of the ”beginner’s mind” in the design process, something I got to understand both when I studied design management but also from my own explorations into Buddhism. Having a beginner’s mind when you are four years old is one thing, but how do you ensure that you and your team keep your minds as open as possible?

— Great question. I believe that the products you make are a reflection of the teams that you’ve built. If you don’t build diverse teams with diverse perspectives, you’ll get very monolithic types of things. We have customers all over the world, and we’re a brand that a lot of people know. There’s a big responsibility there. I’m trying to build a team with folks from all over the world as much as humanly possible, which is really great. We have people from the usa, China, Korea, Australia, different parts of Europe, different parts of South America. It’s important for me to make sure we have a good gender balance, which is unusual in tech and ­industrial ­design.

”I don’t tend to lean too much on that Scandinavian aesthetic, but I can’t deny that parts of the minimalism influence the products.”

In order to understand where you got your values from; could you take me back a bit to your childhood and early days?

— From an early age, I loved to be creative. Do stuff on the side. I would always, to my mom’s despair, steal her sewing machine and destroy it, build things, do woodworking. My grandfather was a self-taught industrial designer. He had his own company producing lamps and was one of the first people who brought plastics into furniture in the 1960s in ­Sweden. A huge inspiration when I grew up. He had workshops where I could play and make stuff. 

— I went to music school for most of my upbringing. My lovely aunt, who’s an artist, saw some potential in me and saw that I had this craving for creativity. She encouraged me to go to art school and that’s when I discovered industrial design. I was on the fence between industrial design or fashion design. I ended up choosing industrial design because I’ve always had a passion for math and physics and solving problems too. It was a way to combine the creative side with the technical side. I studied industrial design at Lund University in the south of Sweden. From there, my career started. I was in Munich for a brief period of time, worked a little bit in Sweden, and then moved to the US in 2009.

— When I grew up, my parents, they were very much like, ”You can be a lawyer. You can be a doctor, or you can study economics.” Those were the options. Luckily, I had my aunt who saw something else. Of course, when I chose this path, my parents were happy, but it wasn’t in the thinking space.

What was it in your studies that made you feel like ”OK, this is for life”?

— It goes back to being able to change stuff that doesn’t work well. Being able to move society forward, even in very small ways. I don’t think necessarily changing the world, but when you see things that frustrate you and you’re able to physically and literally make it better, that was super motivating. I could pull two of my strengths together and being able to both — do the technical problem solving as well as focus on aesthetic, beauty, colour, material, and finish. From the very early stages, I loved it. Part of school was to go into the workshop and build things. I didn’t even know I could do this for a living.

Tell me about the early work.

— Most of my projects were interior design-related, furniture-related or in jewellery. It wasn’t until I moved to the us where tech was huge that I was like, ”Oh, this is a thing. This is something I can do.” To be honest, I thought I was going to be a furniture designer.

After university Isabelle moved to San Francisco to work at fuseproject, a design agency who among other projects got fame for One Laptop Per Child, giving access to technology in third world countries. It provided Isabelle with opportunities to not only explore herself, but also to challenge status-quo in the world of tech design.

— At first, I was like, ”I’m not interested in this. I don’t know how I can do this well,” but then I was looking around the room and saw how most people were repeating the same gesture and form over and over again, which was based in some of these preconceived ideas of what technology is, like black square boxes, glossy blue blinking lights.

— I was like, ”I wish technology could be a more natural part of our lives and designed more like how we think about jewellery or furniture,” so I started pushing things a little bit. At first, people laughed at me. You can’t have any pride, especially in your first job. You have to suck it up. Over time, it’s like, ”Oh, she’s doing something interesting. This is cool. This is different.”

When Isabelle had started to get familiar with the processes, the pros and cons of being a professional designer, she also started to build herself a name. This brought the attention of Google X (now X Development, or just X), the moonshot factory of Alphabet. X is labeled as a semi-secret research and development facility founded in 2010 by Google. ceo and ”Captain of Moonshots” is Astro Teller, famous for not only having the coolest name in tech, but also for pushing boundaries of what tech can do to change the world we live in. Perhaps the most well-known initiative is Glass, an ambitious Augmented Reality device designed as pretty normal looking prescription glasses. Other moonshot projects generated from X are Waymo (driverless cars), Loon (­­internet network of balloons), Wing (product delivery with flying vehicles), Malta (renewable energy storage system), Google Brain (deep learning research) and much more.

Today X seems pretty transparent in sharing the progress of different projects, but back then it was quite secretive, right?

— Yeah. I joined without knowing what I was going to work on. It was very mysterious. Then again, I didn’t move here to not take risks. Everyone that I met was super clever and asked really intriguing questions. I was like, ”This could be interesting,” so I jumped on it.

Did you work in a specific team under a specific manager? How was the organisation back then?

— We were a small hardware team. I was working on a bunch of different things including Glass and these heads up displays and then a bunch of things that were even further out. I worked with engineers. We were very few designers. Over time, the design capacity increased.

How much did the design process differ from what you had experienced before?

— In an agency, you are surrounded by designers. At X I was surrounded by engineers. It was a different setting and a different focus. In the design agency world, you focus a lot on creating great concepts. In some cases, you’re able to take it all to market, but in many cases, you’re just there in the very early stages of a project to come up with a vision. It’s a very different process. You work closely with the engineers to make it a reality. Different worlds, in that sense.

You came from a fairly traditional design background and then you moved into a very data-driven design process. What would you say is the advantage of the latter? What are also the disadvantages?

— First of all, it depends on your definition of data. That was something that I learnt when I joined Google. Because data is input and we always talk about this balance between intuition and data. When we talk about data, that should and can feed your intuition. But it should never be used as an automatic decision-making machine. Different kinds of data is appropriate for different parts of the process.

— With industrial design, it’s really hard to do the type of traditional research that can be done in software. We started developing our own research methods that gave industrial designers the right input. We talked about product impressions, for example. We exposed people to different forms and concepts, and instead of asking people to rank them, we asked them to word-associate to the concepts. The beauty is that we can compare those words with our intentions. Say we want to build a product that makes people happy, that are fun, or trustworthy, or whatever. Through these studies, we can see if we achieve that.

Very interesting, could you elaborate a bit more on this and the design process?

— It’s a super useful way of doing research. We can, in a sense, predict the future. For example, the Nest WiFi was inspired by ceramic and objects that you already have in your home. We did a product impression study and folks were saying, ”vase”, ”ceramic”, and even ”Marshmallow.” That’s great. That’s positive, sweet, and happy. These words later came up in tweets and reviews. That’s a good example of why you shouldn’t only use quantitative data to make decisions.

That’s interesting. Do you also do anthropological studies?

— It’s super critical for us to try to rehearse the future, especially as we launch new things that are either first to market or is a new product category. There’s not one solution for that. We have multiple ways of testing our product. 

”Rehearsing the future.” I love that.

— Thanks. In addition, early on, we bring our prototypes home and live with them to make sure that we design for the natural surroundings. You’ll notice very different things. Once we’ve gotten to a spot where we think it’s good, we do inhome studies with people. We get input from users early on. At Google, we also have something called Dog Food. I have no idea why it’s called that [laughs]. It’s when hundreds of people test prototypes in their day-to-day life and provide feedback. All in all, we have a pretty robust way of testing and exploring at all stages of the product development. 

During well over a year, we have lived during the Covid-19 pandemic, impacting how we live and work. What we have taken for granted, such as free movement, socializing, and traveling has been heavily restricted. Now, at the end of spring 2021 we are finally seeing the results of large scale vaccination and perhaps also a gradual step back to some sort of ’normality’. The question is — what do we mean by normal? Does it make sense to travel for a meeting or two when you can handle it online? Do we still need to go to the office or will we see permanent changes to the ways we merge work and private spaces? And how do you construct and lead truly global teams in an age of remote working? Many questions that I wanted to elaborate with Isabelle, who is sitting in the perfect intersection between tech, connectivity, design and lifestyle.

With all the recent changes in the way we live, do you also see changing needs in how you set up your teams and work?

— It’s certainly impacting the way we work. As designers we’re trained to adapt quickly. It’s part of our heart, not a secret sauce. We retrain and we have that ability. I’ve seen so much creativity in terms of how we share, how we work. I come into the office once a week or so to look at physical models. We found new ways to collaborate and I’m thrilled that even under these circumstances, we’re able to move things forward. I’m super open-minded, but it’s been quite inspiring to see the level of creativity that some of these constraints have spurred.

You are primarily designing hardware, but at the same time, you are also designing the experience of interacting with the Google ecosystem. As a hardware designer, how are you approaching a potentially deviceless future?

— Well, I don’t think that physical things will disappear. If you look back at the way you lived 10 years ago, it’s very similar to today. There are some subtle differences. You almost have to go to your grandparents to really truly see a difference. That things, devices, are going to completely disappear, I don’t think so. That said, and [laughs] it’s not just for my job security, because I do think, at the end of the day, the design process can be applied to basically anything. 

I agree with you. You can design your life as well. How do you approach a future where there is a need for less products, because of sustainable and environmental issues? Is there a challenge in you working for a listed company where there are shareholder expectations that you do well and sell many products? How do you approach that kind of perspective? It must be really challenging.

— Yes, and no. The approach that the company has taken from the very beginning, is solving real problems for our users. At the end of the day, what brings business success in the long term is doing the right thing for the user and for the world. As an industrial designer, my contribution is making sure that our products stand the test of time. 

I know you probably can’t answer this question, but you talked about designing products that last for a long time. How long should a product last before it becomes outdated?

— Well, there’s a tonne of great investments in the software space where things can be updated and become more useful over time. In terms of exactly how long something should last, it’s very much dependent on the context. Take the thermostat I’ve mentioned. You’ll install that on your wall and keep it for 10 years or more. When we design these products, we very much have the context in mind. When we design the patterns and the textiles for our phone cases, we’re a little bit bolder. We’re a little bit more influenced by street wear and sneakers and things that surround that world.

”It’s super critical for us to try to rehearse the future, especially as we launch new things that are either first to market or is a new product category.”

OK, but what about connectivity and designing something that is an integral part of the interior and lifestyle, but also of a vaster ecosystem. I have a lot of friends that are architects and designers and I was surprised that no one said, ”Oh, yeah, we have this very deep understanding of connectivity, hardware, software and how we should connect the house and we have worked with Google or Amazon.” It seems to me that it’s still an untapped opportunity for creating quite interesting collaborations and touch points.

— Totally. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is make that part really accessible. The same way you can buy a beautiful vase for your shelf, you can buy this great WiFi product that looks just as beautiful, but that also gives you great Internet. It doesn’t require you to build in a lot of complex systems. Technology’s moving fast. Things get antiquated. You can see that in houses that were built to be smart, they have these pads everywhere. Just three years later it’s outdated. I love this flexible approach that you can move these objects around, you can bring them with you when you move, you can place them where it suits you. 

When I look at your products as an amateur, I feel that they are more focused towards the private consumer. It’s a home product, it’s maybe not as much tailored towards the business community?

— Yeah. It’s 100 percent consumer-­focused.

How do you then accommodate for the working from anywhere trend, where office and home become one, and where the nature of the office is changing.

— The lines are definitely blurring. If you just look at it from a material finish perspective, some of the products we’ve been using for work tend to be cold, professional, almost aggressive looking. When we bring these devices into our homes, they feel a little bit out of place.


— I just have it right on my desk, the Pixelbook Go. The colour and finish of this is really soft light pink. What I realised was, this can lie on the couch, or on a wooden table, and it doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t make you feel this tech stress, work stress. These are the pieces we just have to be even more cognizant about.

So looking at these topics about connectivity, design, tech, and lifestyle – which trends do you think will impact us in the future?

— The lines are blurring between work and home, professional and leisure. We see a lot of people wanting to do jobs that are fun. For me, my job is my leisure as well. We’re moving towards this world that isn’t so black and white. We see that culturally too. It just requires us to keep a lot of fluid thoughts and flexibility. We need to design for a very flexible future. We need the future to be more earth-compatible. We have no choice but to think about sustainability and not just from a material perspective, but also how we can see the products, how they’re used, who is making them. It’s highly complex.

— I would also say that the future, hopefully, is very colourful. I think design sometimes gets too serious. At the end of the day, it’s about bringing people joy in everyday life. We started to push towards this movement of, why does technology have to be black plastic with blue blinking lights? Why can’t it be soft, beautiful forms in senseful textiles, inspired by surroundings? Why can’t a speaker be pink?

— We’re really questioning the status quo on these pieces, and we’ve seen that people love it. It’s definitely being recognised and loved. I think that’s going to continue. I was just in the studio the other day, and looking at some of the new textiles we’re developing and I think people are going to smile when they see them. They’re very joyful and warm, and it’s exactly what we need after these tricky times. It just has to be better.  •