Google Creative Lab Columns / Creativity

Google Creative Lab

Do something epic

Sam   McMillan

Yes, they are called Googlers. They sprawl on couches. They work undisturbed on laptops, soaking in the sun pouring in from the enormous south-facing windows in a two-story loft on the sixteenth floor of the old Port Authority building in Manhattan. They gorge on free snacks. They call their billionaire bosses by their first names. They get the best, newest, coolest tech toys straight from the Google mothership. Google Glass, Google Voice, Google Now. Google+ Hangouts. Chrome Mobile. They use the word “magic” a lot.

Despite the corporate giant that has their backs, they act like a startup. Etched in the glass doors that separate the office from the open foyer is the slogan “All my shit’s online.” On the glass walls of the conference room, engineers graffitied a flow chart with “Submit to ideas” and “Get reminded it’s now” connected in a multi-colored crazy quilt of boxes and arrows. A framed poster depicts an astronaut in an extraterrestrial landscape with the slogan “Teach on Mars.”

Their job descriptions are fluid. The first day on the job a new Googler might be told to get to work with the sketchiest of instructions, acknowledges vice president and founder of Google Creative Lab Andy Berndt. “I’ll tell them, ‘Meet this person in this conference room at this time. Good luck.’ And, as their boss, I have no idea what the room contains or what they’ll come up with.”
 

At Google Creative Lab, creative is as creative does. The office door (above) explains where the action is, while inside, employees spend 99.9 percent of their time comping (below).


What they are coming up with is some of the most interesting, emotionally satisfying and technically audacious marketing and advertising produced today. From the How It Feels video that announced Google Glass to an unsuspecting world (and seems destined to make “OK Glass” a catchphrase of its time), to the Parisian Love commercial that inaugurated Google’s first Super Bowl ad for Google Search, Google Creative Lab efforts rack up millions of hits on YouTube, and win best-ad-of-the-year awards year in, year out. Its marketing for Google Search is so unashamedly emotional that a box of tissues is required for viewing. Its foray into print, seemingly tossed off with a Sharpie, won a million dollars in free ad space. When they aren’t framing their awards, the people at Google Creative Lab develop interactive games, visualize big data fly-throughs of the galaxy, or enable crowdsourced animation projects that get exhibited in London’s Tate Modern.

BAKING A BROCOLLI CUPCAKE
When it comes to a big company that makes advertising that looks small, perhaps no one does a better job than Google. “We want to connect with people in a big way,” chief creative Robert Wong says. Case in point: Parisian Love, one of the first broadcast commercials to come out of Google Creative Lab. It was based on an innovative idea, Berndt jokes, “Boy meets girl.”

Deploying a simple sequence of screen grabs, and a cursor typing text into a search box, Parisian Love takes viewers on an emotional journey via one search term after another. We follow along as an American moves to France to study abroad, learns the language, meets a woman, finds a church, gets married and then searches for instructions on how to build a crib, accompanied in the final seconds by the sound of a baby laughing.

“It was made on the cheap,” Wong says. “We showed it to Larry, Sergey and Eric. They said, ‘Let’s put it on the Super Bowl.’ It was 56 seconds long. Who makes a 56-second commercial? We had to slow down the final version to fit the format.”

Google Creative Lab could have made an instructional video on how to use Google Search, Wong says. “Instead, we bake the broccoli into the cupcake.” Baking a broccoli cupcake is exactly what Google Creative Lab did for Dear Sophie, an ad for Google Chrome that in a scant 90 seconds introduces users to the wonders of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Picasa, YouTube and Google Search, simply by following along as an expectant father types messages into a form field or a search box, then adds photos and videos of his daughter’s birth and childhood. Accompanied by a tinkling piano track and the clattering of a keyboard, the ad tugs the heartstrings so hard it opens the tear ducts.

JUMP TO THE END
Despite what Berndt says about going into a room completely unprepared, there is a method to creating the groundbreaking work coming from the sixteenth floor. Berndt says the work produced by Google Creative Lab is informed by a strategy he calls, “‘Jump to the end.’ In other words, how quickly can you get to the ending? That’s not intellectual laziness. That’s compression.”

Or as Wong explains, “We lead by comping. Ideally, we spend 99.9 percent of our time making four things: We make posters, videos, mock-ups and prototypes.” For example, the 2011 crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day began as a video comp. Instead of a dense creative brief or a 20-slide PowerPoint deck, someone created a video to “encapsulate the big systematic idea.” When people saw the trailer that read, “Life in a Day, a film produced by Ridley Scott. Shot by you,” it made the idea tangible, so people could react to it. Then the hard work of actually making it real began. And yes, Ridley Scott signed on to produce.

TELLING IS SELLING: THE GOOGLE GLASS VIDEO
Jumping to the end is “an intensely creative act,” says executive creative director Iain Tait. “It’s not simply making it up. Jumping to the end requires an incredible amount of fast rigor combined with optimism to make something that, in the end, will be amazing.” And Google Glass portends to be nothing short of amazing. To introduce Google Glass, Google Creative Lab made a video to jump to the ending. While Glass was still on the lab bench, filmmaker Tu Uthaisri picked up a camcorder and made a film called One Day that shows what a day might be like behind Google Glass. Instead of explaining all the cool things Google Glass could do, the video simply lets people understand how it would feel to wear the device.

Berndt says the project began from the creative direction: “I don’t want to see the world through a computer. I want to see the world,” and then “worked backward to the form factor. If we can imagine it, we can make a rudimentary video of it.”

Working with the Google engineering team in Mountain View, Google Creative Lab began Project Glass by making a video of a young man strolling around Manhattan, listening to music, getting directions to meet a buddy at a bookstore, buying a book called Ukulele in a Day, taking photos, leaving messages and reminders, sharing locations, making video calls and, in a clever grace note, playing a ukulele for his female friend. All done with no voice-over, no explanation, just the pure experience of what it would be like to wear and use Google Glass. So far the video has been viewed on YouTube more than 21 million times.

Wong says, “One of our proudest moments at the Creative Lab was the impact the video made on the development of Google Glass.” The relationship between Google Creative Lab and the engineers of Project Glass was so symbiotic that elements of the interface Wong’s team had comped for the video actually got incorporated into the final version of the device.

RACE TO THE FUTURE
A prototype takes the poster, the video, the comp and “bakes them into code,” Wong says. Before a piece of Google technology launches, Wong explains, “We create a prototype to inspire people to make new work that’s even better.” Racer, a game designed to show off the capabilities of Google Chrome Mobile, harks back to the good old days when kids could spend hours wasting their weekends with slot car racetracks.



From the team at Google Creative Lab: "We started Project Glass to build technology that's seamless, beautiful and empowering. To share the world through your eyes. To get answers and updates, instantly. To be there when you need it, and out of your way when you don't."
 

The game works on any smartphone or tablet, from any manufacturer, running any operating system. Co-created by creative technologist Stewart Smith and creative lead Jeff Baxter, Racer downloads a portion of a slot car track that can be raced by up to five players who place their phones or tablets side by side. Lining up the devices allows the Chrome Mobile browser to build a slot car track using the screen real estate of each phone or tablet. Once the devices are synced up, the game is simple: hold your finger down on the screen and your “car” accelerates around the track or goes whizzing off the boundary.

Recently demonstrated at the Google I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco, the Racer prototype began a few months earlier when a visiting Google engineer explained the technology. As Tait remembers, “I showed an initial sketch to Stewart and Jeff and asked, ‘Is this possible?’” Their answer: “Totally! And it’ll be fun.”

In January, a poster was created. People saw it, said, “I want that.” In February a video was made to show the game in action and in March a prototype was developed. And then engineering had a two-month sprint to make it work in time for Google I/O.

Watching the cars drive from one phone to another while music plays seamlessly in the background “has an element of magic,” Smith says. The early prototype, Baxter explains, “faked the magic trick first.” A day after Racer was released, Tait received a photo from a friend in England that showed his friend’s sons playing Racer in their bedroom. “It was total verification,” Baxter says.

GOOGLE+ HANGOUTS: VIRTUAL PHOTO WALK
In one of the conference rooms at Google Creative Lab a framed poster memorializes a print ad Google ran to promote Google+ Hangouts. The ad consists of an actual news clipping announcing that the Dalai Lama “scrapped plans on Tuesday to attend” the 80th birthday celebration of fellow Nobel winner Desmond Tutu because South Africa denied him a visa. The ad crosses out “scrapped plans on Tuesday to attend” and pencils in “joined” and “via hangout” in red. Those three simple words won the USA Today Print Ad Competition in 2012, worth a million dollars of free ad space in USA Today, which Google donated.

While the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu video chatting on Google+ Hangouts might be an example of extraordinary people doing ordinary things, Kevin Proudfoot, executive creative director at Google Creative Lab, is more interested in ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To shine a light on the “amazing things people are doing with what Google makes,” Proudfoot produced a series of videos to promote Google+ Hangouts.

The Virtual Photo Walks video, made by Proudfoot and creative director Josh Rosen, showcases the effort begun by photographer John Butterill, who decided to use Google+ Hangouts to take people on a walk through the woods near his home two hours north of Toronto. Two years ago, Butterill attached a phone to his camera and used the resulting video stream to create a Hangout, so people could see what he was seeing through the viewfinder of his camera. A day later a woman confined to her bed with multiple sclerosis joined the Hangout. Butterill took her on a virtual photo walk and posted the video. Soon, people from all over the world were on board, posting their own virtual photo walks in Cape Town, Ankara and Rome.

When Proudfoot heard about what Butterill was doing, he assembled a production team and joined Butterill for three days of shooting. Proudfoot says, “Our inspiration comes from things people do and make using Google products. Occasionally, we’ll capture and share one of these stories to show what’s possible when an individual combines something they’re passionate about with technology.” Like most Google Creative Lab efforts, the film puts the best of human nature front and center, while technology takes a backseat.

ACTUALLY, THEY DO MAKE THEM LIKE THAT
When people talk about movies and complain, “They don’t make them like that anymore,” they are wrong. At Google Creative Lab they do make them like that. Only shorter. The mindset that believes in the power of the individual to do great things isn’t a line from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s a description by Robert Wong of what his creative team brings to the table. “Stay small, stay scrappy, make a better hack. Your job description is to show up, be useful and figure out how we can add value.”

Tactically that means Wong “trusts in the power of scarcity,” in terms of time, resources and money. “We give a small team a week-end and see if they can solve a huge problem. We’re constantly trying to replicate the start-up feeling.”

Wong expects Google Creative Lab to change the future by imagining it. Wong tells his teams, “Do epic shit.” That’s a tall order. But he makes sure they never lose sight of the same wellspring of emotions shared by old-school directors like Capra, Sturges and Lubitsch. While most of us would be happy with keeping it real, Wong wants to keep it human.

“If you are telling a story,” Wong says, “I ask, ‘Does it move you or not? Does it make you laugh, cry or make your jaw drop?’ If not, it’s not good. If you are taking up someone’s time, you better give them something that’s valuable, whether that’s information, inspiration or joy.” ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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