There’s a building on Google’s Mountain View, California, campus that’s off-limits to most of the company’s own employees. The 6,503-square-metre Design Lab, which opened last June, houses around 150 designers and dozens of top-secret projects under the leadership of VP and head of hardware design Ivy Ross, a former jewellery artist who has led the company’s push into gadgets that range from the ground-breaking Google Home Mini speaker to the playful line of Pixel phones. Inside the lab—and away from the cubicle culture of the
engineering-driven Googleplex—industrial designers, artists, and sculptors are free to collaborate. “Google’s blueprint for how they optimise is great for most people [at the company],” says Ross. “Designers need different things.”

Each space in the lab was constructed to help Ross’s team marry tactile experiences (understated, fabric-covered gadgets that feel at home in any space) with digital ones (Google’s unobtrusive UX). In the two-story, skylit atrium entrance, for example, a birchwood staircase leads to a library filled with the design team’s favourite books. “We’re the company that digitised the world’s information,” says Ross, “[but] sometimes, designers need to hold things.”

Inside, the Lab has entire rooms devoted to colours and materials, along with curated collections of outside objects to inspire designers as they decide on Google’s palette and textiles. There are also Garage rooms (for working out engineering challenges), the Model Shop (where designers build prototypes), and an area with a pair of “refuelling station” beds, where staff can lie back, don headphones, and recharge.

The one thing in short supply: Conference rooms. Most business meetings take place in other buildings. The Lab, stresses Ross, “is a sanctuary to get the design work done”.

Designers hash out product schematics in one of the Lab’s Garages.

Hardward design chief Ivy Ross (right) and designer Leslie Greene compare colours across Goolge product lines – from Nest stands to Pixel phones – in the Lab’s Colour Room. 

Google designers, who  often draw inspiration from everyday objects (including socks and carabiners), look at swatches for an unreleased  wearable the team developed for the Milan Furniture Fair. 

The two-storey entrance to Google’s Design lab serves as both a library and a gathering spot for the building’s 150+ employees. 

Sketches of the company’s last iteration of the Pixel phone hang on the walls of a Garage.  

A pair of mesh Adidas by Stella McCartney Pureboost sneakers are on display in the Materials room. 

Article originally appeared in Fast Company SA magazine. Read more in our October/November 2019 issue, now on shelves. Photographs by Cody Pickens