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Robert Wong ditched accounting and pursued his artistic dreams, criss-crossing the world before co-creating the innovative Google Creative Lab.

Design Matters From the Archive: Robert Wong

Design Matters From the Archive: Robert Wong

DESIGNER

2021

Robert Wong / graphic design / Google Creative Lab / Design Indaba / Parsons / UX

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Robert, we’re here in South Africa. We are at Design Indaba. We are in the Artscape Arena. We have been fed very properly and very generously by our hosts, who took us out to a reception dinner on Tuesday, during which we had a nice little chat as we walked around the Sculpture Garden. You said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since you told me that you had quite a lot of self-confidence, and it was something that you didn’t know that you deserve to really have—that you had more self-confidence than perhaps you should. And I’m wondering why you feel that way.


Robert Wong:

I think it’s true. I think there’s two things—maybe one is realizing that you’re completely insignificant, like nothing really matters. I hold that truth. I mean, it really is the truth, like you’re really insignificant—


Debbie Millman:

We’re actually going to come back to that. Hold that thought.


Robert Wong:

Then, on the other side, also hold the truth that you are a miracle. Every single one of us that are here, you are an incredible miracle. So, kind of when you hold those two things in your head and your heart, that’s where some of the confidence comes from. Oh, I’ve started to … I think maybe where it came from as a child. I moved around a lot as a child. Soon as I was born, I was shipped off to Holland, and I was 1—


Debbie Millman:

You were born in China, Hong Kong.


Robert Wong:

Hong Kong, born in Hong Kong, moved to Holland, and I was 1, and when I was about 4, my parents, they were working in a Chinese restaurant and they weren’t getting paid because my grandfather owned the restaurant. Housed us, housed my parents, had fed us, and so they weren’t getting paid. They said, “well, I don’t know. We will never be able to open our own restaurant if we don’t get paid.” So they shipped me and my sister back to Hong Kong to live with my grandmother while they went and worked and saved money to open a restaurant.


Robert Wong:

So for three, three-and-a-half years, I went back to Hong Kong without my parents and I was pretty independent by myself a long time.


Debbie Millman:

How old were you at this point?


Robert Wong:

I was 4 to 7.


Debbie Millman:

So you have vivid memories of this?


Robert Wong:

I have. That’s why I felt like I was my first bit of consciousness living in the little village. The village is so little. When you think Hong Kong, you think of big city. We lived in new territory on the border of China. I could see China, and this village is so old that it didn’t have running water, dirt floor kind of thing, and the school was the church. Interesting story: I grew up Christian because that’s all I knew, and the class was, every kid in the village was in the class. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6 or you’re 14.


Debbie Millman:

So it was literally a one-room schoolhouse?


Robert Wong:

Yes, yes. Then when I was 7, they opened a restaurant. They saved money and we were able to reunite with our parents in Holland. So at Holland was a small fishing village. Another interesting story there is that Chinese people chose to open up a Chinese restaurant in Holland. Anyway, back then was you get on the train, you get off. If there is a Chinese restaurant, you get back on the train until you get off the train and there’s no Chinese restaurant. You hop off and you—


Debbie Millman:

End up in Canada.


Robert Wong:

Yeah. My parents are crazy people, they’re awesome. They went to Canada for a two-week vacation in 1976, and at that time, I think the Canadian dollar was higher than the American dollar, and had one international study of the world. CN Towers being built, and they were convinced that Oh, wow, for our kids to have the best opportunity, they should learn English, we should leave Holland. When I was 10, [they] decided to emigrate to Toronto. So they just emigrated. They didn’t speak any English.


Robert Wong:

So I moved around a lot, and everywhere I moved I’d had to sort of not be devastated. I had to constantly tell myself stories that I’m in school, like OK. I try to do the best math, I get good grades because I’m telling myself, OK, I’m smart. I’m pretty good at running, just for my ego, probably to protect my ego.


Debbie Millman:

Well, to help buoy up that sort of insecure spirit.


Robert Wong:

Yes, insecure spirit. So it probably all comes from insecurity, and also like when I was 10, I would go to the bank for my parents because they didn’t speak English. So, at a young age, I was doing sort of grown-up things, and at the same time, I was telling myself all these stories about myself to prop myself up. So maybe that’s a real reason, just delusional self-talk.


Debbie Millman:

You said that the constant change as you were growing up helped you develop the ability to communicate without relying mainly on verbal exchanges. What did you do instead of the verbal exchanges?


Robert Wong:

Yeah, I think you look, you read physical cues. And it’s hard to imagine for most Americans, I mean, landing somewhere you don’t really understand someone but you have to be with someone and you know, survive two, three, eight hours at school in a foreign language. So you just constantly have to be looking for cues, and you hear intonations. So a lot of communication, I think, happens at a subtext sub-language level. This is actually an interesting thing.


Robert Wong:

When I was in Holland, I had a diary that I wrote in, and two pictures, and when I look at it now, I have no idea what I wrote. I can’t read my own writing but I see the pictures, and then I remember the memory. I have memories of conversations I’ve had, really detailed. They’re all in English but I know for a fact that I didn’t speak English at the time. So all that communication is happening at this other level and I remember realizing that even people’s expression … of when you get hurt in America, you say “ouch.” In Holland, you say “ou” and in Chinese you go, “aya.” They’re all sort of similar but all very different. So I think maybe that also made me realize how connected we are.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve stated that because you couldn’t understand anyone, and no one could understand you, you came to realize that most of the time, whoever can listen the hardest is the best communicator. I’ve had to learn that the hard way, especially doing interviews now essentially for a living, that in order to really communicate and have a conversation, you really have to listen—and most people don’t listen. They just talk, talk, talk, talk, wait for the other person to stop talking, and then start talking again without having ever really listened. How did you train yourself to do that?


Robert Wong:

I didn’t learn that till later when someone told me that, I think in my 20s, that most people don’t listen. Most people have a little voice in their head that’s talking all the time, and while someone’s talking, that voice is trying to think about what you should say next.


Debbie Millman:

Assessing and judging and filling in and assuming.


Robert Wong:

To really listen, you basically have to say “shut up” to that voice and really listen, and it’s so, so important in a relationship. Your kids, parents, co-workers, enemies. Yeah, if more people really, really listened, it’d be a much better place.


Debbie Millman:

That’s part of the reason why I’m looking directly at you, but you’re allowed to look a little bit at the audience because unless I’m directly interacting with the audience, it becomes really distracting because I have to also not only monitor what I’m doing with you, but also hoping that the audience is enjoying it. It’s very hard to be able to hold both at the same time, and I also learned that my best interviews are when I am looking directly at the person. If I do remote interviews, which I rarely do anymore, I usually will listen back and think, why didn’t I ask that other question? How obvious, what a thing to have missed. It’s because I’m looking around and paying attention to other things, which you can’t help but do.


Robert Wong:

I have this thing, and I say I listen a lot. I’m horrible at actually remembering anyone’s names, and I think it’s because when I meet someone—I think most people do this in the first couple of seconds—and when they say their name, you’re probably spending a lot of time just looking, assessing, and your brain is actually doing all this other stuff. If I really care about what your name is, I generally always ask after we’ve had like a two-hour conversation.


Debbie Millman:

Tell me your name again.


Robert Wong:

Then you have the space and time to actually absorb it.


Debbie Millman:

As you were growing up, I understand you learned a lot about Western culture by watching television. What kind of shows were you watching?


Robert Wong:

The most blind best shows like “Gilligan’s Island,” “Happy Days,” “Brady Bunch”—it was just what was on TV. I’ll tell you one thing, when I grew up in Holland, we had two TV stations and [the] programs didn’t start until 10 o’clock or 9 o’clock or something in the morning, and it was only on Saturdays. So when I arrived to Canada, I was like, “when are the cartoons on the weekend?” “Cartoons on every day.” “Really? What are you talking about? Yeah, what time does it start?” “Oh, I don’t know, 6 in the morning.”


Robert Wong:

I remember the first Saturday, we didn’t have school. I was so excited to watch cartoons. 10 years old. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, set my alarm. I went downstairs, and [was] like waiting, turn on the TV and they had Bugs Bunny and all that great stuff.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that even though your parents didn’t exactly discourage you from a creative career, in your family, that option didn’t actually exist. Why not?


Robert Wong:

So, my father was from that village. My mom was an immigrant from China. She never went to school. She started working when she was 10 years old, was a manager at a garment factory when she was like 13. She got paid $1 a week, I think, and she lived in a room with the grandmother and the room had like three bunk beds (so six beds, twin size) and they lived on the top bunk bed of one of the bunk beds, and everything—the rice cooker, everything—was there. So they came from extreme poverty, and my dad was in the village.


Robert Wong:

So for them, making money was the only thing that was a career. There was no other goal; there was no self-actualization, doing what you love—any of that stuff. It wasn’t until they actually sort of became middle class that I could even start thinking about that. Most people here are lucky enough that you grew up and you think that, yeah, you can pursue all these things, but my mom would tell me stories—like, instead of telling me stories about someone doing something really moral or with conviction, she tells us, “oh, and this billionaire did this.”


Robert Wong:

It was all about heroes who are capitalists. So the professions they know, because they were pretty ignorant, were like doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants—and those are the professions I knew. So that’s why I actually studied accounting first.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. So we’ll get to that in a moment. You as an accountant. You believed when you were growing up that you couldn’t seriously pursue drawing because that was for people who didn’t get good grades?


Robert Wong:

Yes. I did think that.


Debbie Millman:

Tell us more about that.


Robert Wong:

Well, I did get good grades.


Debbie Millman:

So that’s why you couldn’t draw.


Robert Wong:

Yeah, that’s why I wouldn’t pursue art. Yeah, that’s right, but I just didn’t know that they were professions for people who drew.


Debbie Millman:

You were the first person in your family of any generation to go to college, and you began your studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, where you enrolled in the master’s of accounting program. Why? Why accounting, as opposed to engineering or being a doctor or a lawyer?


Robert Wong:

I read that most of the CEOs in most companies—back then, anyway—came from a finance background, and I just wanted to be the boss, the top dog. Actually, the reason why I ended up in Waterloo, in high school you visited like three universities, or maybe just one college day. It’s crazy now, where your kids go to 20 schools. I had three schools in mind in Canada, and one was Western University, and it was known as the party school. For anyone who’s spending time with me, I like to party. Especially back then, I was like, I want to go to the party school, but I missed the bus to the party school party.


Debbie Millman:

Because you were partying?


Robert Wong:

No, I was too young to go partying, but for whatever reason—I’m usually not late—I missed the bus to party school. I literally watched it take off, and in front of the high school, there’s another bus. I go, “I guess I’ll take this bus,” and I got on the bus, and like, where’s this bus going to? Waterloo. That was an engineering school, actually, very famous engineering school that a lot of Google engineers actually come from. We have an office there because there’s so many great engineers there.


Robert Wong:

Not only is it not a party school, but it’s like 1% women. That’s what I was thinking, to be honest, as a kid. That’s all I wanted to do. I want to go to this school, I can have fun, meet cute girls, and I got on this bus and I go, wow. OK, there’s no choice. There’s no other bus. I visited Waterloo and they had this program. It was a bachelor of accounting, but they have this very progressive program where you go to school for 12 months straight. There’s no summer, and you work for 12 months straight, and then school 12 months, and in five years—so three years of 12 months school and two years of full work—you get full paid.


Robert Wong:

You get a master’s degree, very progressive. … Maybe I was one of those nerdy kids that didn’t need summer or whatever. I thought that was so cool. And they had a very strong accounting program, and I was good at math. I said, “OK, well, let’s do that.” That’s how I ended up at Waterloo.


Debbie Millman:

At the job you worked at while you were in school, it was a top accounting firm. You worked on the 25th floor of one of the black towers in downtown Toronto, and I understand that you arrived every day with, as you put it, your little briefcase, wearing a suit. So, Robert Wong in a suit. What I would give for a picture of Robert Wong in a suit. He went to work in a suit every day.


Robert Wong:

Yeah, but you know what? It was like playing pretend a little bit, like, oh, now I’m a worker with my briefcase, but I was so excited about it. I had a stack of business cards—my first business card, I remember like, oh my God, I’m like an adult, but you were kind of a kid playing adult. No, it was kind of cool, and I do remember, I used to wear an earring. The day before I had to go off to an audit where I had to visit a client, my partner pulled me into her office and said, “Hey, Robert, but just one thing. Maybe take off the earring when you go tomorrow.”


Robert Wong:

I remember saying, “No, I’m not going to do that. They’re hiring us for our brains. What’s an earring?” So I refused to do it. She sent me off anyway, which is a testament to her, but even though I was playing an adult, deep down inside I was probably still a little bit rebellious kid.


Debbie Millman:

You said that very shortly after you started, you realized that you were falling asleep in classes and you’d been studying accounting for all the wrong reasons. What were the wrong reasons?


Robert Wong:

Someone once said, “people have three relationships [with] work.” One is a job, one is a career and one is a calling. A job is you literally—and there’s nothing wrong, no judgment against any of these three—you literally just have to get the paycheck to feed your family. And then the career is usually more ego-driven, where your self-esteem comes from. How am I doing? Am I progressing, did I get promoted? Am I doing better than the next person? A calling is where your work, what you do during the work, actually provides this deep satisfaction, or it’s just translucent to your being and you feel contempt doing that work.


Robert Wong:

I knew that accounting, auditing, even though I liked math, the day-to-day was not satisfying. And then I realized, well, I should try to make sure I’m not just chasing this profession so my parents could be proud of me. So I could afford to raise a family and not have to be like my parents, who never saw us because they had restaurants, and they basically … if anyone knows the restaurant business, we’re out of school, and they’re sleeping. They go to the restaurant at like 10 o’clock and they don’t come home till midnight.


Robert Wong:

By that time, I’m asleep. I saw them once a week. So I didn’t want that. I wanted to spend time with my children and the models—I knew from watching all the shows like “Happy Days” and “Brady Bunch”—was like, you have to get a job. You bring a suitcase and wear a suit. So that’s what I did. Then you start reading articles, and I tell you what, I think there was a Vogue magazine article about Marc Jacobs, who went to Parsons, and fashion design. I’m like, oh, you can do stuff that’s creative and make money and be famous.So now you know how shallow I really am. Be the boss, cute girls, fame and money.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve got it all now, right?


Robert Wong:

Yeah, but you know what’s interesting? I told my mom when I asked them, I said, “hey, is it OK if I quit accounting?” I’m probably proudest of that moment in my life of all the decisions I’ve made, because I actually wrote some GMAC tests and I was getting scholarships in the states for getting my MBA. I had to tell my mom that like, “hey, I think I want to quit accounting and pursue a more artistic career.” I think the only reason why I was able to do this … I don’t think I would have been able to do this at all if my parents at the time weren’t financially kind of doing well. So they were doing pretty well, and only with that could I have had the confidence to even have it in my mind to do that. Otherwise, I never would have done that.


Debbie Millman:

So you did, you went to Parsons. You sort of were following—


Robert Wong:

And my parents were very supportive too. I think that helped a lot. They … maybe because I was confident, they were confident. You know what, maybe my confidence also came from my mom. Actually, another story I totally forgot. When I was in Holland, 7 years old, my mom one day, I don’t know why—she probably had some horrible news that was happening in China that got her upset—she kind of kneeled down, eye to eye to me, and she said, “Robert, China is fucked up. When you grow up—”


Debbie Millman:

She used that word?


Robert Wong:

It was in English too. No. “When you grow up, you have to go there and run that country.” I’m like, OK. What a disappointment I am. So I think she fed me a lot of that confidence. She believed her little prince—I was the first-born, could do anything. Now that I think about it, I probably give all the credit to my mom.


Debbie Millman:

Good. I like that. You ended up going to Parsons. You started as a fashion major. Is it true that you realized you had no desire whatsoever to make dresses while you were in a draping class making dresses?


Robert Wong:

That’s absolutely true. Zero, zero. You have the idea of what something is. And then the reality sets in, and the first draping class—anyone [who has] done this, you get muslin and you have a mannequin and you start draping stuff and you start cutting. I’m like, I don’t want to do this. Then I realized, wait, I don’t even like clothes. I don’t even shop. I have like two pairs of shoes. So I’m not a fashion person whatsoever, but I was in—it’s a foundation year, which you do everything. Photography, illustration, fine art, color theory, and it was amazing.


Robert Wong:

I just loved every minute of every day at school, and I would spend hours and hours in the library, just eating up every photographer, every artist, every sculptor, reading. My whole life, even though I studied hard, I always wanted to be top of class. I’m very competitive. I just never dug that deep into education and self-education. Yeah, that’s why I kind of knew I had to do something in the arts, and the story how I got to be a graphic designer was, after freshman year you have to pick your major, and I remember sitting in the guidance counselor’s office, where you have to like tick your major and submit it.


Robert Wong:

This is now the last day I could pick my major. It’s like 4:55, I have five minutes. I’m staring at this card with eight boxes. Fine art, jewelry design, interior design, communication design, photography, illustration, blah, blah, blah, and I have no idea. I knew I didn’t want to do fashion design, but other than that, I had no idea. Everything sounded amazing. Then I just literally did crossing off. I love photography, but do I want to do it every day?


Robert Wong:

Then until communications, I didn’t know what that was. It seemed like, OK, that’s vague enough. It seems open enough. It seems noncommittal. That’s the one I ticked. So I became a communication design major at Parsons and then I show up, and the first year, first semester, you realize I’m dealing with type and kerning. I’m like, wait, I didn’t know that’s what this was. It’s amazing, at the end of the day, you’re in New York City. That’s the other bold thing.


Robert Wong:

It was like, I want to go to Parsons because that’s where Marc Jacobs went to school. I have to say, if I think back about how I got to where I got to, everything was not really well thought through or thought deeply through at all. It was just random, and you just try to do less of things you don’t like and try to do more of things you do like, spend more time with people you like, and spend less time with people you don’t like. And it was just feeling it through. It turned out pretty good.


Debbie Millman:

I understand that you had one of your first creative epiphanies while trying to buy an Oral B toothbrush.


Robert Wong:

OK, so this is the first semester, and I’m going to all these crazy classes, and I took—because I had all these undergraduate credits, I could take random classes—and I started taking an acting class. And it was the first time I hugged another man in my life.


Debbie Millman:

Not even your dad?


Robert Wong:

Not even my dad. So like, a lot of barriers are breaking. I was being liberated left right and center, and I was living at the YMCA at the time in a 6 x 10 little room, and I had this old toothbrush. I was like oh, I need a new toothbrush, and days go by and I keep on coming home, I forget to buy a new toothbrush. So I even did the thing of like, I’m going to throw the toothbrush away. So now be forced to have to buy a toothbrush, but a couple of days go by and I forget and I’m brushing my teeth with my finger.


Robert Wong:

Then one day as I’m walking home, I walked by Duane Reade and I remember, yes, I have to get a toothbrush, and I was so happy that I remembered. I walked in, walked to the aisle, and Oral B was my favorite, a 40 soft, and found the rack, and I’m looking for my color, black. Maybe clear, but they only had pink and purple ones. So I’m like, they didn’t have green, which was neutral, I thought. I’m like, ah, so I started walking out of the store, and not two steps out of the store, I realized, wait, why can’t I buy a pink toothbrush? That’s absolutely stupid.


Robert Wong:

It was an epiphany because I realized there’s so many things your mind traps you in. Boxes that it puts you in that are all made up. They’re not real, and when I realized that, I ran back in, I think I specifically went for the pink one, and I popped it on the counter. I was like beaming with self-satisfaction. I’m so enlightened, and I was staring at the cashier, waiting for her to acknowledge me with eye contact, and she kind of like New Yorked it.


Robert Wong:

She’s just waiting for next. I can remember, she was like, what’s wrong with you? I’m like, I’m buying a pink toothbrush. It’s a little celebration. I know that’s a tiny little story, but I think having those moments where you realize that whatever you think is real is not real—


Debbie Millman:

It’s a construct; we’re socialized to believe certain things, and different colors even in different cultures mean the opposite of what they might mean in the culture that you are brought up in.


Robert Wong:

Someone once told me this—I thought it was really cool and I might do it wrong, but it was a little story about the difference between Eastern and Western society. That while in Western society when you go to a funeral, you wear black, and Eastern society you wear white. Western society, you read from right to left, horizontal, Eastern society you right from right to left, vertically down, and you go, wow, yeah, those two cultures, they’re so different. Then story ends with like, it’s interesting though that also how similar they are, that both cultures chose the absence of color, and both cultures actually wrote. So it’s actually pretty interesting how different things are but how similar they are.


Debbie Millman:

They use symbols to scan for something else that you then had to process. I believe you graduated college in 1990. Here’s a mystery that I couldn’t find about you. You started at Frankfurt Balkind in 1992. What were you doing in [those] two years?


Robert Wong:

The first year I started at PolyGram Records because I thought I wanted [to design] album covers, but I didn’t really love it, and then I got a job a Double Space.


Debbie Millman:

I didn’t even know that. See. You have not [said] that anywhere. It’s nowhere on the internet.


Robert Wong:

Yes, [a] boutique little office in New York. Famous for Talking Heads album covers and stuff.


Debbie Millman:

Their famous self-promotions. They were both very glamorous and drape over each other and have these fabulous promotional pieces.


Robert Wong:

It was definitely my first real design studio. Everyone’s crazy. When you have to work late, they’d give you pot as a way to keep you there. But it was awesome. As a Canadian, you get one year of practical training in the U.S., and then after that you have to be offered a job to stay. They offered me a job, at one of my best friends at Parsons. Her name’s Christine Wong. She was a graphic designer and she was in Hong Kong, and she said, “Hey, Robert, come open up a design firm in Hong Kong with me.”


Robert Wong:

I’m like, OK, I actually want to get back to my—I felt, they call it “banana,” yellow on the outside, white on the inside—I wanted to feel what it’s like to really go back to Hong Kong and live that Chinese culture. So I went back and did that for a year, but I didn’t love that and I really missed, more than anything, I missed New York. So I came back to New York and was lucky enough to get into Frankfurt Balkind.


Debbie Millman:

That was a really hot job to get at the time. Robert and I met in 1992 at Frankfurt Balkind, where we both worked. Now you came in as a superstar. I came in as a reject. I was interviewed by Steve Frankfort, one of the partners, who thought I was adorable and hired me. Aubrey Balkind, the senior partner, didn’t think I had any talent. So he wouldn’t let me be a designer. He insisted that I work as an account director. I don’t know if you remember any of that.


Robert Wong:

I don’t think I knew that.


Debbie Millman:

So Aubrey hated me but he loved you.


Robert Wong:

Because he was an accountant.


Debbie Millman:

Exactly. Exactly. He was a math man. How did you first get that job? It was one of the hardest jobs to get in New York.


Robert Wong:

Portfolio. It was, I think—


Debbie Millman:

That’s what didn’t get me the job. He looked at my portfolio. No one’s ever been quieter, ever, having looked at my portfolio than he was at that time in my life. I actually thought I was going to die. He looked through my entire portfolio without saying a word, and then slammed it shut as if it were an annoyance, like a bug. Then was like, “Steve wants to hire you. But I can’t hire you as a designer.” Like, why not? “Because you’re not good enough.” So he hired Robert. You got my job.


Robert Wong:

You’re going there.


Debbie Millman:

So you were there for four years, and you left and then spent the next several years at what was the beginnings of the tech business. Did you have a sense at that time that this was going to be the future of design? You spent quite a few years in the tech business.


Robert Wong:

Yeah. It was a company called CKS. It was actually on the cover of Wired magazine as like the agency killer. It was started by ex-Apple head of marketing, ex-Apple creative director and ex-Apple engineer. So they were the first company that really bet on business design and engineering. So a lot of the solutions they had for their clients were tech based. So they saw me when they won the pitch for the worldwide packaging system for McDonald’s because they created a software program, that the design would automatically reshape itself to all the different regions, and all the legal requirements of how large the warning signs are or X, Y, Z.


Debbie Millman:

Wow, so they did it with an algorithm?


Robert Wong:

No, a lot of—back then everything was manually programmed. So that locally, in every country, the managers of those franchises could print stuff out. I like to say, I’m left-hearted, right-handed and center-brained, so that appealed to me. I love creativity, but like, “oh, that’s smart.” I thought, Oh, yeah, they’re going to have an edge. I remember saying, though, that I didn’t think their work was any good. My overconfidence, talking to the founder, Tom Suiter. The job was also [to] run a new office. So a chance to open an office and run a new office as the person, where the buck stops there.


Robert Wong:

So I thought that was compelling, but I remember saying—just how cocky and stupid I was, looking back I was such an idiot—I was like, “yeah, I would love to come to this company, but I don’t think the work’s very good here. I think I can help.” And he was like, “OK.” He’s still one of my dearest friends, one of the best people.


Debbie Millman:

You left there and joined Starbucks as their vice president of global creative. Now, given your long tenure at many of your other jobs, you only stayed at Starbucks for two years. What did you do there? And did you enjoy it?


Robert Wong:

So I was a consultant most of my life, and if anyone’s a consultant, there’s a part of it where you really don’t own the decision. You do a design or several designs, and someone picks, and if they pick the one you liked, it’s awesome. If they pick the one that you didn’t think was great, oh well, but you never owned a decision. You weren’t fully accountable.


Debbie Millman:

Unless you’re Massimo Vignelli and you only do one design.


Robert Wong:

I actually practice that now. That’s what I like now. I think going to the other side, you realize, oh, you have to really own that decision, and I think years and years of always having some … you’re not really accountable as a consultant. So I had to really learn that hard. And [the] second thing, too, is I’ve never been in the corporation, a company and department, and politics and all this stuff. I just was too young to understand how it worked, and a big mistake I made was I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t want to seem weak and ask for help. I think I should have asked for more help. My success in that job was kind of mediocre at best, and I missed New York.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I was going to say, quite a different environment. You went back to the agency side, where you worked in advertising for five years, and then went to Google. So you went back into that corporate environment, and I can only imagine that it’s far more political and bureaucratic at a giant place like Google than a coffee shop.


Robert Wong:

Yes and no. The lucky thing is that when they hired us, it wasn’t like, oh, we now need a branding group, or, now we need a. … They didn’t know what they needed. So we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted, and so we were really stealth. We stayed small and my boss partner, Andy, he understood the whole thing too. So to us, we’re like, “OK, let’s just stay independent, be like a free radical in the company and just make sure we do stuff that has impact. Do great stuff that we’re proud of, and that has impact.” So we still do that today. So actually, we’ve been, and because we have somehow lucky enough got a close relationship with the founders, we operated, sort of, not within any kind of structure.


Debbie Millman:

You said this morning in your presentation that when you first arrived at Google, you were the most insecure you’d ever been in your whole life, which, given the conversation we had at our reception dinner, I took really seriously. Like, wow, this is the first time he ever felt insecure. Really? Why?


Robert Wong:

Well, the people are really smart.


Debbie Millman:

Is it true that one in nine people has a doctorate?


Robert Wong:

Yes. One in nine people have a PhD.


Debbie Millman:

And your Honorary Doctorate doesn’t count?


Robert Wong:

Honorary doctorate, no, does not count. I didn’t get that till later. No, people are just really smart, really quick, and they’re all super type A, and they all went to Stanford and MIT and, literally, the brightest people. So it was very intimidating.


Debbie Millman:

You said that you felt that you needed to join Google because you didn’t want to trust the future of humanity to MBAs and engineers. Why were you worried?


Robert Wong:

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I operate from worry as much as the opportunity that people from the creative arts could have on those companies. It’s a lot like I was talking about earlier about technology, but really it’s about human connections and how the humanity of things is really things that drive things, and how you feel about things will win. Whoever can design the stuff that makes people feel better and will win. Kind of the cocky side was like, you know what, Google is winning now but if they don’t increase their EQ, and increase their sense of humanity within the company, within the products, they won’t win in the future.


Robert Wong:

Someone who has all the parts—I’m not saying one part—like someone who has all the parts, the best tech, the best art, the best business, they will win, and that’s why I thought that we could actually have a real impact.


Debbie Millman:

Why didn’t Google feel like they needed a creative lab?


Robert Wong:

They didn’t.


Debbie Millman:

So how did it all happen?


Robert Wong:

Eric Schmidt, who was our CEO at the time, was on the board of Apple. So he saw what branding and marketing, impact and design, had on a company. Google’s kind of famous for just hiring the best people in any given field. There’s a funny story of our head of HR, [who] one time was having a conversation with Larry Page, being really frustrated because, “Larry, give me some guidance on who to hire, because you just tell me to bring the brightest people from any field, but like, that’s infinite. If I find the best forester in the whole world you’re not going to want them at Google.”


Robert Wong:

At which point, Larry [said], “the best forester, that’s interesting. That can be very interesting. So, that’s how they operate—just find the talent, and they trust that if they get talent, that the talent will figure out what to do. Because what they had was the infrastructure, the infinite computing power, the scale that could leverage any particular skill and turn it into business, turn it into something that’s useful to people’s lives. So they were like, oh, Eric was like to Larry, “we need us some designers and some branding people.” So they actually found me and Andy through Apple, because Apple, we did a lot of work for Apple at CKS, and that’s how they found us.


Debbie Millman:

I understand, though, that you tend to undersell your group’s expertise and branding at Google.


Robert Wong:

Well, expertise is not a good thing.


Debbie Millman:

So why do you try to undersell it? If they’re looking for the best and only want the best, why would expertise be a bad thing? And then why would you undersell branding?


Robert Wong:

OK, I’ll tell you why expertise is a bad thing. It’s Richard Walton, who wrote in the preface of information architecture book, “when you sell expertise, by definition, no matter how much you know, by definition, there’s a limit to what you know. Whereas if you sell understanding, it’s an infinite resource.” And I find that to be so true, because when you know stuff, that knowledge will always limit. When you know boys aren’t supposed to have pink toothbrushes, it limits your thinking.


Robert Wong:

So because we’ve had all these years of professional training, we understand the basic stuff. Then we can improve a little bit more. So I think that expertise can be a hindrance after a certain stage. First you have to build it up, but then I think it’s a hindrance and then you have to just listen, be attuned to stuff to find the opportunities. So I undersell branding because maybe my definition of branding is a lot of the professional, like Step A, Step B, Step 3 branding versus really branding, which is just what people think and feel about something.


Robert Wong:

So, obviously, I understand the power of branding, but no one wants to hear about that as a thing. I just make stuff and you show it to the CEO and go, like, “do you like this?” And he goes, “yeah, I like it,” and then it happens. Or you show them something, and they feel something and they go, “yeah, let’s put that on the Super Bowl.” So I think we operate and, actually, if you spend a lot of time with very senior people, the more senior they are, the less patience they have with any of that stuff.


Robert Wong:

You have a couple of seconds to go, like, “I like that,” “oh, that touches me.” So we skip all that crap, and constantly just focus all that time on making the artifacts that they could get excited about.


Debbie Millman:

Do you come up with the ideas for new projects, or are you challenged by Larry Page and Sergey Brin to answer specific briefs?


Robert Wong:

I think it’s a little bit of everything, but usually not specific briefs. Usually, when they come to us—“and hey, we’re playing around with this technology, can you come check it out?”


Debbie Millman:

Playing?


Robert Wong:

Yeah, and then you just check it out. They’re not asking you for a name or logo or anything. Then you just figure out what you should do for that technology. That’s one side, and the other side is like, everyone at the lab is constantly getting excited about things. And then they come up with their own personal ideas. Usually, it’s a marriage of some new thing they discovered, something that they’re deeply passionate about already, and they kind of make a project out of it. As long as they also know, constantly keep in mind, OK, what’s the strategic value or business value or branding value of the thing, the project I initiate?


Debbie Millman:

How many ideas do you generally come up with in, let’s say, a year, that actually make it to market?


Robert Wong:

I’ve never really done the math.


Debbie Millman:

Well, then let me ask it a different way. How much of your work is rejected?


Robert Wong:

Oh, rejected by ourselves, because I think I would say that 90% of the work we make, 95% of the work, we reject ourselves. That’s a great, lucky place to be. A lot of places are like, “oh, the media is already bought,” or “we need to have the package out in a certain name.” Then no matter where you get to, even if it was mediocre or even crap, it has to be made, whereas we have the luxury of like, unless it’s great, unless you’re proud of it, we don’t show anyone that we did it. So most of it’s rejected that way. Then of the stuff that we’re proud of—


Debbie Millman:

So that 5%—


Robert Wong:

Of the 5% that we take out—either shopping around for, “hey, can you guys build this,” or “are you interested in building this or interested in collaborating with us to work on this?”—I would say a quarter of those become things. And some things we put on the shelf or in the drawer. Actually, in the drawer like this is a great idea. We love it. Let’s wrap it up, put it in a drawer, and a business issue comes up years later and we go, “oh, pull out the drawer,” and it goes through. So some stuff sits for years and then it gets made.


Debbie Millman:

What is the best example that you can think of, of something that sat in a drawer for years?


Robert Wong:

Well, even like Arcade Fire, that music video, HTML5 music video, we had the idea that we should have a Chrome music video, a browser-based music video, three years before we actually did it. And it was a mix of finding the right artist, a mix of the technology wasn’t quite good enough to do something really cool. That was one.


Debbie Millman:

What happened with Google Glass?


Robert Wong:

Sore spot.


Debbie Millman:

Sorry.


Robert Wong:

We worked on that. That’s one of those instances where the engineers were like, “hey, we have this thing.” Sergey was like, “hey, come check this thing out.” And he didn’t ask us what to do with it. He just was like, “come check it out,” and we named it on the spot then, because, “oh, it’s cool. It’s only one glass.” So instead of “glasses,” let’s call it glass and it feels like a platform. Because we already had Chrome, and then we went away and we made a pretend ad of the product as it was launched, a year-and-a-half later, through first person.


Robert Wong:

So it had UI in it and use cases and it was this maybe 90-second video. I think they released it online. And Sergey and the team, the Glass team, presented Google Glass, the board—the Google board with the working prototype, the business case and our video—and it got a standing ovation.


Debbie Millman:

You get a lot of those.


Robert Wong:

No, that was my first one, but the board clap is, “this is the future,” and after the meeting, Sergey brought his engineering team together and says, “you know what, let’s scrap everything we built. Let’s build that video.” They printed out the stills of our video, with the UX in it and everything, as a roadmap to what features they’re going to build, and how the UI is going to look. I didn’t know it. I heard the story a couple of months later, when one of the UX designers was like, “hey, Robert, I have to show you something. Come check this out.” He put the glass on me, like, it was literally our UI.


Robert Wong:

“Yeah, Sergey made us build your video.” And it was just all pretend. There was a motion designer, fresh out of school, who just made that up. So it was incredible. Of course it didn’t really work. So we actually then spent like a couple of weeks working with them to actually make a work in UX.


Debbie Millman:

When there is a failure like that in an organization, do you find, especially with something that’s fairly rare at Google, at least publicly—do you feel that it changes the feelings about how much risk you’re willing to take?


Robert Wong:

Even though it was a public failure, I think we just jumped the shark. It was not a mass-market product. We’re still working on it right now as more of an enterprise B2B thing. So factory workers can use it on the assembly line, et cetera. So I think it will come just like the Chrome browser music video; it might be years until the technology gets good enough or small enough that you can have good ID that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear. So in a way, I don’t see it as a failure. Maybe it was a public failure or a commercial failure, but I think we were more excited about the innovation part and what we made. And to this day, it’s the first augmented reality overhead device that actually worked. So we’re proud of that.


Debbie Millman:

You said that anyone that thinks technology is a key driver of innovation is kidding themselves. You said that this morning. If not technology, what is the key driver of innovation?


Robert Wong:

Well, as I said today, it’s human imagination. You may create—


Debbie Millman:

The heart.


Robert Wong:

Yeah, the human heart.


Debbie Millman:

Why do you think that that’s more important than technology?


Robert Wong:

Because we made up technology. Technology didn’t make itself. It’s humans that made it. I actually—Sundar, I love this quote he recently said in an interview. He said, “I’m a tech optimist,” because he talks about AI in everything. “I’m a tech optimist, not because I believe in technology, because I believe in people.” And I have the exact same feeling. It’s the people that drive everything.


Debbie Millman:

I don’t have enough time to ask you about more than one specific project. So I’m only going to ask you about one that you presented this morning, which is your caption project. You really surprised me when you said that the telephone, the keyboard and email were all initially created for people with disabilities. I didn’t know that, and you showed how Google is now trying to take captions that we see on televisions into screens. So talk about how you’re doing that and when you think that’ll be fully deployed.


Robert Wong:

The science is way too complicated for me to understand. A lot of the best people in voice recognition engineering and machine learning model hardware building that can stick that on the vise. So it happens real time without having to go to the cloud and back. All that stuff is all very new technology, and I don’t think we would have even done this even two years ago. So the tech side is making it possible, and after that, it’s just once the tech is there, then it’s just a UX thing.


Robert Wong:

That’s when we, the team, worked and research and worked with the deaf and hearing community and realized it was really about, like, it’s another volume control—it’s like a mute button, but instead a caption button, and it’s pretty accurate. I don’t know, I should do a demo later, too, but it’s only going to get smarter and smarter. Right now, it’s only in English but I don’t know how long it’s going to take. To me, it’s like it should be in every language, but of course, there’s a lot of science that has to go into that. So [I’m] looking forward to that being in all the languages that Google translates in.


Debbie Millman:

I mean, this is really one of those moments in time where we see how innovation isn’t just making our lives better, but making our lives more possible in every way, and that’s, I think, the most exciting thing that innovation and technology can provide us now. I have one last question for you. This morning, at the conclusion of your talk, you shared a story about a little girl drawing a picture of God. And I was wondering if you can share that story again, with our audience, but also, for my listeners that didn’t hear it this morning. Because I think it’s really quite astonishing.


Robert Wong:

Yeah, it’s a great story. It’s a great joke, not mine, stole it, but before I even tell the joke, it’s about our ability to be able to make up anything, which is kind of the theme of my talk. And it’s a story about a little girl who was drawing in class, and the art teacher asked, “what are you drawing?” To which the little girl said, “it’s a picture of God.” The teacher says, “well, no one knows what God looks like.” To which the girl looks at her and beams and smiles and says, “they will when I’m done.”


Debbie Millman:

They will when I’m done.


Robert Wong:

They will when I’m done.


Debbie Millman:

Robert Wong, thank you for using design to make the world a much better place, and thank you for joining me today at this very special live recording of Design Matters at Design Indaba in South Africa.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman