INTERVIEW: In DIALOGUE // IVY ROSS

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Ivy Ross is the Vice President of Design for Hardware Products at Google and has innovated team experiences and products across her ventures in fashion, jewelry, hardware, and user experience design. We sat down with her to explore the creative process, the role of intuition in business and innovation, and how human connection builds the landscape for collective potential.

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VOICES // IVY ROSS: EXPANDING HUMAN POTENTIAL – THE ROLE OF INTUITION IN INNOVATION

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Rimma Boshernitsan: Let's start with your childhood. What stands out as most formative?

Ivy Ross: I grew up in my father's house. He was an industrial designer and carefully designed every doorknob, every handle — everything. I grew up surrounded by details that broke conventional boundaries.

My father was very influential for me. He would encourage me to look at the subtleties of the world, to see beyond what it appears to be. He taught me how to abstract the tangible, to truly observe; not just objects, but people, too. I realized early on that there is design and intention in everything. I learned to notice the places where things connect, both within physical objects and in the way humans interact.

My father would take me to car shows when I was really young. I was so young and small that I was at eye level with the hubcaps. In examining how the hubcaps were made, how every hubcap was different, I would sink into a flow state. I would look at the way the spokes were connected, how it was polished, and how all the pieces came together so intentionally. I think that is why I became a metalsmith because it was the first thing that I spent so many hours deeply investigating.

My mother was a tap dancer and a violin player. She gave it all up for my father when they got married. Seeing this inspired me to say, “I don't ever want to be an acquisition.” I saw what she gave up and there were times when you could see in her eyes, what she wished she had.

RB: Your first professional design experience started in jewelry, or as you said, metalsmithing. How did this thread of interest develop throughout your childhood?

IR: As a kid, I would crawl into my dad’s office and play with different materials. I remember he had this chain-mail material. I took out my screwdriver and made a dress out of the chain mail metal. Some people were surprised, but I thought, “Here is this incredible material, what else could I do with it?” I just wanted to play with it, follow my curiosities. I wanted to see what would happen if I opened up the links and re-hooked them as I pleased. My exploration became a dress.

These early explorations continued to grow, and I was continually drawn towards becoming a jeweler because jewelry could be anything. Jewelry was used for magical reasons, such as talismans, and carries a rich history of decoration, adornment, and ritual. It could also be very graphic. I was intrigued by its richness and versatility.

RB: Do you still make jewelry?

IR: Not anymore. There are so many opportunities to explore, and when they present themselves I am become intrigued and must explore. For instance, I studied bio-geometry, taught by Dr. Karim, an architect and philosopher, and learned how shapes and forms express different energies. We worked with a pendulum to observe the difference of even the slightest shifts in angles, and how that would shift the energy given off. If I ever return to creating jewelry, I would be more conscious to incorporate specific geometry into all of the forms I invent.

RB: You’ve mentioned before how important intuition has been for your work, both as a designer and in your personal life. Have you always been intuitive?

IR: I think I have been. Once you see your intuition working for you — after you take that initial leap — you begin to develop the courage to live your entire life that way. It may seem illogical, but I’ve seen it work.

I breathe in both art and science. I am both logical and intuitive. So, of course, I go through pragmatic thinking, but after I have all the data, I have to trust the feeling in my body when I know things are true. It is a very certain sensation and while it can be frightening at first, I have learned to follow it.

Part of my intuition developed during my time in the fashion world. Fashion appears frivolous, but I have found it to be an intuitive cultural metrometer. It is often tied to the sociological currents of the moment, almost as a collective unconscious. When you're in the fashion business, you really have to listen to those currents to get a sense of what is coming, where materials should evolve to, and what people are going to be craving. To get there you have to take the facts, yes, but at the end of the day, you make intuitive calls.

RB: How has your sense of intuition changed the way you lead teams for innovation?

IR: My intuition allows me to see who people really are, what their talents are, and where their true gifts flourish. We often put people in organizational chart boxes, and we keep them there because they become an expert in the box we put them in. But we're all a product of our experiences, so as our experiences change, we change, and our talents grow. My sense of intuition has encouraged me to create situations or roles that allow people to shine in new ways, that in some cases, were very atypical.

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I do this because true innovation cannot come from people being run through a routine process. Teams that push the edge of innovation are those that are designed to allow for creativity. And the best way for people to create is not when they are in the fight or flight zone, but rather when there is safety. It is then that the brain can be calm enough to explore.

I am reminded of a time I went into the Amazon jungle twenty-five years ago. I remember sitting on a log and looking down at what I thought was a vine covered in leaves, but as I continued examining the vine I realized that there were thousands of little ants carrying leaves on their back. The whole jungle was full of this extraordinary phenomenon. There was no machinery. There was no industrial revolution, but every species was taking care of their collective ecosystem. Everything was beautifully designed to do just that. I remember thinking, "Wow, if this is the model of life, why would we assume we know more than this?"

Moments like these throughout my life are what propelled me into developing the Project Platypus — a deep understanding that there is a different way for us to create that's more aligned with how nature creates.

RB: Would you mind telling us more about Project Platypus? What contributed to its development?

IR: Project Platypus developed in reaction to the burning need for genuine, playful, and thoughtful creation. In some ways, it started twenty years ago when I began studying sound vibration, prompted by common phrases like, “he's on the same wavelength” or “she's got good vibes.” I wondered if there was a scientific foundation to these sayings and experiences. I knew from working with teams that getting on the same “wavelength” enabled safe exploration, allowing people to get to new places together, to brainstorm creatively and truly innovate. I thought, “What if I could purposefully orchestrate a collective wavelength?”

This all informed my experiment with Project Platypus, which formally began while I was working at Mattel with approximately 300 people under me. I asked for twelve volunteers with whom I would start reinventing the creative process. At first, the entire project was ‘underground’ because I had to prove that it worked, even though I knew that it would before I even did it.

We utilized sound chairs designed to enable and enhance individual creativity by playing music encoded with binaural beats, the aural equivalent of an optical illusion, in an effort to affect an individual’s central nervous system. I knew that the times when I have my best ideas, the left and right half of my brain were working together, and so I thought, If the brain is a muscle, could we create an exercise to bring both halves of their brain together to increase creativity?

Creativity comes from trust and freedom and setting up trust between the two. The connection between people is what makes ideas spiral into a new place.

We then changed the conventional cycle. For instance, if we were given twelve weeks for our design period, I would portion off the first two weeks just to connect, create bonds of mutual trust and interest, and feed new input from a wide variety of disciplines into the system. I wanted to give the gift of human connection on the deepest level so they truly understood who they were creating with. Once the trust developed, we could be curious together and start asking questions that challenged our limits. Then we explored what solutions might be developed together.

RB:  Developing trust and connection has such a powerful ripple effect when such diverse minds come together. How have designed for this cross-pollination in your projects?  

IR: An example of Project Platypus in action is when we were working to develop a ‘funny’ toy. Instead of recycling all of our old systems, we tried to upend our process and restart with some of the deep questions underlying the product, for instance, “What is laughter? What is humor?” Within our initial two weeks of trust-building, I found a Professor of Laughter at UCLA, as well as Moisha the Clown, who taught people how to laugh in third world countries after war. I was aiming to curate an inflow to inspire the team with new information so that they could come out with new ideas. Because the bonds of trust had been developed and they had all learned together, there was no competition. It is in these moments that diversity within a team truly kicks in. You see that while every mind receives the same information, it is processed differently, has its own unique experiences, and is put through a distinct filter, which in turn collectively sparks something new.

Creativity comes from trust and freedom and setting up trust between the two. The connection between people is what makes ideas spiral into a new place.

RB: You frequently draw from new areas that inspire you. What are some of the underlying themes that connect your curiosities?

IR: The underlying theme of everything is human potential. Every curiosity is connected to my desire to understand the human condition and how we amplify our experience to become the best version of ourselves. What does well-being really look like in mind, body and spirit?

Happiness is following my curiosities enough to feel a sense of awe.

This question has propelled me to study everything, from biogeometry to energy medicine. I do not study these things because I want to be a doctor in energy medicine someday, but because by following my curiosities, I feel as though I am learning to put the mysteries of life together. In some ways I see my whole life as one big creative act.

My recent fascination is how powerful our thoughts are over our cells. My interest was prompted by a lecture I heard by Bruce Lipton, an American biologist, who was talking about epigenetics years ago. Yes, we have DNA, but that just means potential, right? Both positive and negative. Our lifestyle, our daily action, and our thoughts communicate to our cells and we change over time.

RB: What are the implications of this knowledge?

IR: I read an article 20 years ago that stuck with me. The most “genius” people in the field were interviewed — the most genius surgeon, lawyer, CEO — and what they all had in common was that they would spend time imagining the steps that would get them to the outcome they wanted in advance. For example, the surgeon would envision the steps of the surgery he was going to perform later that day while he was running in the morning, and the lawyer would see in his mind how he wanted the case to turn out.

It was clear that the act of imagining had an impact on the neuroplasticity of our brain. I've been fascinated ever since. I’m also smiling to myself right now because I see the connection; creative people imagine alternative possibilities. But the potential consequences of this understanding goes beyond simply being creative. We are beginning to explore how imagining possibilities has a true impact on how events unfold. You're creating new pathways of possibilities that bring a fresh approach to everything we do.

RB: It is exciting to imagine how this frontier will continue to unfold. To close, what is your idea of perfect happiness?

IR: Discovering something new or being in awe makes me happy. For me, ‘awe’ is when I discover a new aspect of an object, an interaction, a phenomenon. Its when I connect the dots. I'm similar to a little kid in that way. It can be very simple things or very complicated. Happiness is following my curiosities enough to feel a sense of awe. As long as I have those experiences, I can get through anything. I always feel like those moments of awe are inside of me.

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No Show* // an exploration of the human condition

ATTRACTION 

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Attraction: the action or power of evoking interest, pleasure, or liking for someone or something.

How does attraction inform industries, and what are the core human elements of the experience? These questions drew us together to untangle a phenomenon that is both innate and highly manufactured: our ability to feel and construct attraction.

Bridging perspectives across professional and personal experiences, No Show* brought together creative directors, user experience experts, porn industry professionals, a chocolatier, and an astrologer to examine the future of attraction. We asked:

// How do cultural conditions impact our attractions?

// How do our industries both use and shape attraction?

// What do our attractions communicate to others about our identity?

// Where are there opportunities to re-envision the power of attraction for our changing world?

Parsing through moments as far back as infancy, we shared insights on how our ‘attractions’ have been informed by family values, spiritual belief systems, cultural norms, and social ecosystems.

As we connect with one another, we often filter our expressions and desires, perhaps to attract a particular person, or to generate belonging within a partnership. While many of our attractions are constructed from our surroundings, there are biological elements drawing our attention to particular smells, textures, shapes, and symmetries. How do we know what we are truly attracted to?

Across industries, we saw how humans are attracted to that which confirms a vision of who we want to be. Our attraction is highly dependent on our changing environment, the context of our childhood, workplace, cultural norms. Yet, we hold the power to shape the conditions of the future.

 

NO SHOW Photo by Gershoni Creative

NO SHOW Photo by Gershoni Creative

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Over the course of the year, this series on the Human Condition has covered topics such as: Nourishment, Belonging, with upcoming topics on Creation and Purpose. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.

No Show* // an exploration of the human condition

BELONGING

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We met not knowing each other’s titles - without name tags and without pretense - to explore a human emotion central to our society, a key ingredient shaping culture, community, and our identity: belonging.

NO SHOW Photo by Gershoni Creative

NO SHOW Photo by Gershoni Creative

With the pressing tensions of community and exclusion, we found belonging ripe for inspection. To cross-pollinate for new perspectives, No Show* brought together hospitality brands, refugee rights leaders, user experience experts, art innovators, and social behavior specialists, exploring how our industries could drive purpose and shape a sense of cohesion, kinship, and safety.

Ranging from personal reflections to broad cultural trends, we explored the qualities and urgency of belonging in the 21st century, asking:

// How do we communicate safety through our actions?

// Where can companies shift social perspectives through internal culture?

// How can we utilize belonging within brands and across culture to actualize the aspirational self?

// What opportunities can we create, within our agencies and daily lives, to generate community and innovation?

We dove into the deep end, sharing moments of exclusion that highlighted the desire to belong, dissecting the process of othering that is all-too-often coupled with group identity. Through cross-industry inquiry we landed in how a true sense of belonging is in being understood, not fearing criticism, and not having to edit our self-expression for the safety and security of those around us. To generate a sense of belonging requires a combination of altruism and selfishness. To generate a sense of belonging for others requires deliberately creating opportunities for connection. Once we develop bonds of connection across difference, we develop belonging.

Over the course of the year, this series on the Human Condition will cover topics such as: Attraction, Creation, and Purpose. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.

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Interview: In DIALOGUE // Alexander Rose & Phil Libin

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Exploring the layers of human civilization, we sat with Phil Libin, founder and CEO of All Turtles, and Alexander Rose, Executive Director at The Long Now Foundation and the 10,000 Year Clock project, to discuss the tensions between long-term planning and the role of products in shaping our future. 

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ALEXANDER ROSE & PHIL LIBIN: ON THE LAYERS OF CIVILIZATION, THE FUTURE OF PRODUCTS & THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW

 

Rimma Boshernitsan: We start all our interviews by diving into people's backgrounds — how they grew up, where they grew up, and the relationships of their past. Alexander, we’ll start with you: what was your beginning like?

Alexander Rose portrait by Christopher Michel

Alexander Rose portrait by Christopher Michel

Alexander Rose: I grew up on the Sausalito Waterfront. It is now a shipyard, but back then it was a junkyard left over from World War II. We were all builders, artists and people ‘in between’ that needed free living. It was an awesome place to grow up. I spent my childhood building infinite forts and finding parts to create whatever came to mind. When it came time to getting a formal education, I fundamentally knew I wanted to be an inventor. There's no inventing degree or school, so I got a degree in industrial design. I went to San Francisco State University (SFSU) for two years and took their Industrial Arts program which was a phenomenal blue-collar design program, with an amazing shop of tools like injection molding machines.

After my two years at SFSU, I got into Carnegie Mellon’s Industrial Design program and completed it after three years. When I returned to San Francisco in the mid-1990’s, I started working in virtual world design for Chrysler and Marketing for LucasArts. I eventually got very frustrated that my 20-hour workday would only turn into a CD-Rom that was about as valuable as a coaster a week after it came out. Because of my mother’s local community and political involvement as a mayor and county supervisor, she connected me to Stewart Brand, the founder of The Long Now Foundation, editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue, who lived on a tugboat in Sausalito. She introduced us and we quickly became friends. I shared my frustration with Stewart and he was able to get me a bunch of great interviews.  

As a result, I was interviewing at Blizzard Entertainment (the World of Warcraft people doing video games). I thought, "Wow, this is going be the best possible video game job I could ever have." And then Stewart told me about The Clock Project. Back then the project was just a conversation between Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, and Stewart, but I just couldn't get it out of my head when I heard about it. By strange luck, there was a Board meeting a week after where I met Danny for the first time. It was then that he told me he had a funder for the first prototype of the Clock and asked if I wanted to help build it. I immediately said, "Yes, this is what I want to do. I don't want to work on video games anymore."

Originally, the plan was to just build a prototype of the Clock. We didn't know if anything would come of it, but we slowly emerged into a future-oriented space with The Long Now Foundation, and started building more projects from the springboard of the Clock.

 

RB: Phil, you immigrated to the states at a young age, what was your childhood like?

Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Phil Libin: I was born in Russia. My parents are both classical musicians. My father is a violinist, my mother a pianist. I grew up without any musical talent at all. My parents, having figured it out early on, actually gave up trying to teach me music when I was about four. Russians do not teach a child music for their own good, they only do so if there is a chance that they would be a world class musician—otherwise, why bother?

 

RB: So they gave you books?  

PL: Yes, they gave me books! We moved to the U.S. when I was eight, and I grew up mostly in the Bronx in New York City. It was 1979. We were the only Russians in the neighborhood at the time. I got my first computer when I was pretty young and just hacked around on it without any particular plans. I thought I would do something involving computers but was not really specific about it. I started doing programming consulting work when I was a kid, and eventually started my first company in high school.

 

RB: Phil -- Sci-Fi has had a significant influence on your dedication to innovation and invention. How has Sci-Fi influenced your work?

PL: When I moved here I didn't speak any English. I was old enough to remember, so I remember not understanding anything and then I remember understanding it. I never took any formal classes but learned by reading comic books and watching TV. I was reading Thor, so all of my early English was influenced by how the main character speaks in comic books. I also watched TV, and since my dad used to really like Star Trek, I started watching Star Trek around that age.

The Sci-Fi that I gravitated towards was about long-term planning and thinking, but I never understood that to be my job until I read The Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand. It was one of the most influential books of my life. I thought, "Wow, these people are actually doing it. It's all plausible.” There is no gap between where we are now and some point 10,000 years later. There is a continuation.

Planning for 10,000 years into the future is perceived as silly because it seems too arrogant, or conceited, or self-centered. What gives us the right to think that we can plan for 10,000 years? Yet that was the reaction that made it so important to me. People are saying that we're reaching too high, but there isn't even a bar yet. Someone has got to do it.

 

RB: What products have impacted you that embody this type of future-oriented, long-term planning?  

PL: The 10,000 Year Clock was very influential for me—practicing an understanding that we can’t assume there will be a continuity of arbitrary knowledge about what clocks are and how they work. What if there was a total collapse for a few hundred years and people reemerged without knowing about traditional clocks? Can you still have it make sense? How they tackled this dilemma was awesome.  

Another amazing product was The Rosetta Disk project, designed in an attempt to preserve language for 10,000 years into the future.

AR: We collected parallel information from several thousand languages and micro-etched the language into these disks using gallium ion beam, then cast that into metal. They used the same technology one would use for micro-circuitry, but used it to write actual text, not just 1's and 0's, not just dots and dashes. If you put it under a microscope you can actually read it. It has a data density that's in the realm of what we perceive as digital data, but it's all analog.

RB: Is it visible with the naked eye?

AR: Yes, we made a piece of jewelry out of it. You see a spiral text that says "Languages of the World," then it gets a little bit too small to read. You can see more with a magnifying glass, then with a microscope you can start to read all of it. We give people a little jeweler's magnifier so they can see the pages.

RB: Alexander -- what challenges have you faced while building the 10,000 Year Clock, and what do those challenges tell us about our society and how it might change? 

Whatever I create, what I want most is for the people of that future to think that we gave a shit.

AR: There were certainly many engineering and material science challenges, but the ones we struggle with the most are the aesthetic and experiential issues.  How do you make something visually compelling to someone 100 years from now?  How about 8,000 years from now? How do we make the whole experience transformational for the people that visit the Clock? Are we only designing the Clock for humans when we talk about these kind of time spans? In order to answer these questions for the project we had to both look into the past about what still compels us as well as take lessons we have learned from things that have failed to do so.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that people 10,000 years ago are not actually that much different than they are today. Their hands are roughly the same size and shape, they care about beautiful and elegant things, they want the best for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  We tried to make all our design decisions using similar assumptions about the people of the future.

 

RB: How do you reconcile the current speed of entrepreneurship and product development, particularly in Silicon Valley, with long-term planning?

PL: Well I think there's an easy answer and then there's the deep answer. The deep answer is Chapter 7 of The Clock of the Long Now. It's a chapter called "The Order of Civilizations" that describes how everything in the universe works in three pages. It's kind of amazing.

An excerpt from The Clock of the Long Now by Steward Brand

An excerpt from The Clock of the Long Now by Steward Brand

AR: It is described through a diagram. I worked with Stewart and Brian Eno on it and it eventually became the diagram in The Clock of the Long Now. It illustrates the layers of human time, starting with Fashion, Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture and Nature. The deeper layers move slowly, like Nature, but the ones on the periphery are frenetic, experimental, and wild. These are the layers that incorporate fashion, art, and information technology.

PL: Yup. They go really fast.

AR: Which isn’t bad. What ends up being dangerous is when you do something like skip a bunch of layers and end up affecting the natural world, one of the slower moving layers, without paying attention to everything in between. For instance, when Maxam liquidated all of Pacific Lumber, they wanted to chop down all the old-growth redwood groves, make a bunch of money and walk away. They just took the Commerce layer and were trying to sell something that took millions of years to create and doesn't come back.

PL: Another problematic approach is when you try to lock those layers together. In the Soviet Union they'd make a five-year plan, and they would try to make Art move at the same speed as Culture, as if they could slow it down. But they can't be locked into place. The outer layers have to go faster.

 

RB: How does the concept of these layers relate to your current work the new AI startup studio, All Turtles?

PL:  The idea with All Turtles is to support the layers, from the top all the way through the bottom. The outer layers, the ones that spin quickly, get all the attention. They innovate. Yet the slower layers have the power to move the world. Young people focus on the fast-moving stuff, but as you get older, you're more and more drawn to the slower moving layers, like infrastructure. We want art to innovate quickly, but we also want to institutionalize the best of what we've learned so can penetrate into the infrastructure layer and throughout society.

The core idea of All Turtles is disrupting the organization of innovation. We're calling bullshit on this idea that you have to make a company to make a product, which has been entrenched for the past 50 years. Right now if you are a great painter, you just paint. You don't make a painting company. If you're a great writer, you write. You don't make a writing company. Yet, if you have a great product vision, you are instructed to raise money and make a company.

We are trying an alternate way to organize the world’s most brilliant people to make products in a way that does not force them to do the very inefficient step of linking it with a company first.

 

RB: If in 10,000 years someone found what you're both building now what would you ideally want their reaction to be?

PL: Ideally there would be enough continuity where they don't “find it” — they would have simply known about it the whole time. “Finding it” assumes that either something bad has happened or that we haven't done something important enough. Ideally in 10,000 years they would know exactly what it is.

AR: We certainly need a continuation of meaning. Even today, with instructions from IKEA that don't have words, everyone assumes, "Oh, you're going to put the instructions for the clock as diagrams, right?" Which makes us ask, "How well do those Ikea instructions work for you?" It turns out words are actually a lot better than diagrams. And that's concurrent time, just between a Swedish mind and my mind!

Whatever I create, what I want most is for the people of that future to think that we gave a shit. That we cared about them. I think that's the fundamental philosophy behind the Clock, an expression that we actually care about the future. Whenever I'm making design decisions, I ask myself, “How will my design decision make the people of the future think that we cared about them?”

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No Show* // an exploration of the human condition

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NOURISHMENT

With vision boards covering the walls, and the arched ceiling of The Dome atop the historic Humboldt Bank Building covering our heads, we gathered to tackle a concept central to human survival: Nourishment.

Incredibly intimate and highly marketed, we chose Nourishment for the No Show* debut to spark introspection and innovation among pioneers within the food industry. “How,” we asked chefs, food brand CEOs, writers, entrepreneurs, “how can we recalibrate the experience of nourishment for the rapidly changing 21st century? How do we define nourishment today?”

As a collaborative project with Gershoni Creative, No Show* allows us to combine our passions in designing for human connection, creating a community that drops pretense in favor of cross-pollination and genuine inquiry.

The topic of Nourishment quickly turned to the tensions and challenges within the food industry and across our society: 

// How do we ensure that nourishment is inclusive?

// Do we seek to feed, or do we seek to profit?

// Where can we work across difference to create a resurgence of human connection within the food movement?

Touching on issues of income disparities, changing agricultural practices, and industry temptations to indulge rather than feed, leaders in the food movement gathered to share personal stories and professional insights, creating a collective intelligence for the future of food. Our deliberate conversation encouraged action by illuminating the threads of connectivity across the spectrum of our experience, highlighting potential solutions to the challenges we all face in finding, and generating, true nourishment.

NO SHOW, Dialogue Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

NO SHOW, Dialogue Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

Over the course of the year, this series on the Human Condition will cover topics such as: Attraction, Creation, and Purpose. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.

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