Interview: In DIALOGUE // IVY ROSS
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.
VOICES // IVY ROSS: EXPANDING HUMAN POTENTIAL – THE ROLE OF INTUITION IN INNOVATION
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.
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?
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?
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.