Mike & Maaike

Azure - - CONTENTS - by David Sokol In­ter­view

Sil­i­con Val­ley’s lead­ing in­dus­trial design cou­ple dis­cusses work­ing at Google (and why they left)

It was a whirlwind courtship. In 2011, while San Fran­cisco–based firm Mike & Maaike was work­ing on projects for Google, the mega­com­pany be­gan won­der­ing aloud whether it would rather have stu­dio name­sakes Mike Si­mo­nian and Maaike Evers be­come part of its in-house team. Three months later, the part­ners started as lead in­dus­trial de­sign­ers at the famed Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, cam­pus, where they would tackle var­i­ous con­sumer elec­tron­ics – such as Nexus 9 and the first-ever Android Wear – and skunkworks launched un­der Google X. In July, 2016, they left Google to re-es­tab­lish their own brand and get their hands dirty on a wider ar­ray of design briefs. While Si­mo­nian and Evers say their wend­ing jour­ney through en­tre­pre­neur­ial and cor­po­rate set­tings il­lus­trates how a de­signer must adapt her method­ol­ogy, they see their ex­pe­ri­ence more as an ob­ject les­son in pur­su­ing cre­ative sat­is­fac­tion. Evers’ ad­vice? “As­pire to be happy and don’t look to land a par­tic­u­lar frame­work.”

Mike, be­fore co-found­ing Mike & Maaike in 2005, you had been work­ing at Astro Stu­dios while do­ing some suc­cess­ful side projects, such as a 14-wheel skate­board con­cept called Flow­board. What prompted you to strike out on your own?

MS: Since school, I’ve tried to be both a de­signer and an in­ven­tor; I like to have ideas on the side. In 2003, my busi­ness part­ner Pi­eter Schouten and I sold the skate­board com­pany, and the deal was enough to give Maaike and my­self a fi­nan­cial cush­ion. Sell­ing the busi­ness showed me that the work I was do­ing on the side ac­tu­ally had po­ten­tial. It gave me the con­fi­dence to start other things. Dur­ing those years, you and Maaike had taken on side projects to­gether, as well. MS: Yes. I’d also re­al­ized that the projects we did to­gether were more real and mean­ing­ful than the prod­uct design I was do­ing at Astro Stu­dios. Our di­a­logue cre­ated stronger sto­ries, and work that had a lot more dig­nity. ME: Mike ini­ti­ated an ex­er­cise to look at every­thing we had de­signed up un­til that point – com­par­ing projects we had done for clients and the projects we had done on our own – in or­der to un­der­stand which ones we re­ally cared about. The ex­er­cise re­vealed that I had worked with some in­cred­i­ble peo­ple, but there wasn’t much touch­ing my soul. We took 2004 off from client work to give our­selves some room to do what we be­lieved in. MS: Our rule that year was no clients and no in­come. That was the best de­ci­sion we ever made. We wanted to run a stu­dio that didn’t ex­ist to serve clients; it ex­isted to pro­duce great work.

That vi­sion seemed to bear out. Many of the projects you worked on were well re­ceived crit­i­cally – your Jux­ta­posed book­shelves, for in­stance, and the com­mer­cial suc­cess of Xbox 360.

ME: We ex­plored lots of dif­fer­ent sub­jects, so it al­ways felt en­er­getic and chal­leng­ing. We de­cided that half of our time should be geared to­ward work­ing with peo­ple we ad­mire and on projects we feel are in­ter­est­ing. The other half should be for learn­ing about new ma­te­ri­als and new sub­jects. There’s this ten­dency to fol­low a model: A thriv­ing design firm is this many peo­ple; it needs to al­ways grow; it needs to have this amount of in­come a year. We have never sub­scribed to that. MS: We’re not cal­cu­lat­ing strate­gists. The thing about work­ing as a cou­ple is you can’t por­tray your­self in any false way. You can’t just pre­tend that what you’re do­ing is the right thing if you don’t re­ally feel it, or if you’re not be­ing true to your be­liefs.

Google was an early client – they tapped you to design the first Android phone in 2006. How did Google later con­vince you to join them full-time?

MS: There’s al­ways this ten­sion be­tween the work that sat­is­fies your heart and the work you do to pay the bills. Even though we were do­ing client work at a much higher level as Mike & Maaike, we still had this dual­ity. We didn’t have a burn­ing de­sire to join a big com­pany, but Google’s of­fer pre­sented it­self as an op­por­tu­nity to steer to one side for a few years, to­ward the client side. That way, we could go the com­pletely op­po­site way and have a lot more free­dom af­ter­ward. ME: There was also in­trigue. We had worked with them al­ready, and we knew the com­pany was very am­bi­tious in de­vel­op­ing prod­ucts, which aligned with some of our as­pi­ra­tions. We could imag­ine the po­ten­tial of Google putting its heart into hard­ware. “Hard­ware is hard” is the thing they used to say. But we started to feel a mo­men­tum to­ward hard­ware, and that aligned with their re­al­iza­tion that you can’t do soft­ware with­out hav­ing great hard­ware to run it on.

Were your hopes founded?

ME: We quickly re­al­ized the cul­ture of design hadn’t reached very far at Google. There were a lot of in­ter­ac­tive de­sign­ers, but not much un­der­stand­ing of design at a vis­ceral level – the un­der­stand­ing of the magic and de­light that design can bring. When peo­ple haven’t been ex­posed to that, you have to fight or ask or ed­u­cate. It’s dou­ble the work.

Google is ar­ranged as a se­ries of project-based groups un­der one tent, and you started there as a hard­ware team for Android. How did your con­cerns about design cul­ture man­i­fest in this team?

MS: There’s chaos in any de­vel­op­ment process, but usu­ally you can slot it into a cer­tain process. You may see things you want to change, but there is still a process. In this case, at Google, there was no es­tab­lished process. One of the first design re­view meet­ings we had was kind of funny. We were pre­sent­ing some rough mod­els to eight or nine en­gi­neers, and af­ter­ward the team lead­ers asked us for our rec­om­mended di­rec­tion. We thought, “This is go­ing pretty well; they’re ask­ing us for a rec­om­men­da­tion as ex­perts in the field.” Then they turned to the en­gi­neer next to us for a rec­om­mended di­rec­tion, and then the next en­gi­neer. Ev­ery­one get­ting an equal vote is not the best use of dif­fer­ent peo­ple’s ex­per­tise. But that wasn’t the time to throw a fit. You’re try­ing to build re­la­tion­ships.

How did Google’s way of do­ing things jibe with other, more tra­di­tional design pro­ce­dures?

ME: They took a very soft­ware ap­proach to every­thing. The Android team, for ex­am­ple, cre­ated the plat­form as open-source. But hard­ware isn’t open­source. You’re defin­ing in­nards and how some­thing is made. You can’t just let it have its own life. MS: The goal for projects was to learn and fail fast, so there wasn’t much wor­ry­ing over what you just did, or whether it did or didn’t work out. ME: Af­ter that meet­ing with the en­gi­neers, we de­cided that be­fore we started the next project, we would in­ter­view all the key peo­ple about their hopes and dreams for that project. Th­ese heart-to-heart con­ver­sa­tions helped us po­si­tion our design in­put with the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the team, and it cre­ated more per­sonal con­nec­tions. You have to cre­ate a move­ment within the or­ga­ni­za­tion to al­low your work to be­come a lot more rel­e­vant. I think that’s one area where in­dus­trial design has a unique ad­van­tage over other forms of design: Model mak­ing pro­vides vi­su­al­iz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

And has this cor­po­rate ethnog­ra­phy served you well?

MS: Let me con­trast that early meet­ing with a pre­sen­ta­tion we did that re­sulted in the Day­dream View V.R. head­set [re­leased in Novem­ber 2016]. We were pre­sent­ing mod­els, and the team leader’s re­sponse to our rec­om­men­da­tion was, “I want to see this prod­uct come to mar­ket. What bar­ri­ers can I re­move for you guys to make this hap­pen?” The rea­son he was so eas­ily con­vinced was that we had spent months not just de­sign­ing it in a vac­uum; we spent a lot of time with en­gi­neers, with mar­ket­ing peo­ple, with sci­en­tists, with in­ter­ac­tion de­sign­ers and end users, so the en­tire team knew we were lis­ten­ing to them. Our de­signs em­bod­ied the col­lec­tive knowl­edge of his whole team. We wouldn’t have been able to gen­er­ate sup­port like that when we first started. That’s one of the big­gest things we learned from in­side Google. At the end of our time there, we felt like we were re­ally sup­ported and in­te­grated into the cul­ture. The ideal is to have peo­ple want to do projects with you, and in a way [that] you want to do those projects.

Day­dream View was your last project at Google, while the Nexus prod­ucts were some of your first. In the in­terim you es­tab­lished a cen­tral in­dus­trial design team for Google X, for chal­lenges rang­ing from au­ton­o­mous air­borne de­liv­ery sys­tems to glu­cose mon­i­tor­ing.

MS: We spent a lot of en­ergy fig­ur­ing out how to in­te­grate prod­uct design into the com­pany, and I think we were suc­cess­ful in plant­ing seeds that they con­tinue to build off of. But from a purely cre­ative stand­point, it was never our as­pi­ra­tion to be­come ex­perts in in­te­grat­ing design into a cor­po­ra­tion. Our real call­ing is ex­plor­ing design it­self, and push­ing dif­fer­ent bound­aries. Most of our en­ergy at Google was spent in build­ing the ma­chine, as op­posed to be­ing re­ally ex­per­i­men­tal with design.

Is that why you left af­ter five years?

MS: We never planned for the job to be per­ma­nent. We felt we were Mike & Maaike, an in­de­pen­dent stu­dio, that hap­pened to be op­er­at­ing within a huge search/ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany. Google just hap­pened to be the sub­ject we were work­ing on at the time. ME: It was like we were there to help Google, not to be­come Google. MS: Also, it was all very tech­nol­ogy-based, and we wanted to swing the pen­du­lum in the other di­rec­tion, to get out of our com­fort zone again.

How would you de­scribe your cur­rent headspace? Has your ex­pe­ri­ence at Google changed your method­ol­ogy? Are you queued up with projects al­ready?

MS: We have a pat­tern of seek­ing out the new and un­ex­pected, and I hope it runs through all pe­ri­ods in our lives. But the other thing we’ve learned is, some­times you need to go back­ward a bit. When we left Google, we pretty sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­man­tled as much com­plex­ity from our lives as we could. It’s like a bow and ar­row. Be­fore you shoot for­ward, you need to pull back, cre­ate some ten­sion, and fig­ure out what to aim for. And you end up mov­ing for­ward very quickly. I think we’re in that stage right now. mike­and­maaike.com

Mi

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