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Irene Au: The Architecture of Creative Collaboration

About this talk

Khosla Ventures design partner Irene Au learned some of her most valuable design lessons not from the companies she advises, but from a close collaboration with the residential architects who helped her family design their dream home. From how to choose your clients to anticipating their needs, mindfulness and intention rule when it comes to fruitful creative collaborations.

About Irene Au

Irene Au is design partner at Khosla Ventures, where she works with early-, mid-, and late-stage startup CEOs. Au has unprecedented experience elevating the strategic importance of design within internet companies, having built and led the entire user experience and design teams at Google (2006-2012), Yahoo! (1998-2006), and Udacity (2012-2014). She began her career as an interaction designer at Netscape Communications, where she worked on the design of the internet’s first commercial web browser.

Au also teaches yoga at Avalon Yoga Center in Palo Alto where she is part of the teacher training program faculty and is a frequent author and speaker on the relationship between mindfulness practices, design, and creativity.


Khosla Ventures


Full Transcript


So the last time I was here in 99U was in 2014 when I spoke at this conference for the first time. And at the same time, my husband was at the Santa Clara County Court House bidding in the auction for the probate sale of our next-door neighbor’s house. We won the auction that day and eventually we decided to build a new house for ourselves. We retained a local architecture firm: Fergus Garber Young, with whom I had the pleasure of getting to know just after I had completed construction on the first house that I built, which was the one I was living in when I bought my next-door neighbor’s property.

This project was a rare opportunity for me as a designer to be in the client’s shoes which gave me greater empathy for what it’s like to be managed through a design process. And moreover, this new lot was exactly the same size and shape as the one my other house sits on. And the requirements that we gave FGY for the programming of this house – it was mostly the same. So, this project became an interesting A/B study of what it’s like to work with different creative processes, taste, culture and abilities between the different architectural teams that I worked with on both houses. So, I’d like to think that this new house is a success. This past Saturday, our new house was featured in the American Institute of Architects Silicon Valley home tour which makes this year’s 99U conference the finishing bookend for this house project. We’ve come full circle. Our house was one of five houses the Bay Area AIA chose to feature to celebrate excellence in residential design.

So, the question 99U organizers posed to me was “how do we fix design?” So, today I’d like to share with you seven lessons that I learned through this experience of building my new house which offer practical insights for designers to employ day to day. So, the first lesson: choose your clients intentionally. Now, naturally designers are more apt to be successful if they work with someone who has a clear vision and appreciates what designers can contribute to a project and empowers them. FGY over time has kind of developed a sixth sense for identifying these clients. Fortunately they chose me as much as I chose them. But when a potential client doesn’t fit this profile, they’ll turn down opportunities when their instincts tell them to stay away. Now, as a former leader of in-house design teams, I have found that the ability to choose your stakeholders or internal clients is key to success. For example, at the time that I joined Google, the designers were vastly outnumbered by engineers. And it was painful to not be able to staff design at every project at Google. It was standard practice for designers to be spread thin across multiple projects to the point where they were only ancillary members of the team. So, we turned this dynamic around by using the staffing deficit to our advantage. We prioritized aggressively, turning towards teams where we felt the conditions were right for our success. A commitment to iteration, a strong vision, support for a truly user-centered design process, and tight collaboration and trust between all parties. And instead of spreading team members thin across many projects, we worked on fewer projects really well. And with each successful win, we bought ourselves more credibility and created more demand for our time, which yielded even more interesting and successful projects to choose from.

Now, turning potential clients and stakeholders away is always hard to do. It’s one of the top mistakes I’ve seen design organizations make. Design teams feel a sense of responsibility to the company to service all the parties who need them. And the designers want to help. But in the long run, spreading resources thinly across too many projects doesn’t help the designers or the stakeholders. It doesn’t set them up for success. So, if you’re a creator working with other people, take charge of your destiny and set yourself up for success by choosing your clients intentionally.

Second lesson: present multiple alternatives. Any idea always comes with a cost and tradeoffs. Whether it’s the safe road or the road less traveled. FGY always presented multiple options to help us understand the tradeoffs. In the early stages of design for our new house, FGY worked with bubble diagrams and multiple variations to facilitate discussions with us around the relative flow and placement of spaces and how we conceptually wanted to achieve our goal of bringing in as much natural light as possible. They said to me, “The goal here isn’t to nail down where everything goes, but to test your edges for what you want.” For example, did we want to create many alcoves of private spaces that could be surrounded by windows on three sides, or did we want a giant open space where everyone would congregate? And by making the concepts tangible for us, we could make informed decisions and buy in to every trade off that was made, so that even compromises did not seem like losses, but as wins. Now as creators, sometimes the tradeoffs and the options are so obvious to us that we don’t bother sketching them out or presenting them. Maybe that’s to save time, or maybe it’s out of fear that the client will actually choose the option that we prefer less. But, that time and energy spent on generating multiple alternatives pays forward later by having stakeholder buy in. Stakeholders are reassured that they are being heard, when you’re ready to take the journey with them through thoughtful effort. And by seeing the tradeoffs and constraints as you see them, they can more readily get on board with any compromises, whether it’s with design, time, or budget.

Lesson three: prototype, from low-fidelity to high-fidelity. Once the concept was laid down, and priorities were established as a result of these conversations, the team worked with increasing fidelity with each iteration. Keeping sketches rough in the early stages forced us as clients to stay focused on the high level strategy and priorities without getting stuck in the weeds. In fact, FGY even told me that sometimes even though they have things mocked up in higher fidelity on the computer, they will intentionally show the low-fidelity sketch to clients, just to make sure they manage client expectations and steer the conversation in the direction needed at that time. Now, working in low-fidelity during a project’s early stages might sound like an obvious way for designers to work, but too often I witness a gravitation towards high-fidelity mock ups right away.

Now, sometimes this is driven by the designer because they feel more comfortable and proficient working in high-fidelity. Sometimes, stakeholders say that they cannot visualize the interface in low-fidelity sketches. But there’s a fallacy in the fidelity. Working in high-fidelity mock-ups right away makes it too easy for designers and stakeholders to focus on the wrong things at the wrong time. And these high-fidelity mock ups represent clarity in the design where there isn’t. Low-fidelity enables strategic conversations around esoteric topics that are often hard to have such as concept, vision, values, and priorities. Now, as we continue to flesh out the details of the house, FGY modeled every aspect of the house in a 3D model. The furniture and the art that I considered would populate the model as well and we could fly through the model as if we were navigating a video game. When a 3D model wasn’t sufficient to understand the physical manifestation of our intentions, we would turn to prototyping. So, in my yoga studio, foam core mock ups of light fixtures were built to help us understand how the fixtures would fill the volume of the space to inform what size bubble lamps to use. The handrail for our stairs was mocked up in multiple ways to help up understand the handrail’s relationship to the rest of the stairs. And we hung a life size print out of a lighted art piece, so we could designate the electrical outlet location for it. Prototyping can seem like a waste of resources. It’s time, energy, lumber, code, that will all be thrown away. But sometimes we don’t really understand what the consequences are of a certain design direction until it becomes tangible. If you’re working on digital products and experiences, the ephemeral nature of code and rapid development cycles may provide false comfort in not prototyping. Because you think you can get away with launching something and change it later if it doesn’t work. Every launch is effectively a prototype. Keep in mind that prototypes can take many forms. Even a story board or a cartoon can serve as a prototype in the experience to inform strategic choices. And while it’s true that no design is ever done, especially in software, prototyping saves time and energy over the course of the project and helps the team arrive at the right answer faster.

Lesson four: see the opportunity. Now, the reality of projects is that we do often have to make compromises. Sometimes, we’re so constrained that the design can’t be all that we want it to be. When we have to live with the reality of a compromise or a constraint, it helps to take an optimistic view. When we choose an optimistic view point, we turn negatives into positives and we amplify what makes it great. For example, with only one east facing window in the hallway that connects my daughter’s bedrooms with the bathroom, doesn’t catch much light and it had the potential to be a very dreary place. And yet our long narrow lot constrained the floor plan, which left us with very few alternatives. Our lead architect chose to see the upside. Given that this was the one area in the house where there was ample wall space, he recognized that he could accommodate my treasured books in this hallway. And taking it a step further, he noted that we had space in the attic for a loft, and it would be kind of cool to have a library ladder that would take us straight up through a manhole in the ceiling to get into the loft. He turned what would have been a mundane space in the house and made it a unique feature. A mundane experience is a failure to see. When we are instead present, we begin to see and notice, and only then do we begin to consider possibility. It’s that recognition of possibility that allows us to turn negatives into positives. How do we see beyond the constraint? It’s a skill that has to be actively cultivated. For example, given that there’s a duality to everything, focus on the upside and choose to run with it.

Lesson five: get the details right. Details manifest in design in a number of ways. It starts with anticipating needs before the stakeholder becomes consciously aware of the needs after the product is built. For example, FGY called for the construction of a cabinet inside every water closest in the house for storing extra toilet paper and feminine products and things like that. And as clients, we didn’t even consider asking for a feature like this, but now we’re so grateful for this thoughtful detail. Details also come in the form of being able to see and build delight and beauty into the product. For example, FGY noticed how the loft that shares a wall the cathedral ceiling in our daughters’ bedrooms and so introducing a stained-glass window in this wall created the opportunity for more light to stream into the loft and offer a beautiful decorative detail in all related spaces.

Finally, no amount of design details will matter they’re not executed well. The builder who built my first house completed the house very quickly. Thirteen months from start to finish. That’s with a basement. And this is in contrast with two years for my new house. The framing for my old house, my previous house, it went up quickly, but not precisely, resulting in a critical beam that obstructed a light fixture which meant that the trim for the fixture had to be shaved off to fit in place. And during the ten years that I lived in this house, I could not un-see this aberration. It drove me crazy! [LAUGHTER] It’s why I had to build a new house. [LAUGHTER]

So through the course of my career, I have come to work with a variety of engineers. There are some who don’t see the details, and with them it’s very hard to execute well on design. They don’t see the same things designers see. Then there are others who appreciate design, and they proudly create with love and care, and attention. Now, do we always need the latter when we’re building technology? Not necessarily. It’s important to get the right kind of talent at the right time. But being aware of developers’ proclivity towards having versus craftsmanship allows you to choose the right kind of person to work with if you care about design.

Here are a few examples of how details manifest in the Google experience. Inserting the curser in the text box when the homepage loads and Google Suggest are examples of anticipating needs and addressing needs up front. The doodles that decorate the homepage on special occasions add a decorative flair and an opportunity to celebrate and educate. And here’s a counter example: the fragmented look and feel of Google’s products in 2006 reflect a lack of priority and infrastructure around a common look and feel, in contrast to Google today.

Lesson 6: be the arbiter of taste. FGY prides themselves on having strong plans, good proportions, and a high attention to detail to make functional and beautiful houses. It turns out that proportion and scale are really hard to get right in architecture. How do you make a space open and airy without feeling too voluminous? Cozy and warm without being cramped and dark? How do you know when something will look good and feel right? Over centuries of building structures that we inhabit, humankind has figured out what works well in form, space, and functionality. As builders and designers over many places over many years have resolved a particular pattern, these design decisions are recorded as a pattern. A pattern language has evolved in which architectural design ideas have become archetypal and reusable descriptions. In fact, the words architect and archetype come from the same root: ‘Arche’ which means ‘first’ or ‘master’. Master builders understand the master forms that underlie us all. FGY employ design patterns to create a living space that feels spacious and comfortable at the same time. Well trained designers understand and employ principles of good design, such as principles of alignment, repetition, proportion, contrast, geometry and scale. For example, the notion that presenting a series of windows or doors in odd numbers looks better than even numbers. Or that repeating an architectural detail in multiple places makes for a stronger, more coherent vision across the whole house. Working with established best practice and design patterns, we arrive at the best solution and get the details right more quickly.

And though design for digital experiences is a relatively newer field than the practice of architecture, principles of good design can still apply to how these ephemeral experiences take form. Twenty-five years ago, Apple’s human interface guidelines were the gold standard for design patterns in software. Ten to twelve years ago, we had Yahoo’s pattern library, and now Google’s Material and Framers latest roll outs serve as a way to propagate best practices in digital product design at scale through code across multiple devices.

Now, how do we ensure that we can be an effective arbiter of taste? I’m sure that we have all been in this situation before. So, assuming that you know your stuff, which is really foundational – that you know the principles of good design. Per lesson, one choose your clients who value your taste and judgement as a designer. Now, if it’s too late for that, per lessons two and three: always present multiple options in tangible form to help clients understand their options and help steer them in the right direction.

Last but not least, lesson seven: approach the work mindfully. We came to look forward to our weekly Thursday meetings with FGY, because they were fun and they were generative. Any idea no matter how ludicrous was always received well and even ideas we did not think were possible were never met with a skepticism or no. FGY takes pride in fostering a culture that is collaborative and inclusive. They invest heavily in mentoring where people are used to giving and receiving feedback from each other. Schedules are flexible and they bond like a family taking care of each other and themselves.

It’s my long held belief that what’s most important when it comes to creation is how one works: with love and joy, safety and trust, hope and curiosity. Where there’s love and joy with work, work begins to feel like play, and play feels like exploration and innovation. Where there’s safety and trust, you are more able to be present, not get defensive and be able to listen to your internal voice and to those of stakeholders. And where there’s hope and curiosity, it’s more possible to let go of ideas that don’t land with clients, because we know that we’ll find another way. Beauty and harmony reflect virtues required to create good design: clarity, resilience, patience, empathy, presence. Good design is created through many moments of mindfulness. And when we pause to appreciate good design, that is a gift of a mindful moment passed from the designer to the recipient.

Now, these seven lessons may seem obvious to those who make, but they are actually really hard to do and this is why so many people don’t engage in these activities. In the world of designing experiences where development cycles are significantly shorter than building a house, it’s tempting to tell ourselves that we don’t have time to do these things that need to be done. We take shortcuts in the hope of pleasing the stakeholders by giving them what they think they want very quickly. The experience that I had being in the client’s shoes on this project elucidated for me the activities that are essential to designing well. So, may we all choose to design and may we all make the time and mental space to do it well. Thank you.


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