We spoke to Julia Hoffmann, ECD at Google Creative Lab in London about her work, her career and about the representation of women in design and tech.
Julia Hoffmann has an amazing career in design and tech – and yet most of you probably don’t know her. Time to change that! Julia is a mother of three and currently the Executive Creative Director at the Google Creative Lab EMEA in London. She studied Graphic Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York, worked at Pentagram in New York, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the Museum of Modern Art, Etsy in Berlin, EF in Switzerland and joined Google in August 2019. We met her at the Paradigms conference in Barcelona and talked to her about what she does there, how she got there and why women should get on stage more.
(BTW: Julia’s originally from Germany, but has lived abroad for so long that English feels like her first language – that’s why this interview is in English.)
PAGE: On stage at Paradigms, you gave a talk on Inclusive Design. I feel like a lot of people are talking about that right now – but not a lot is happening. Why do you think that is?
Julia: For most designers inclusive design is still seen as a mere checkbox, it has little sex appeal. As a young designer, it used to annoy me when I had to make sure the designs were perfectly compliant with accessibility standards, because I felt it would compromise my design aesthetics. I believe we need to change our mindset and see it as a challenge and a chance to innovate. Accessibility can actually be a breeding ground for creativity!
I realized that three years ago when I joined Google Creative Lab. A creative technologist came to me with the idea for an amazing app: Look to Speak, which enables people to communicate via eye movement. Up until then I didn’t know it was possible for a designer to start that early in the process of product development. My experience was: Everything is done already, now make it pretty and add the marketing comms. Starting at Google, I learned we can be inventors, entrepreneurs, we can do practically anything! Now we expanded that accessibility app into an universal android feature to navigate the entire phone with your facial expressions.
Projects like that are only a small part of the work at Google Creative Lab, right? What else do you do?
Yes, those projects make up around 25 percent of our time. The other 75 percent is a variety of things: marketing campaigns for existing Google products like Google Lens for a Gen Z audience, branding projects like the green »Super G« for sustainability-oriented products, or crisis-response projects like providing critical information for those impacted by the war in Ukraine. Or when Covid hit we had to remind people that Google Classroom exists and quickly instruct teachers how to use it, so they could continue teaching kids, but from home. We also make films about the experiments we do, inspirational films about people who use our products and explainer videos, for example about what sustainability at Google means.
Is the Creative Lab in London autonomous?
Yes and no. Creative Lab started 13 years ago in New York and grew organically. With 100 people it’s still quite small for Google standards. The London Lab is an offshoot, responsible for the EMEA markets. We’re around 25people, sometimes we collaborate with NY. We’re a small, nimble team within Google marketing.
You do a wide variety of work. What kind of disciplines do you have at the lab?
Anything from designers, writers, creators, animators, filmmakers, strategists, entrepreneurs, editors, creative technologists – people who are really curious. Everybody needs to have different hats on – designers also have to write or do research. Everyone can make an idea come to life by a scribble on a page and then we work on it together as a team.
What does your work process look like?
Mostly, we observe what’s going on in the world and within Google and look for what people might need. »Know the user, Know the Magic, Connect the two« is Marketing’s mantra. If we find something, we call this a »spark«. Once it evolves into a real project, one of our techniques is to »jump to the end«. We literally design the poster as if this project had launched, we even write a tweet our CEO would tweet or an imaginary headline in the press. We »fake« it to the point of making a video and forging a UX to walk you through a prototype. We do this when we know we can make this product – it’s just going to take a while. Then we show it to the right people within the company for an internal pitch to get buy-in.
For example, we had the idea of using Google Earth to visualize climate change. After all, there are over 30 years of satellite photos – it’s ideal to show how the world has changed. We made a vision film, convinced the right people and then worked backwards and started producing it. 18 months later, it launched – and it’s pretty impressive. Nobody can deny climate change has an effect on the planet after seeing this. And we obviously made a little video to let people know that this feature now exists in the product.
One of the most talked about trends in branding right now is purpose. What’s your take on that?
I believe it’s all about authenticity. You have to back it up. Consumers, especially Gen Z, are not falling for marketing tricks anymore. When I was working at Esty, I realized what it meant when a company is really serious about something, like sustainability. In the Berlin office, we literally weighed our trash at the end of each day, because we wanted to be a zero waste company. Google has a lot of sustainability initiatives as well, as a matter of fact they are carbon neutral since 2007. I believe AI is going to play a big part in our fight against climate change.
AI is also changing how designers work – just look at DALL-E or Google’s internal tool Imagen. How do you think these tools will change creativity?
It’s not about being replaced by AI. I think the people who won’t use AI will be replaced by people who will use it. It might be similar to the discussion we had when Photoshop came out and some people thought we were taking away the genius of a photographer. But we didn’t. We still need to use our brains and what makes us human! We’re thinking of ourselves very low if we’re afraid of tools. We should have more self-confidence.
You’ve had an amazing career, changing positions every five years. Why?
Five was my magic number (laughs). There are several reasons. For one, I’m always afraid of losing relevance and stagnating or just getting too comfortable. That’s why I like to hop into a completely different industry to learn something new. Starting from zero, being naïve, being allowed to make mistakes – I love that. When I know something too well, I tend to go into autopilot and don’t innovate anymore. I need to challenge myself every once in a while. And since I hate comparing jobs, I jump sideways into different industries.
I started out at Pentagram working for my idol Paula Scher. Where could I go from there? I decided to switch into digital advertising at a company nobody in the design industry knew, but who did quite innovative stuff back in 2007. People told me it was career suicide at the time. But I learned so much over there! Starting new every now and then also keeps you from getting conceited.
For starting at zero you sure get amazing leadership roles.
Yeah, that surprises me too. (laughs)
Why did you choose Google as your next step – or did Google choose you?
Google was always at the back of my mind. They actually asked me to join them at the New York Creative Lab in 2017. It was a year after my twins were born and I knew there was no way I could live up to the job of three little children and moving back to New York. So I sat that out. When they called me again two years later, I decided to give it a try. It was quite scary, jumping into the deep end like that. But I love it. Sometimes, I still feel like I haven’t quite arrived yet.
Are you going to stay longer than five years? (Going on three now.)
I hope so! When I talk to people who have been at Google for 15 years, they tell me they’re still learning. Because the company changes so quickly and there are so many new projects. Because my team is such a hybrid, it’s like an inhouse agency and every project is a surprise. As long as it stays that way, I will be happy there. Also, working at Google feels like you’re witnessing the future! I feel like I’m living three years ahead, because there are all those projects that haven’t launched yet.
How about diversity at Google?
One reason I didn’t join the Creative Lab earlier was their reputation of being very male dominated. I associated that with the »bro culture« I had encountered in advertising, and also, there were stories of working all night. Been there done that, don’t want to do that anymore – not with a family. I don’t want to pretend anymore that I’m just like one of the guys. I don’t want to have to hide the fact that I have three human beings at home who need me. That doesn’t make me a lesser creative or a lesser worker, I am proud to have personal boundaries now.
Diversity is very important to me, especially when building my team. Female, male, parent, non-parent, white, black, everything in-between, young, old, whatever. Especially female senior creatives from an under-represented group are not visible enough. There’s an incredible imbalance there that needs to change.
It’s also important to be a role model, like going up on stage at conferences.
Oh yes, I’ve had long talks about this with other women. I actually feel guilty that I haven’t spoken publicly for six or seven years (since the twins were born). For me, going on stage is a »Kraftakt«. It’s emotionally draining. I’m not especially confident and I don’t like bragging. It just doesn’t come natural to me. I think a lot of women feel like that. So they say no to speaking engagements more quickly. Also, for me it’s a choice of going somewhere to get on a stage – or being with my family after a day at work. I accepted this talk because I do feel like women need to be represented more. Conference organizers probably need to be more stubborn and reach out to more women.
Disclaimer: PAGE was invited to Paradigms 2022 by Frontify. Travel and hospitality expenses were paid by the company. Our coverage is not affected by this and remains independent.