Twenty-five years ago, Robert Wong threw away a promising career as a Bay Street accountant to study design in New York. Now, as executive creative director of Google Creative Lab, the in-house ad hub responsible for marketing most of the company’s products, he champions the human touch. He spoke with Simon Houpt about the importance of empathy to innovation.
In May, you’ll be giving a talk at the C2-MTL conference on commerce and creativity in Montreal. Can you give me a sneak preview? Good question! I don’t think I have my talk figured out. But I generally talk a lot about a perfect day and “human beings first,” and not about companies and marketing and all that stuff. I obsess about what attracts the best talent on the planet and in what conditions people thrive.
There seems to have been an awakening about the importance of workplace culture, as companies experiment with new ways of empowering their employees. Are you encouraged? I feel like a lot of companies in the past decade have put in, you know, a chief people officer or a chief talent officer. I think there’s a necessity for that, because people move so quickly. If you’re really good, probably in the old days no one would know. Now, with tools like LinkedIn, anyone that’s good is instantly known. And money is not enough to entice them, so you have to provide the perfect motivation, the perfect inspiration, the perfect conditions, so that people are constantly challenged.
Your early life sounds like it had challenges: You were born in the New Territories on the poor outskirts of Hong Kong, moved with your family to Holland and then, at age 10, to Toronto. Do you believe a global upbringing encourages empathy? I’d like to think so. I’m not sure. I think there’s probably lots of factors. But yeah, moving around and knowing that, you know, not one thing is right, and knowing that when you’re in a new environment you tend to listen more, just to observe. Like: What’s going on, and how do you fit in? And all that stuff. I think every time you’re in a new place, you pay more attention. So that definitely helped. A new language, having to learn.
And do you believe empathy is an important trait for a designer? I think so. Think of designers as people who solve problems for other people. You’ve got to constantly be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. And, actually, a lot of product innovation comes from: “This is stupid. This sucks. How do you unsuckify it?” And that’s an empathy role.
There’s a strong sense of empathy in much of Creative Lab’s work, like those Google Search Stories. Those little documentaries neatly emphasize the ways people actually use technology in their lives. As amazing as the technology advances are, the search algorithms, the best search results don’t show up on a web page; they show up in people’s lives. We actually Googled to find those stories.
When you were working as an accountant, you said you felt like you were playing a grown-up. You’re 46 years old; do you feel you’re grown-up now? I hope never! [Laughs]I think maybe I use the word “grown-up” in a derogatory way, because it means you have a fixed idea of who you are, and I think the most fun we can have is to constantly evolve and grow.
You could use that in your Montreal talk. I think it’s more like: Hopefully, you never grow up, but hopefully you’re constantly growing up. Hey, that’s a decent line.