Google Design Guru Ivy Ross on Why Everything Is Pattern and Vibration
Few executives have the profoundly spiritual presence of Ivy Ross, who more than five years ago joined Google as a vice president, helping to lead the launch of the second edition of Glass at Google X and for the past three years overseeing design for its hardware division. When Ross enters a room, there’s a magical sort of glow around her. The energy she gives off—as was evident at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June, where she was joined by Spencer Bailey onstage in conversation—is contagious. It’s hard not to be charmed by her openness, her enthusiasm, her empathic nature. She is indeed a breath of fresh air within the often hubristic culture of Silicon Valley, and could be seen as a kind of guru—though she would never describe herself as such.
Ross began her career—which has included stints at Calvin Klein, Mattel, Disney, and Gap—as a jewelry designer. And it shows. She’s extremely sensitive to form, color, material, and tactility. She deeply understands the importance of beauty. She believes that energy is embedded in everything, and that it can be felt, positively or negatively, in any object. She’s a shrewd, culturally attuned marketer, too. By the time she was in her mid-20s, she already had jewelry pieces in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Design is in Ross’s blood: She remembers this “incredible curiosity” coming to her at a young age, partly through her father, who worked for the hyper-innovative Raymond Loewy, famous for dreaming up things like Lucky Strike packaging, the Studebaker, various locomotives, and NASA interiors. Ross is someone who throughout life has always trusted her gut, allowing her instincts to lead her through challenging situations, similar to how a drummer might take the reigns and bring a band forward through tricky improvisation. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Ross is also a drummer.)
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Ross and Bailey discuss “design feeling,” as opposed to design thinking, and the role of rhythm in her life and work. She also shares how her spiritual education, from Jungian psychology and sound healing to stone medicine and qigong, has helped fuel her creative work and enliven her corporate career.
Ross discusses her passion for drumming since a young age and why rhythm is so important in her life and work. She adds that she now views herself as a sort of “orchestra conductor,” creating harmony by getting the best out of our each individual on her team at Google.
Ross has long been interested—and invested—in the idea of “resonance,” of sound as a form of medicine. She and Bailey talk about why.
Ross opens up about her spiritual education and evolution, from Jungian psychology to energy medicine to qigong.
Ross looks back at her childhood, which included learning about making and manufacturing from her inventive father, who for a time worked for the famed designer Raymond Loewy. She also discusses her experience as an executive at Mattel and her early career as a jewelry designer.
Ross shares her most interesting findings from her time so far at Google. She also elaborates on the power of neuroaesthetics—a focus of hers in recent years, which recently came to life as a Google experience, called “A Space for Being,” during this year’s Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair in Milan.
Spencer Bailey: Welcome, Ivy, to Time Sensitive.
Ivy Ross: Thank you.
SB: I wanted to start this conversation on the subject of drumming. I understand you started playing the drums as a kid. And, of course, now people might recognize you, or know you, as a VP of design at Google. I’m sure drumming is not the first thing people associate you with.
IR: [Laughs] Well, I drum to a different beat, or I beat to a different drum—whatever they say. That’s consistent.
SB: [Laughs] Tell me about rhythm and drumming. How did that become a part of your life?
IR: I was a really creative kid in my little lavender bedroom. I created my own world. I used to make collages, and I started drumming. My little brother loved music, and sometimes, to bond us, I’d call him into the room, and we’d start drumming together.
I loved the fact that I had a Rogers set of drums. And there weren’t too many girl drummers then. I was in an all-boy band. I wanted to disprove that women couldn’t be drummers. Actually, you have to keep up different rhythms in a traditional set of drums, something going with your foot versus your hands. I think [drumming] was the deep resonance of getting my heart in coherence. Whenever I’d get out of sorts or upset with what was going on in the family, I’d go drum. I think it was a way of getting into the flow again, or into the beat.
Fast forward: One of my teams—I think it was a coach who bought me an African drum as a gift, and then I stretched my own drum out of deerskin, more like [American] Indian drums. Different forms of drumming have always been a thread, when I think about it, between starting out with the Rogers rock-and-roll set of drums; to the African drum—it was so great when my team bought it for me, because it was an acknowledgement that they know who I am; to this one out of deerskin.
SB: Mm-hmm. What sort of music were you playing back on that Rogers kit?
[Drumming is] what got me started in my interest in sound and vibration. You could see how music was an emotional trigger for people, to bring them together, so I started asking the question of why and what is between us that connects us. I would notice that when people got in rhythm together. when you’d go to concerts, you felt this connection like no other place. Even my working with teams—because I started as an individual artist, but I really love working in a team—there’s no better feeling than when you’re in the groove with a bunch of people doing things that you couldn’t do individually. A band does that. You feel that in the audience of a concert. It’s that coming together in a powerful way that I really get excited about.
SB: Yeah, I often say—when interviewing people on stage and there are multiple people—that the moderator’s kind of like the drummer. You have to put the beat down first, and then let the other people do their thing. But if you put down the wrong beat, it could go awry. So rhythm is actually an important part of what we’re talking about here.
IR: Absolutely. I believe that everything is pattern and vibration. When you think of it, that beat that you’re laying down is a pattern on which everything can build, and I’ve seen you in the spot. You’re great at it.
SB: I’m going to try not to get off-beat today.
IR: [Laughs] Uh oh, with the two of us, that could be tough.
SB: How do you think drumming and rhythm come into your day-to-day work, whether it’s with Google or just thinking about your career at large? How have you evolved how you work and lead in your day-to-day?
IR: I think of myself as an orchestra conductor in the work that I do with my team. My job as vice president is to know all of the instruments deeply and really well—to understand the different tones and frequencies of these instruments, which are people who each have their own gifts and talents.
My job, I believe, is to start by together agreeing on what kind of music do we want to play, what piece what do we want to put out in the world, what do we want to say with the products we design. I use this analogy and metaphor—as an orchestra conductor—and they’ve told me that works for them, because then my job is to, as we’ve aligned, watch as the process takes place and sometimes say, “A little less drums [signals left], a little more trombone [signals right].”
IR: “You sit out this song” and “Oops, that’s not harmonic, let’s tweak that color.”
I didn’t go in with that intention [to be a conductor], but I think it was two years ago, I was asked, “What is your job?” And it just came to me. I said, “I’m the orchestra conductor.” I think of it that way versus “vice president of design.” I’m not doing the making myself, but I’m playing this different role. I think it’s because I’ve done the making myself that I could be a good orchestra conductor. I don’t believe you can be a good orchestra conductor without playing the instrument, because you understand the art of it. That’s how it comes into being. Also, for me, music and rhythm and pattern, it’s a part of—I see everything as “and both,” not either/or.
I think a lot of my philosophies—”It’s not data or intuition; it’s data and intuition”—are from when you listen to music and understand it’s “both and.” As you say, you’re working on different levels. There’s a beat, and then there’s overtones. [Drumming] has taught me how important the spaces between the notes are, which is a design philosophy—negative space, positive space.
SB: It has a ton to do with time.
IR: Totally. Because you need the pause to appreciate when you’re on. You need to be off. And I think we’ve gotten away from appreciating the need for that rhythm in our lives. I try and be conscious of it. I give out a lot of work. And you need input. So it’s this pattern of input and output, or on again, off again. And yeah, I try and do that both with the team—I bring in a lot of people to give them input and inspire them—and then there’s time to work. The same thing around stopping to reflect on things. You know, doing and being.
SB: What’s your musical taste, and how does it affect your being?
IR: Well, it’s so interesting, because I’m part of the Resonance Group, which is a bunch of cool people deep diving into understanding resonance. One of the members has gone around the world, going into caves to understand what’s the sound resonance in these caves. They are designing a bunch of instruments and experiences that you can almost dive into to have a resonant experience. Often, I’m listening to—they’ll send me their latest adventures of what they’ve done as a group, and so it’s no music that anyone would know.
But right now I’m more interested in resonant frequencies than actual tunes. Different frequencies can help put you in different states of mind, and, in fact, at Google now we have these two kinds of beds by Tune Studio that you can lie down on for fifteen minutes. You can program it. It uses transducers, frequencies, to put you in different—theta, beta, delta. You can set it for ultimate creativity, and you listen through headphones. The transducers have some of the beats really to help people when they get stuck, to clear their minds. I know that some companies, Google included, have a little meditation room, but for some people that doesn’t work, especially when you’re at work and you’ve got the chatter going on in your brain. This idea—that you could just book a fifteen-minute session to lie down and be put in these states of mind through sound and frequencies—I personally think is the future. Instead of taking the cigarette break or the coffee break, or [going to] the candy machine, the future of work is going to be to understand these states of mind, and be able to enjoy them or use them when you need them. I’m more listening, and playing with, and experimenting with these different kinds of harmonics or frequencies and how they may activate our cells differently.
IR: Absolutely. I once had a teacher—because I’ve been studying sound and vibration for thirty years—who did an amazing thing. When we’re in our mother’s uterus, it’s all water, and bone conducts sound the most. When we’re in there during those nine months, we’re feeling really good. He recorded what it sounds like being inside, floating. You know, because you’re a little mass in relation to a lot of water. No wonder. It is a “sonic massage,” because you’re hearing your mother’s heartbeat. The drums are the circulatory system, the digestion. It’s like you’re swimming, no pun intended, in a sonic-massage bath of sound, of symphony. Our ears apparently develop before our eyes even do in utero, so it’s no wonder we’re more sensitive to sound. Emotional triggers happen because when we were our happiest, and being taken care of in there, we were surrounded by sound.
You know what the difference is between sound versus noise? You’re absolutely right. I know there was an artist [Stanza] that was doing a piece on the sound of each city, trying to do a composite of the sound of each city. But I’m thrilled that—I mean, I was using the term “sound bath” thirty years ago, and my friends thought I was crazy. Now they’re like, “Can we come to your house and get a sound bath?”
SB: Oh, It’s a thing.
IR: Yeah, I have this—in New Mexico, outside of Sante Fe—a sound studio. People think I have a mixer board. It’s like, nope—it looks like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There’s a wood pyramid that you climb in that has sound tubes, and I play you, from all angles. You dissolve and become a soundwave. You’ll have to come out and visit.
IR: I have a monochord table that you lie on that has a whole cup on your head, like a guitar, because that’s the way sound comes through, and then underneath is strings. And I play you from below. The reverberation through the wood and your spine creates—I’ve had people in there just start weeping because they’ve never … you know, what happens is, your kind of ego dissolves, and your mind just follows the sound. It feels like you’re back in that place when we were all sound.
SB: I can’t help but think that, in this time of prescription drugs—and yes, you hear about doctors prescribing people to go to a museum or something—but I can imagine this kind of space being very healing for a massive population that’s not currently being healed.
IR: I think that’s why you’re seeing so many of these sound baths popping up, because it’s a way to get different people just to the same wavelength. And give them a moment of being in that space where you’re out of your cognitive mind. We’ve gotten to a place where we’re optimizing our rational mind, and we have forgotten some of the irrational. To me, the arts got pushed aside when we thought it was all about the rational mind.
I think why people are gravitating toward [sound baths] and they don’t even realize it—unconsciously, it’s giving you a break, it’s taking you out of your mind, no pun intended, to a different place, where we’re intuitively, absolutely craving.
I do want to say something. You talked about sound as medicine. Over the past thirty years, I’ve studied with some of the best teachers who were pioneers in this way, and one of them [Dr. Jeffrey Thompson] got a grant to decode the periodic table of elements, like calcium, magnesium, because math and music are totally related. So he would take the mathematical formula for calcium, and turn it into a musical riff. And then he would play it. His vision—which I totally subscribe to—is that in the future, if you play that riff, it’s the frequency of that element, it’s like homeopathic medicine. You listen to it, and it goes into your body. It’s doing a similar thing that having taken calcium into your body does. His vision is that some day we will have songs composed for us, music that you wake up to in the morning, and for twenty minutes you listen to this song that was customized to the frequencies of what your particular body needs. It’s almost like personalized medicine being sung to you. I love that idea.
I’m hanging in there to see that happen, and anything I can do to make that happen, because I’ve seen the results that sound can have on your body. This idea that you could—isn’t it in Africa that the women create a song when their babies are born? Maybe they knew intuitively how important this was. [Editor’s note: We recommend this sharp 2015 blog post by activist and educator Aida Mandula for a thoughtful take on the African birth song.] I’m signing up for a future like that.
SB: [Laughs] I think we should all sign up.
IR: Yeah. [Laughs]
SB: We’re on the topic of psychology. I know Jungian psychology is something that you studied early on. How did you get into that? And how did you get into meditation, and some of these things we’re talking about?
IR: When my father passed away at a young age, at 65—and he was a big influence on my life, having been a designer—I started having these dreams with all these images, and I wanted to understand them. I’m someone who’s always been a curious person. I think that’s why I was able to invent certain metal techniques [as a jewelry designer], because I keep asking why. So I went to the C.J. Jung Institute in New York to look for a book, which I thought would explain what some of these images are, and, of course, the right book fell off the bookshelf. Then, on the way out, on the desk—they had this twelve-day intensive class that was supposed to be for shrinks. I thought, Well, I’d love to do that. It was all aspects of Jungian psychology, like how they were interpreting kids’ drawings, getting insight from that.
I knew that all there is in the world, from a very young age, is our relationship between each other, within ourselves, and with the natural world. I wanted to understand how that all worked. As usual, I was the only creative artist amongst all of these psychologists at the Jung Institute, but I absolutely loved it, just getting information to understand. I don’t think anyone knows everything. It’s about taking in bits of information, connecting the dots for yourself, and processing it. My desire to understand why is sound so powerful, why do we love music, what makes me create these images in my brain at night—it was just the beginning of wanting to understand as much as possible about life and wanting to connect the dots.
Jungian psychology taught me about synchronicity, which happens to me all the time. People say you’re lucky, and I don’t think I’m lucky. I think what happens is, I’ll be thinking about something I strongly believe in, and somehow it attracts what needs to happen next. I’m so grateful that I understood a lot of that early on—that was in my twenties—because I was able to live by some of these concepts. And follow my intuition maybe more than I would have. And beat my own drum. And again, I still don’t think I have all the answers, because life wouldn’t be fun if I thought I did. It would lead me to this path that I went on, this dual path. The design career was on one track, and then this idea of wanting to understand the mysteries of life and how they all connect was a simultaneous track.
I feel like I can give out what I do in my work life as long as I’m constantly feeding new information, because it does actually affect my level of creativity and thinking, taking all of this in. I go back to the Jungian institute and the right book would fall off the bookshelf again. So I would read something that felt true, and I would say, “Well, I want to understand, how do I learn more about that?” It’s been this constant chasing and layering of new information that gets me very excited. I mean, I read about a man [Fabien Mamen] who was bombarding cancer cells in France with musical notes. He was a jazz musician, and I thought, Wait a minute, that makes sense, because we use ultrasound to break up kidney stones and opera singers can find the resonant frequency of a glass and break it, so why couldn’t we decode that?
The good news is, working in my field, the corporate jobs I’ve had have afforded me the ability to hop on a plane on a Friday night and go be with someone like that man for a weekend and understand that. I was a crazy person. I’d be back on a flight on Sunday night and be at work on Monday, and people would say, “Wait a minute, you were just in France over the weekend?!” When I’m learning new information, that, I think, is vital. My adrenaline is flowing, and I can do anything. So yeah, I think it went from Jungian psychology to then studying energy medicine.
SB: Yeah, you got into qigong?
IR: I got into qigong, yeah. Actually, the man who’s been burying the cancer cells—it’s called Tama-Do Academy. It was sound, movement, and color, which are very related. We’re all vibrating atoms, and we’re designed to be dynamic and to keep moving. All of sound moves. Sound waves, color transmits. I recently realized that what I love is making the invisible visible. That’s the next thing we’re moving towards. All of these things that are invisible that have influence on us really need to start being understood, because again, it’s not either/or; it’s “and both,” it’s the invisible and the visible. There’s so much around the invisible world that we don’t understand.
SB: Yeah, it shapes us and—
IR: Every moment, the energy between people. Are you sucking my energy? Are you giving me energy? Just understanding how that operates. It’s more fun when you start to understand that world emerging.
SB: I think it’s interesting that this traumatic moment in your life—your father’s passing—led you down this spiritual path. Could you talk a little bit about that?
IR: I was always inquisitive, and he taught me, ironically, to be inquisitive. I grew up in a house that was pretty ahead of its time. Andy Warhol made a movie in it, because its materials and objects were forward-thinking. He would say, “Ivy, look up at that lighting fixture, see how it’s attached. What else is attached in the world like that?” Or “What can you take from that attachment? Extrapolate that information, apply it to something else.” He taught me how to look at everything and see it, and learn from it, and then apply it, constantly taking in visual information. He created this incredible curiosity in me. I think that carried through.
When he died and I started getting these images, it was that same little voice in my head that was like, “Notice those images. What are they? What do they mean? Why are they there? What else can be used like that?” It was almost like we continued our dialogue together, but through a different methodology. Sometimes, even now, I feel certain things happen, and I have a sense that he made them happen for me, so I’ll thank him.
It was funny, we had a real love/hate relationship in that I so admired him. I wanted to be like him, because he taught me this world of seeing things beyond what they appeared to be. I watched him. After working for Raymond Loewy, the famous designer in the 1950s, he then had his own company, Creative Designs International. He had a small team of ten people, and he would take me down to his office when I was a kid, just drooling and dribbling. But I was like a sponge. I remember observing the way he treated his team. He would find an artist and turn them into a designer. He had a really interesting way of acknowledging people’s gifts and talents, and working with them. He taught me a lot.
I was the firstborn—a girl—and he took me to car shows, because he was a car designer at the time. I think I became a metalsmith because, when I was five years old, he’d put me right in front of the hubcap, because that was my height. He taught me how to get into the flow state. While he was looking at the girls in miniskirts and go-go boots opening the car doors at the New York Coliseum car show, I was five years old and eye level with the hubcap, so I started to study—
SB: The details.
IR: The details, how hubcaps were constructed.
IR: But back to the love/hate: I love him for everything he inspired me to do. And then I remember, when it came time to go to college, I said I wanted to be like him and go to Pratt [Institute] or design school. And he said, “Ivy, marry someone rich, be a schoolteacher, and have your summers off.” I was like, “How dare you rob me of my dreams! You inspired me to this place.” I realize that he did it out of love, because he had a hard life. It wasn’t easy being a designer in those days, and he was absolutely doing it to protect me out of love, and say, “Have a simpler life.” But I have so much to thank him for because that propelled me to kind of say—and I think I’m thinking of this because you said “the trauma of when he died”—in my body, at that moment, it was, “How dare you rob me of my dreams when you gave me these dreams! I’ll show you!” [Laughs]
IR: And so I became a bit of a rebel. I’m going to live out my dreams! And do what I want to do and feel like I’m good at.
SB: The true rebel with a cause.
IR: Yeah, I guess so. I think there’s this deep connection, which at that time propelled me: I hated what he said to me. But I love what he said to me, because now I look back and (a) I know it was out of love for me and (b) it probably drove me harder than I would have driven before.
SB: And I imagine there’s probably a generation of women a lot like you who now are in these positions of power and seeing similar success after having fathers who told them something similar.
IR: Yeah, I have met a number of them for one reason or another. I just met one yesterday who said that her father—he only had money to send two of the kids to college, out of seven, and he picked the men because he felt that was more important. She then ended up working her way through and paying for her own education, and became this huge leader. I won’t say who she is, but I think there’s a bit of—my generation was the first generation of women to be told, “Go! Go!” I believe the universe put us there for balance. I don’t think, again, it’s either/or; it’s “and both.”
I think we need to be, no matter what body we’re in, fully integrated and have tools that are assigned to femenine principles and masculine principles. But I do see a similarity: There is usually a story behind those women that I now see as leaders having to overcome something, because I know, when we first went into the workforce—in fact, there was a woman [Joanne Gordon] who wrote a book, [Be Happy at Work: 100 Women Who Love Their Jobs, and Why], because a lot of women then retrenched about ten years later. They realized it wasn’t all it was made out to be when you had children. It was hard to find childcare. [Joanna] had done this book on the “happy 100.” It was amazing—she had found 100 women where it didn’t matter whether you were a CEO or a postmistress. She interviewed each of us in soundproof booths. We didn’t hear each other’s stories. She took our histories of the jobs we had, why we liked them, why we didn’t like them, and we didn’t know what she was going to do, but she then put us in these archetypal buckets. She paired down the essence of what she heard from each of us.
I was in the section called “The Builders.” I hadn’t thought of myself as a builder before, and there was another chapter, on “The Directors.” She had all of these archetypes, and she was able to show, through these interviews, that each of us was happy in what we did, because at some deep level we were satisfying this archetypal need that we had. It didn’t matter what you called us, and I don’t care today—”vice president,” “senior vice president,” “designer,” “conductor.” We were all living out this nugget of this need, and for me it’s a need to build, whether it’s building an orchestra, a product. It’s very fractal for me. It’s everything as small as product, to teams, to brands, to ideas. I thought it was brilliant that when women, if you’re living out that nugget of archetype—and I think it’s related to men, as well—but those were the women who, if you could find that, and even if they weren’t conscious of it, they were living it out in what they were doing. They tended to be happier than women who were just taking jobs.
SB: This is so interesting. When you were saying this, I immediately thought of your time at Mattel, where you worked from 1998 to 2004 as a senior vice president of product design and brand image. While you were there, you ran a think tank called Project Platypus. Out of that think tank came the Ello Creation System, which was literally a toy made to teach young girls to build.
IR: At Mattel, we were cranking on the realities and not putting enough time on the possibilities, which often happens at companies, because you have to keep up the realities and keep the business moving. But then there comes a time everyone talks about innovation, creativity. And I thought, We need the time to ask “What if…?” questions. What if there was a building toy for girls? What if there was a brand that was funny? Because we didn’t have time to explore those possibilities, I kind of peeled off twelve people from what they were doing. At the time, I realized, Wait a minute I have three hundred creative people working for me in various—they were engineers, hairdressers, clothing designers. I was in charge of Barbie and all the girls’ toys. I thought, I have a mini company, I can do this, I can try this my way. It was actually the first time that I brought together the two worlds that we were just talking about—the world that I was simultaneously investigating of sound, psychology, all the things that interested me. I had just turned forty, and I remember a little voice in my head. I thought, Why did I become a senior vice president? That was never my aspiration. Some people go to business school, they have a five-year plan—I want to be this, I want to be that. And that was never how I operated. I thought, Okay, I’m going to do the real work. I’m going to try to get us to create together differently. It was extremely brave.
I remember I bought sound chairs with my own money because I knew the company would think I was nuts if I said we needed these. I said to my sound guys, “I’m going to do everything for these twelve people.” Like when I was my most creative—when I was winning awards, doing the [jewelry] design work on my own—what was I giving myself, how could I give that to others? And if I could just do that, what would that look like, feel like? Would it be successful? I know that when I was getting my best ideas, it was when the left and right half of my brain were coming together. I said, “That’s a muscle, can we exercise it like we exercise our arm muscle at the gym? Can we do that with the brain?” And he said, “Yeah, Ivy, if we create music with binaural beats”—this was fifteen years ago, I think, and [binaural beats were] not in the public eye. So he made a series of CDs with binaural beats, and I had the designers listen for twenty minutes a day, to exercise that muscle. We took the twelve-week development cycle, and I said, “The first two weeks, I’m going to give them the gift.” The first week was connection with each other, and deeply knowing each other.
I think creativity comes from trust and freedom, and a lot of companies don’t take the time to create that trust. They just put people in teams and say, “Go create!” The first weeks with these twelve people were about really learning together, and learning about each other and connecting. When you learn new things together, you tend to be on the same playing field, you have a shared language. So I brought in a Jungian psychologist that talked about patterns in the field, how you read patterns in a field. I brought in someone who was talking about Whole Systems Thinking, because I said, as we develop these brands or toys, we have to keep the whole in mind. Then, the second week was what I was talking about before: input/output, giving them the gift of input before I ask for output the other ten weeks. The input, in this case, I thought of, What are the elements if I had this as a freelance assignment? If I was going to do a building toy, I’d want to understand building blocks, what are the ways different things can connect and repeat. So I brought in architects to talk about connection. I found stimuli to put into the system that would kind of pull apart the assignment and break it into parts and inspire people in parts.
After each speaker, we had what we called “the Desk of Twelve Brains” on the wall. I’d say, “Quickly, what stuck with you? What word?” I’d really try to tap into their unconscious before they started to judge their ideas. Then you started to see the world’s on the wall, and then we could see reading patterns in the field—the connections—and the ideas would come from that place. I ended up winning the chairman’s award for sustainability at the whole company because of this Project Platypus I had developed, which, when I went to him with the output of the first one, he was like, “Ivy, is this a company you want to buy?” And I was like, “No, no, no, this is done by the same people that we have in little gray boxes, working together differently. I just took them out of those gray boxes and totally changed the trajectory.”
It was interesting, at first, when I asked no output for the first two weeks, but giving them the gift of input and connection, people were very nervous. It was like, “Well, I don’t understand, we’re not doing anything.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, we’re doing things. It’s just in a different form than you’re used to doing.” My hypothesis going in: If you spend the time up front [connecting] in those two weeks, then the next ten weeks would be that much more productive, and be much more fun. It really was—I mean, people were clutching. They didn’t want to go back to the regular way of working.
The last thing I’ll say about Project Platypus, because it’s relevant to what we spoke about before, is that one of the components, when I got into the corporate world—because I was a metalsmith and artist at first—the great thing is, I really first observed it and would be so … I was watching this thing called “brainstorming,” and sometimes four people could brainstorm for half hour and amazing ideas and things would come out. And sometimes a different four people, two hours and nothing would happen. I said, “Hmm, they must be on the same wavelength.” Because you can’t always choose people to be on the same wavelength. So I said to one of my other sound teachers, “I wonder, could we get people on the same wavelength? Because if I could get designers on the same wavelength, or people working together [on the same wavelength], we could spiral to new places and new ideas a lot quicker than if we weren’t so …” He said, “Let’s try this.”
So this was part of Project Platypus. He brought in his sound equipment. We had each person toned: just open their mouth and go, “Ahhhh.” He was able to capture their range of frequency. And then we found a frequency at which they all overlapped. Because everyone has a range, he took that frequency, imbedded it in music, octaves up and octaves down, and I played that every morning at Project Platypus. Which, if you understand the concept of entrainment—which is when coo-coo clocks start swinging after they’ve been together for a while—the idea is that, if you can go in the same place, there’s a predisposition to come to that place together. So we would listen to music—you couldn’t even tell our frequencies were imbedded in octaves up and octaves down—while we were creating. I maintain, in part, that’s how some of the great work that came out of there and netted the chairman’s award. It was really getting people on the same wavelength. That’s where my studies in science—I started to think about language. You know, when you say “he’s got good vibes” or “she’s got good vibes” or “we’re on the same wavelength,” there’s science to that.
SB: Yeah, I mean, this gives the phrase “on the same wavelength” a whole new meaning.
IR: Totally! [Laughs] That, for me, is taking the invisible and almost making it tangible. We don’t see wavelengths, but they exist.
IR: Oh my god, there’s so much to talk about! [Laughs]
SB: We’ll do that in a little bit. Before we get there, though, I wanted to go back in time to your life, in the late ’70s, early ’80s, as a jewelry designer. Talk to me a little bit about that. I know you started a jewelry design company called Small Wonders. You were one of the first jewelers to use titanium, niobium—metals that could reveal a spectrum of colors when they were charged with electricity.
IR: Yeah, which was no accident that I love color. You know, it’s funny, you look back full circle to when you were a maker, what you were intrigued with. I started with metal. I think I was always making things with my hands when I was a kid because my dad had materials around.
SB: You’d gone to FIT.
IR: I think metal because of looking at hubcaps [when I was a kid attending car show with my father], and seeing how it was created, and, of course, being trained at FIT for jewelry design. Jewelry design, to me, was—it didn’t have to be metal; it could be plastic. It was incredibly creative. It was a way of someone making a statement about themselves. I was also a psychology minor in school and an art major, so those two things kept playing off of each other a little bit. Then I would watch how certain jewelries can be very expressive, and certain ideas would come into play also with how society was operating. Because I was playing with niobium and titanium—which, when light hits it, and you charge it at different voltages, it rearranges the molecular structure. When light hits it, it appears in different colors.
I would ask myself questions like, “Well, if it’s eighty volts at blue and fifty volts at orange, can I cut back through the oxide layer and see the spectrum of colors?” Which I guess nobody had ever asked, because people were just charging it at different voltages, but leave it to me, the curious kid, to want to know. I would spend hours in the studio trying to use different equipment to cut back through the oxide layer. One day—breakthrough!—it happened, and it created this ribbon-like texture.
Anyway, I won awards, museums started collecting my work. The best thing that came out of that is that, at twenty-four, having my work in maybe ten museums around the world, my ego trip lasted I think two weeks, and then life was back to normal. The greatest gift is that I realized life is not about the end goal. For so many people it’s like, “If only …” If only I got to be president, if only I got my work in a museum. I realized life is not about that; it’s about the journey. That was the huge gift that came out of that period of time, I believe, because to have that understanding at an early age made me feel like my ego was satisfied, and it made me feel like I want to go on this journey with other people—I want to understand it, and I want to increase the understanding and bring beauty into the work. It opened up a whole other world.
The Small Wonders thing is a really interesting story, because people say something like, “How did you get confidence in your intuition?” It was when I graduated FIT. I had a job working two days a week for a jewelry company, and I was fresh out of school. I was always showing this company, “Oh, I think we should do this, because this is the idea that I feel is coming.” And they would look at it and say, “Oh, Ivy, do something more like this.” They bought something that was already out in the market, and they were asking me to do a variation of that theme. I thought, Well, that’s weird. I thought they hired me for my creativity, and this went on for, like, luckily, three days a week. Two days a week, I had my own studio in the East Village, where I was still making things by hand, because I wanted to keep that craft up. For them, I was designing on paper there. I was continuing to make my own work, and it was a year of this back and forth of—I consistently fell into what I felt was coming, but they would tell me to do something like this.
Then I was walking through Bergdorf Goodman, wearing some pins that I had made in my studio, on my own time, and this woman comes up to me and says, “Oh! Those are incredible. Where did you get them?” I said I made them, and she pulls me into her office. She turned out to be the buyer of the jewelry department, and said, “What’s the name of your company?” This is no joke: I looked down, and I go, Well, they’re kind of small, and they’re kind of wonderful. I said, “Small Wonders.” I was, like, twenty-five or twenty-six. I didn’t understand that you should probably see if the name was available, etc., etc. She writes me an order for, like, sixty thousand dollars’ worth of goods, which I knew I needed thirty thousand dollars to buy the material. I went to the first women’s bank, and I thought, Jeez, it’s called the First Women’s Bank, I’m going to get a loan. They said to me, “Well, do you have a card? Do you have a house?” I’m like, “No.” I ended up borrowing the money from old boyfriends and relatives—which you should never do, because they want to have lunch with you every week to see how their money’s doing, and then you don’t have time to actually make their money work for you.
Anyway, I ended up delivering the order sixty days later. This was the pinnacle of my early career in that I was there, and I had to keep my two-day-a-week job, three-day-a-week job. I was there doing my thing, and my boss at the time comes in and says, “Oh my god, Ivy, there’s this new company called Small Wonders out there, and you should be doing something like this.” She had bought my own work. I stood up, and I said, “I am Small Wonders.” And I quit. It was an incredible experience.
There had been a case, I forgot to say, that had went into Bergdorfs—it didn’t have my name it; it had the company name—with these new pieces. My boss at the time had actually went in and bought some of this that she thought was great. She wanted me to be inspired by it, and I had been the creator of it.
My partner, Lorraine [Rosenbaum], who had gone to FIT with me, the two of us had that company for a few years. It was great because we didn’t have our own factories. We could bounce back and forth if it felt like gold was coming into play versus plastics versus fabric. I mean, we could be whatever we wanted to. And then our volume had gotten so big that we would have had to buy our own factory and commit to “Are you going to do gold or silver?” and that took all the creativity out of it. That’s when I started working for other people, because the phone was ringing off the hook with other companies. We were getting lots of press, and people were saying, “Would you like to come inside and work for us ?” I hadn’t even thought about that, but the time was right, because I realized, Either we buy our own factory, but that would have made us less creativity, or …
SB: So this was sort of your entrée into the corporate world. I know you worked for Swatch Watch; Liz Claiborne; Outlook Eyewear, which was Bausch + Lomb; Coach; Calvin Klein. Tell me a little bit about this path. I know you mentioned earlier that you had never expected to be a VP, but—
IR: I just I think I went in with this fascination of—you know, it’s perfect, though, for me, because I was so interested in people. I understand, from having had my own experience of being highly creative—and there was a time when it was actually a really creative time, especially in the fashion world in New York, where big companies would want to understand creativity and innovation …
Like I said, when I got it in, I would cock my head like a little cocker spaniel and say, “Really?! Is that really the way you think this happens?” Because I had just come from having my own experience of it, and my own strength of what I knew to be true. I think it enabled me to be brave.
I started out as a designer, and very quickly became a design manager, and then a design director because, just like my dad did, I really had a good sense of people. I was hiring artist friends of mine and saying, “No, really, you should design.” When I went to art school, it was: an artist puts a piece of their soul on a pedestal and stands back and hopes that someone resonates with it—which is a beautiful sharing—and a designer, as my dad was, solves problems that millions of people will enjoy. One is not better than the other. I’ve done both. It’s just a different way of seeing.
I’ll never forget some of my artist friends who were painters, etc. They needed to make a living, and I said, “No, really, design”—at that time with artists when “design” was a dirty word. But I kind of helped teach them how to apply that mindset to solving problems in unique ways. I got a reputation for running design departments, being very innovative in working with people, and inspiring them to solve problems in different ways. It actually became really fun. I remember, in the early days, people would go, “Well, what are you? You’ve designed this, and you’ve done this.” Some people become a shoe designer and they stay a shoe designer their whole life. For me, as I said earlier, I have to love what I’m doing—the output—but it’s the process and how we do it more so than the actual commodity.
Underneath it all is the aspect of being a builder, and building things together with others. It really didn’t matter whether it was building a toy versus building a shoe; it was the same approach no matter what the commodity. I have always said—and I think it comes back to this idea of life is a journey—that I never want to do the exact same thing twice. Intentionally, when I had felt like it was time, that I had done all I could do, once the job becomes still water, I would always take the next job based on … I think it has to be a two-way street: What am I going to learn that I haven’t learned? And what’s the new experience on the journey? And are they going to use me for what I do best? It has to be reciprocal. It has been fantastic to live that way—and that’s my own understanding of who I am intuitively—to have these different experiences and take them with me and apply myself.
It’s often jumping into the unknown. Friends go, “You haven’t done that before, what makes you think you could do that?” And I said, “Well, design is about solving problems. You have to understand the customer, who you’re serving, and understand the craft or art in how to design or make.” I said, “I love deep-diving into solving those problems with others,” and the “with others” is really important, because I remember actually bringing the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who!—it’s a book that I kept reading over and over and over again. I think it had this profound effect of when Horton—it was the people joining hands collectively that, if you remember in the book, saved … they couldn’t be heard with just one person. These people all held hands and together, made enough noise, to change the result.
SB: A very prescient book right now.
IR: Yes. [Laughs] That always comes back to me. When I say what am I trying to achieve, and when I see my team together, when we achieve something or put something out in the world that people respond to, I’m like, “I don’t think any one of us could have done that by ourselves, but by joining together, we did something.” And that book [Horton Hears a Who!] just keeps coming back into my mind. Books are, especially when you’re a kid, a huge influence, because you keep reading them over and over again. Kids love the repetition. But I started to think about the books I read over and over again and what they taught me. I don’t know how we got there.
SB: I’m curious about these different chunks of time in your life. These different periods of deep exploration, but also venturing into the unknown. What’s been your approach to time in that context? How do you think about time?
IR: I cherish time. I’m very conscious of what I put my time into, because I think it’s that input/output. I’ve lived by that, actually. It’s like, Am I putting my time into the things that will bring me back the most joy, or the most learning? And that doesn’t necessarily mean—between these things, I do sit on the couch and just be. The time is not spent being as much as it’s spent exploring something I know feeds me consciously.
Coming to New York for eight weekends this year, taking this stone medicine class that has nothing to do with anything, other than [the fact] it’s the next piece of information I need to understand—the information that stones that have been around before we’ve been around hold and contain energy, and by virtue of studying this with this Chinese master [Dr. Jefrey Yuen], I’m learning new things about how materials form in these stones, how color patterns arrive in the world. My intuition was, I have to understand this from this man, and then I started getting these gifts of things that are influencing the way I see other things. For me, that is time well spent. Sometimes, I don’t even know why I’m spending time doing it initially. But it becomes really clear. I think I live by this internal intuitive rule that when I’m attracted to something, I trust the little inner voice that says, “This is worth the time and the effort.”
I think time is really all there is. All we have. And I don’t think, often, there’s not enough of it. And yet there are times where I can get lost in sound, and it feels like it’s been a year. Because I’ve gotten so deeply immersed. In some ways, I think time is how we think about it, because in that moment I may have been lying on a sound bed for only ten minutes, and yet it feels like I’ve been gone an eternity, I feel so refreshed.
It’s a really interesting question. And what comes to mind for me is how I spend my time. I’m glad that I make the time to do the things that are important to me. I’ve learned enough about myself, spent the time to know myself well enough to know where I should be putting my time. I think it’s a very individual thing. But we’re in control of it. The most important thing is that we’re in control of it. It’s totally up to us what we do with our time. And I think sometimes we forget that because we’re on this rollercoaster of society, the belief systems that are held, what’s created by what’s normal. It’s a very interesting idea. But it’s something that’s available to all of us, and how we spend it is up to us.
SB: I love that you brought up stone healing. There’s actually a book that came out recently called Timefullness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World [by Marcia Bjornerud]. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this. The book Timefullness is actually about time and stones.
IR: I have to get it.
IR: Oh my god, write that down.
SB: I want to finish the conversation talking about what you’re doing at Google. I mean, we could go into one hundred different directions, but I’m particularly interested in the idea of neuroaesthetics and would love for you to just tell the listeners a little bit what is neuroaesthetics, and also maybe this idea of biogeometry. What are these things, and why do they matter?
IR: Well, biogeometry … I’ve been studying with the Egyptian Dr. [Ibrahim] Karim, who has shown that—and they knew this from the pyramids back then, but that shape, things that interrupt space, will create different energetic fields around them. So we’ve done exercises with him, where you change the angle of something, and you have a pendulum that you use, and you see the pendulum swing totally different when turning it eighteen degrees. That began to make me understand that, wow, the spaces we create and the objects we have interrupt space in a way that is changing the energy flow.
I’ll just say one thing about the hardware product at Google that my team and I have done: We always talked about “How does it feel?” Not just “What does it look like? What’s the function it provides?” but also “How does it feel, when you look at it, when you hold it?” We were very conscious of things like when designing a speaker that, actually, when you hold it, it feels like a riverstone, people have said. It feels comfortable. That juxtaposition of opposites is something that—when I say we agree on the piece of music we’re going to play together—has been a principle of ours. Making these things [is about] being conscious of how they feel, which to me is making them more human.
Fast forward to about two years ago: I think I got a LinkedIn [message], and it was a good thing—because I don’t always open my LinkedIn invites—that I opened this one. It was from a woman, Susan, at the [International] Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins [University].
SB: Susan Magsamen.
IR: Susan Magsamen. I had never heard of it before. I opened it up, which is synchronicity, because I didn’t open one hundred others. We got on a phone call. She said, “I work at the Arts + Mind Lab, I’m the director of it, at Johns Hopkins, and I’ve always been interested in wellness. […] I’ve been following your career for twenty-five years.” I said that’s called stalking. [Laughs] And she said, “No, no, no, hear me out. We just got a ten-million dollar grant to study neuroaesthetics, and I want you to be a Luminary Scholar on our board.” I said, “I don’t know what neuroaesthetics is, but I am in, because I love those two words separately”—you know, neuroscience and aesthetics. She said, “Do you want me to explain to you what you just said yes to?” That’s when, sometimes, my instincts can get me into trouble. But in this case it didn’t, and she said, “We’re now, through neuroscience, able to prove that everything matters and effects our biology” and that aesthetics—which I’ve always known is not just making something look pretty—is really enlivening all the senses. It’s what happens when we smell, when we hear music, when we see color and texture, and when we dance. All these elements in some ways, compared to Greek times—you know, once science came into play, we became so much in our rational mind that those things became secondary, that we now we absolutely need to bring them back into the forefront. I think we have flatlined a bit because we aren’t feeling these things enough.
Anyway, she explains to me that they’re studying this and validating improving how these sensory experiences affect our brain, which talks to our cells, which aid in our wellbeing. She had all these proof points of how they’re unlocking, in different groups at Johns Hopkins, how people with post-traumatic stress, making masks got their brains back highly functioning. Using the arts and these aesthetic experiences to get people into states of wellbeing.
We got together on a Saturday, and we held a salon at my house between artists and neuroscientists. It was amazing, the information flow, and this was a huge range of people, from movie producers to dancers to painters to designers. I just got more and more—it’s funny, at first, when I heard that, my reaction to what they were doing was like, “Wait a minute, we don’t need neuroscience to prove that. We’ve known that. I’ve known that most designers and artists—that’s why we do what we do.” But then I realized we may know that, but what an amazing tool. This is why I think art and science is an amazing future—art, science, and technology—because I realize that now it’s an incredible tool to give people that experience and prove to them that all these things matter, and to help bring these disciplines back into the forefront.
That began our relationship and, most recently, I was thrilled by the reaction we got in Milan [during the Salone del Mobile furniture and design fair, in April 2019]. We collaborated with Johns Hopkins. I pulled in Suchi Reddy [founder of Reddymade], an architect friend in New York, and Muuto furniture, who we had connected with because our aesthetics were so similar, and created “A Space for Being,” which is giving people an experience of, or proving to them, the fact that their body is feeling all the time and sensing everything, and sometimes what your cognitive mind is thinking is different than what your body is feeling. We did this through having people wear a band, when they first came in, that had different sensors, like heart rate variability and galvanic skin response. We had them spend five minutes quietly—no phones, no photography, no talking—in these three different rooms that Suchi Reddy and we collectively had aligned on that used neuroaesthetic principles, each one being very different: color, texture, music, scent. After the people spent five minutes in each room, we removed the band, they sat down at their own individual station, were able to see the differences between how their bodies felt in each room, and we were looking for in which room their body was most at ease.
We worked with Johns Hopkins to create an algorithm. […] We served up the data, which was a really important piece of this. We heard and got confirmed—in a very artful way; it was not a series of graphs or numbers, but this beautiful, almost ink print that was aesthetic itself—that people were able to take in the information and absolutely got intrigued. It was a moment in time of bringing into their awareness the fact that your body is feeling all the time.
Half the people were absolutely surprised between what their mind—you know, they’d walk into a room and they’d go, “I love this room!” But the sensors show that’s not the room that necessarily their body was most comfortable in. It might be the room they’re most excited about. In the other half, it was a match. We gave them a gift, a little bit of education. [You could look at] the ink ring and see when you walked into the room; it goes clockwise. People were able to look at it and go, “Oh my god, that was the moment when I touched the art that was on the wall. It was this burnt black wood and smelled.” You could see a spike in your biology, in your physiology, and so people were making these connections on the spot around this idea that “My body is feeling everything.”
The message we wanted to send was, first of all, you have agency over what you surround yourself with, to make you feel differently. Secondly, that we have to remember that we’re embodied, and our body is feeling everything, not just what your mind is thinking. It’s funny, some of the journalists said, “Oh, are you going to make this band, and people walk around, to tell them how they feel?” I’m like, “Absolutely not. That’s not a world I want to be in.” This was done to bring this awareness as a thought leader, and we were so pleased, because people really got it and appreciated it.
SB: I think how spaces make us feel is going to become more and more important. How do we feel when we’re on the street, how do we feel when we’re at home, how do we feel when we’re at the office.
IR: Yes, and what do we surround ourselves with. I was just speaking to someone who said their office was against a brick wall, and they moved and now he has a view of the water and his mind is like totally in a different place. I mean, these things absolutely shift our mind and body and our biology. It’s really important that we’re aware of how these things matter.
SB: Mm-hmm. A return to nature, almost.
IR: Yeah, well, you know, nature is the most neuroaesthetic place. It’s the place we come from, quite frankly. Nature has, if you think about it, color, scent, sound—it’s got all of it. And that’s why we feel so great [when we’re in nature]. Because we’re back in our natural element. We were designed to have all of these senses enlivened, so when I say we’ve flatlined as a society, I think it’s that we’ve spent so much time optimizing our mind and optimizing the rational mind that we’ve gotten a little out of touch, no pun intended, with these very important things that touch us all the time, and need to touch us all the time.
SB: That’s a great place to end.
SB: Thanks, Ivy, this was fun.
IR: Let’s go take a walk in nature. [Laughs]
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 19, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.