The Luupe speaks with Google Nest’s Design Director Rachel Been about her path from aspiring photojournalist to leading design for one of the world’s biggest brands.

As a photojournalist for the school’s newspaper when she was at UCLA, Rachel Been never imagined she would lead app design, system design and ambient computing for Google and other big tech brands. But after a few years working as a photo editor, frustrated with online user experiences that shied away from innovation, Been noticed a need for change. Online image galleries felt stagnant – she wanted them to shine. So she embarked on an unexpected career shift in design, working to change how we process, perceive and work with visual culture.

Since then, Been has developed engaging emojis and led system design team for Google (material design), art directed Google Calendar, and now directs design for Google Nest.

We caught up to learn more about her career journey and why user experience is crucial to everything visual.

Meet Rachel Been

The Luupe: You have such a wide and interesting career – starting with your your background in art history and early work as a photo editor at AOL, and moving into design for tech. Can you take us on that journey? 

Rachel Been: My freshman year in college, I wanted to become a photojournalist. I saw the James Nachtway documentary War Photographer at the same time I started shooting for my college newspaper, UCLA’s Daily Bruin, covering anti Iraq war protests, Division 1 college sports, portraits of athletes and musicians, events. I decided that photojournalism was it. My senior year I became the photo director of the newspaper and enjoyed the balance between curating and shooting even more than just photographing. My first job out of college was working for AOL Latino (AOL-latino) as a photo editor and photographer for the Music division.

Rachel Been’s sports coverage for UCLA’s The Daily Bruin

Rachel’s early work for AOL Latino – her first job out of college

The Luupe: It was around this time that you became frustrated with photo editing….

Been: Working at AOL I was frustrated by the online photo gallery experiences I was editing. They were clunky, optimizing for ads and rigid grids not well designed for the medium of immersive photography. The experiences were not taking advantage of the new technical possibilities of audio and video.

Starting my career in design was a response to wanting a better experience online for the photography I was shooting and editing. By the time I got to Billboard, I had a background in both the digital/editorial design side as well as creative direction and photography. This is what I originally went to Google to do – bring editorial and content forward design to Google’s version of the App Store, Google Play.

Portraits and live photos by Rachel Been from her time at Billboard

Google Play designs

The Luupe: Building on that, we love stories of design leaders who came into design outside of design school / more organically… 

Been: I never had a formal education in design. When I was in high school I took a class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco where I made a poster that was a scathing critique of President George W. Bush. The teacher said I was ‘too cynical to become a designer’ which dissuaded me from formally pursuing the trade in school, despite loving it. So much of the work I have done was not historically taught in design school.

Many of the fundamental basics I would have learned in school I immersed myself in in the workplace, becoming an avid learner and fully embracing methodology based on necessity (i.e I led color theory and the color system for Google’s systems design team.)

“Material Design – a major project I worked on with a bunch of other talented designers”

Many of the current requirements of working at the intersection of design and technology have no teachable precedent – you must be embedded in solving the problems to create the precedent. A good example of this is the work I’m currently doing on Ambient Computing in the home – this is a completely new design paradigm that we are figuring out as we go.

The Luupe: As you were making the transition into design and design leadership, did you have any mentors that helped you along the way? 

Been: There are two strong mentors I have had throughout my career. The first was one of my dearest friends from college, Tyson Evans. Tyson was the photo director of my college newspaper when I was a freshman, becoming the design director, and eventually the editorial director of the entire newspaper. Tyson was emblematic of the fluidity between photography, design, technology, exemplifying that these skill sets and career choices didn’t have to be siloed. He encouraged me to think similarly.

The second mentor I had at Google was Nicholas Jitkoff, one of the founding design directors of the Material Design team. Similar to Tyson, Nicholas is a brilliant generalist, mastering a diversity of skill sets that collectively encompass great product design. Nicholas brought me into the Material Design project and always supported my career expansion – from imagery and visual design, to deep interaction design and technical design.

The consistent message from Tyson and Nicholas was – invest in your curiosity, it’s one of the strongest capabilities you have.

Material Design

The Luupe: That’s so inspiring. You’ve been at Google now for almost a decade with many different roles. What’s your day to day look like today?

Been: I now manage a pretty large team, so a lot of my work day to day is overseeing operations of an almost 40 person group. This includes team meetings, running critique sessions, aligning working expectations of my group with Nest’s senior leadership, supporting the careers of some very talented folks. It also means going deep on work – building vision presentations for the future of Nest, getting into Figma details with my designers, meeting with designers across the company to collaborate.

Material Design – 2018

The Luupe: And this has all been remote, right?

Been: Since Covid, we have been working remotely. This means 9-6 for me on Google Video Calls, in and out of Figma, Google Docs, Google Slides, Gmail, Calendar, while sitting in a small home office in San Francisco. Pre-Covid, Google had a culture that emphasized casual, serendipitous collaboration – having lunch and sharing product ideas, meeting in a ‘micro-kitchen’ to talk about a problem, grabbing coffee and taking a walk to discuss career growth.

We have lost that serendipity and benefit of co-location, resorting to a barrage of scheduled meetings to fill the void. It’s the thing I miss most about the culture of Google – being around some of the most interesting and talented people in the world and sharing a thought over a sandwich.

The Luupe: Can you talk about a recent project you oversaw that inspired you? 

Been: I’m currently working on a lot of projects under wraps that I’m excited about, but I can talk about a few projects that have launched. One of the first projects I worked on when I came to Nest was rethinking the design system for Home Controls.

This is the software design for things like controlling lights, playing music, turning up your thermostat across screens and speakers in your home – the goal being, how do we make it as easy in digital design to turn on a light as it is to simply use a light switch?

This was a fun project that brought my years working for Google’s Design systems team to product design. Combined with a feature we launched called “Home and Away,” the question then became, how do we make lights, cameras, thermostats automatically do what you want at the right time without having to press a button? Another project that launched earlier this year was our next generation of our Google Nest Hub. This product focused on using a proprietary chip to detect sleep quality.

I oversaw the design direction of the data visualization experience, moving away from traditional charting and presenting softer visualizations utilizing color, shape and motion to convey sleep quality.

The Luupe: We just learned that you launched the first ever product imagery system for Google and served as the first creative director of Emojis (amazing!) What was your experience like working on this project?

Been: My background coming into Google was very much focused on art direction, imagery and the intersection with design. When we launched Material Design, a large part of the design system was focused on bold use of color and imagery in digital products – yet we didn’t have any guidelines for product teams concerning how to use imagery and stylistically what were our principles.

This type of art direction guidelines is very common for brands or editorial. Some unifying iconography work had been led by future friends and Material Designers’ Jefferson Cheng and Zach Gibson, but not much on illustration and photography had been delineated for use in products. As part of the Material Design team, I worked on the system guidelines, working closely with Gmail, Calendar, Hangouts, to build their repertoire of images. I hired a small but mighty art direction team covering photography and illustration, one of the first at Google.

Google system guidelines

Google calendar images

During this time, I was approached to see if I was interested in directing illustration for emojis. There were a handful of freelancers working part-time on the emoji library, but no designers at Google focusing on the collection. I thought, what better systems design x illustration project than leading design for emojis?

I ended up taking on the project and proposing a redesign for Google. While we were surveying the collection, we noted a lack of representation of race and women. This obvious deficit resulted in major updates – adding race to the representations of people, and creating a proposal to add 13 representations of women in the workforce.

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I selected and wrote the documentation concerning what professions we would represent after looking at global economic data (I fought to make sure the welder emoji was included in the set). After confirming the new batch, we additionally added female variations of preexisting professions (police woman, not just men for example) as well as expanded male variations of stereotypically female-only emojis (the dancing leotard bunnies now had a male variation; I fought to visually to maintain leotards on the men.)

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During my time as the first creative director for emoji at Google I led a redesign, introduced dozens of new emojis to the collection, spoke at the first ever emoji conference, was on a panel at MOMA to celebrate the first acquisition of emojis into the permanent collection, and at the end of my tenure when I was heading to Nest, handed the reins over to my amazing friend Jennifer Daniel who now leads the emoji subcommittee.

The Luupe: You’re recognized for combining a knowledge of the intersection of “what looks good” and “what works well.” Do you have a philosophy on design and product thinking you care to share?

Been: One of the key statements I wrote in the original product imagery guidelines for Google was ‘Don’t use superfluous imagery to fill space.’ At the time, there were a lot of illustrations filling up white space across Google products, instead of being used intentionally to expedite understanding information or teaching an idea.

Illustration direction for Google Play

This concept is core to the way I think about product design. I come from a visual design + imagery background and will always deeply care about aesthetics – but intentionality and functionality determining the application of these aesthetics is key.

The shape of a button, the color of the screen, the motion of a slider, all of these visual design decisions need to make sense to the user, designed intentionally. Don’t design a big and bright button because you simply think it looks good, make it big and bright because it’s important; easy to find and easy to touch.

The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time and thoughtful responses! In closing – as work, technology and design, and UX are in constant flux, do you have any advice for up and coming design/creative directors?

Been: Stay curious. Much of the design work we do today doesn’t have precedent. It’s important to draw technique and process from previous learnings – whether that’s systems design work, the fundamentals of graphic design – but be prepared to apply those fundamentals to things you may not understand. It’s “fake it till you make it.”

If you wait for the ambiguity to disappear so the path is clear, you might be waiting a very long time. Also, curiosity is about empathizing with other disciplines. If you try to understand the challenges your peers might face – engineers figuring out new technology, industrial designers working with new materials, product managers searching for a strong business angle – you are going to be more successful as a designer.

I believe in hybridization – bringing a mix of capabilities, discipline understanding and adaptability to your work.