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How Google Created The Least Offensive Design Ever

Google tested 157 shades of gray to develop the Mini, a $49 home assistant that’s meant to fade into the background of everyday life.

Yesterday, Google announced a new addition to its home-assistant product line: the $49 Google Home Mini. The device–which lets you access information and services from your computer or phone using just your voice–looks like a smooth, fabric-wrapped river rock. It was designed to make the advanced AI-powered technology inside feel like a natural addition to any room of your home, not some spooky HAL 9000 bot lurking around. To achieve this, Google designed a custom textile and even its own yarn.

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“The home is a special intimate place, and people are very selective about what they welcome into it,” Isabelle Olsson, lead designer for Home hardware, said during the conference. “You don’t want to fill it with black plastic, complicated buttons, and random blinking lights. Our vision is to build simple helpful solutions, that work in the background, helping you when you needed it, and staying out of the way when you don’t.”

Home assistants are of the newest hardware categories from tech companies, and they’re still ironing out what these products should look like. For the Echo, Amazon designed a product that looks a lot like a modem–an austere black tower with a bright blue illuminated halo. Apple’s Home Pod looks like a speaker. Google Home resembles a humidifier. While smartphones are moving in the same direction form-wise and essentially look the same, the accepted silhouette of home assistants is still up in the air.

[Photo: Google]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Olsson–who was also the designer behind Google Glass–and her team looked to the high-end furniture industry for design cues. “We wanted to hit that nice level of a high-quality piece of upholstered furniture,” Olsson says in an interview with Co.Design. “It feels tight and soft, but with a bit of texture so it feels durable.”

The Mini is shaped like a “soft sphere,” as Olsson describes it. The top two-thirds of the device is enclosed in fabric and the tapered base is resin. It comes in three colors: a light gray called Chalk, a dark gray called Charcoal, and a red called Coral. Google’s research found that many customers like to place their assistants next to their televisions, so Charcoal was designed to look good in that context. Some people have more personality and want a statement piece, so that’s where Coral entered. Chalk was the most complex hue, though since this was the “floater” color–the one that could feel as comfortable bedside as on a kitchen counter.

[Photo: Google]
Google cycled through 157 different shades of gray before arriving at the neutral, but slightly warm, tone. To find the exact right shade they thought about the context of where it might appear and studied home design trends. For example, marble and granite kitchen counters are popular so the Mini had to look good next to natural stone. Pink is a popular interior design trend, so Google compared its shade of gray to the most popular pinks to make sure the Mini harmonized with them. “It was to make sure the color could be a great chameleon,” Olsson tells Co.Design.

Because of the fabric’s specific aesthetic and functional needs, Google had to develop the textile all the way down to the individual yarns and worked with a textile manufacturer to get the precise look, feel, and performance it wanted.

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Google Home Mini’s textile enclosure is based on a pique knit–a slightly textured diamond-shaped weave. (It’s common on polo shirts.) The yarn is composed of duo-tone fibers, which give the textile depth. (At the conference, Google also announced a larger home assistant called the Google Home Max. Because its specifications are completely different from the Mini, it had its own custom Google-designed textile composition, which looks more scalloped on the surface.)

The Mini is primarily a voice-based interface, so sound–which is emitted and received in 360 degrees–needed to travel through the fabric easily. When you speak to the Mini, four LEDs illuminate to acknowledge it heard what you said. So the fabric also had to let the right amount of light shine through–visible enough to the naked eye, but subtle enough not to be jarring.

Touch sensors are embedded beneath the fabric and sense the textile’s movement when you tap it to play or pause music or talk to the assistant, so it had to have a certain amount of give. Lastly, the fabric had to be stain-resistant, easy to wipe clean, and resist fading from UV light.

At first glance, the Mini looks so plain and pared-back that an untrained eye might assume it was cobbled together overnight. The team actually spent over a year working on it to make sure that every curve, every contour, and every perspective looked just right.

“We were going the ‘simple’ route, but it was also the hardest route,” Olsson says. “The simpler it is, the more of a chance it has to fade into the background and go with the other things in someone’s home.”

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While the Google Home Mini looks nondescript and benign–Olsson called it “cute” a couple of times–it’s anything but. Home assistants collect tremendous amounts of data about your day-to-day behavior. They’re also incredibly easy to hack. By creating a design you forget, Google is making it even easier to forget how much of your privacy you’re ceding.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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