Welcome to the Method podcast. I’m Aidan Simpson and this is where we talk to designers at Google about work, life, and the future of design.
“I think growing up in a lower income family definitely gave me a drive to always be at the top of my class whether that was, standard academics or design. And I think having that drive has definitely put me kind of in this seat right now. just never being okay with being at the bottom of the class because I knew that my family was giving so much to put me in the seat to be there.”
Today I’m talking with Ayan Daniels, a visual designer on the Android Messages team. Ayan and I talked about the design story of her welcome illustration for the Pixel phone, the power of great mentors, and more. Enough from me, let’s get into it.
Ayan: Uh, my name is Ayan Daniels. I’ve been at Google, for I think, two years and three months. Two of those years were on Android and Pixel and now I’m on Android Messages.
Aidan: And what is hard about Android Messages?
Ayan: Well, so I just started two weeks ago, um …
Aidan: So everything?
Ayan: Yeah, so everything is difficult. It’s, a lot more technical, I think than what I was initially anticipating. What’s interesting about it is that we are doing a lot to be a player amongst uh, different messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and iMessage uh, that we previously weren’t really attempting to so I think what’s kind of challenging about that is that we’re changing our users’ mental model as far as like what the app is anticipated to do.
Aidan: What are you changing their mental model from and to?
Ayan: So, right now SMS is a little bit like stale, I would say just like as a millennial user myself, I don’t go to an SMS app unless it’s kind of to do like transactional things like to talk to my mom. if I was gonna do something like that is more like chatting, I would probably go to Facebook Messenger, so, now we’re kind of really seeing features like RCS, which, will have like type indication and more rich media, make it a lot more fun to chat with people. also like the stickers and all the fun stuff that Google can provide as well as like the assistant being integrated within um, messages themself.
So, I think we’re kind of trying to shift people’s opinion to be like that one stop fun place to talk to your friends but to also to talk to businesses or the assistant if you so choose.
Aidan: Will this replace the default SMS app?
Ayan: So this is the default SMS app, we’re just adding a lot more functionality to it. Right now it’s a little bit utilitarian and what can we do to sort of open it up to be more expressive but also just a more interesting place to communicate with your friends.
Aidan: You said you recent transferred onto that team?
Ayan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Aidan: What were the reasons that you wanted to join that team?
Ayan: So there are a lot of reasons, I think that’s usually the case. Um, but for me, I joined Google straight out of school and I was really fortunate to join like my dream job. If you look at my internships it’s pretty clear I was shooting for Android. (laughs) and I spent two years there and I was able to redesign quite a few apps and it was such a great experience but I realize that I could end up being there for a pretty long time just because I was so happy with the work.
But I think when you’re early in your career, you’d be kind of foolish not to look at other teams and other opportunities, so I wanted to do something that kind of expanded upon my Android skills because I have such an expertise in it now. But that challenges me in as far as like new team structure and just something different. There’s big difference between working on an eco-system as opposed to a focused application.
Aidan: Were you after more kind of deeper design and domain knowledge on a particular [crosstalk 00:03:40] problem.
Ayan: Yeah, yeah, I would say so. And I think what else is kind of interesting about Android messages is that they’re adding so much functionality as opposed to something like Android, the eco-system, which is so uh, like a legacy at this point. I think that Android messages has a little bit more flexibility to pivot and do some interesting things with branding that we really just didn’t have the opportunity to do on Android.
Aidan: What were some of your highlights from working on the Android team?
Ayan: Probably my biggest highlight would be um, this like opening illustration, that we didn’t previously have like when you first put on an Android device. You go through the bootup animation, which is really like this nice branded moment and then you start set-up wizard and it’s like the user goes from oh, this is so great to, oh, god. You know, I don’t want to go through these like 30 plus screens. And when I started, I think the welcome screen was like a blue splash with textured clouds and we just said welcome and I wanted to do something that was more branded while celebrating Pixel so, I was working with the motion designer, and we were able to, kind of clean up this transition from boot animation into kind of a stale set up wizard and, just made it this like fun little illustration that was the seamless experience, so, that was definitely my highlight.
Aidan: Cool, and it’s seen by everyone who gets a Pixel phone.
Ayan: Yeah, which is always fun.
Aidan: Were there any projects on Android that didn’t go the way that you expected?
Ayan: Oh yeah. (laughs) quite a few, I would say. Maybe just building off of what I was saying was my highlight, not only was that just a great design moment for me and like getting an illustration out to so many people, um, what I think was maybe the biggest struggle was that I didn’t realize how many people would be looking at it on a higher level. I was kind of looking at it as a design problem, you know, but a lot of people are going to be seeing that illustration, So it became this political decision, really, really quickly.
And there were four little characters in there and we had quite the debate as to which character could show up first in the animation, because all of the characters are cleaning. And like doing sort of like manual labor on the Pixel phone, there’s like a forced perspective where the phone is like bigger than life and the characters are really tiny, um, so there was a lot of debate around like if we could show a woman of color being the first person cleaning on this phone.
Ayan: And no one realized that I was the one, like, illustrating it (laughs) so it became like this kind of funny, like, oh you know, it was is this like a political issue for Google to show this as like um, you know, this is a woman’s place is cleaning and of course you know, I don’t see it that way but I kind of just saw the characters as being part of a team and it was interesting to kind of take a step back on a higher level and look at it from a marketing perspective and what that would say about Google’s view to the greater community.
Aidan: That’s interesting as, as a woman of color you, you were so close to it that you, you didn’t pick up on that either.
Ayan: Yeah. Yeah and it’s, I would say like even beyond that is like, I grew up in a family with uh, like a blue-collar family. So to me, like, doing cleaning labor versus what I do for a living, there is no discrepancy of one is better than the other, you know. I just had a different opportunity than my parents did. So when that feedback came back I had kind of a multi-level of an issue on it because I was like oh, you know, I have no problem with someone cleaning. So yeah, it was interesting because I definitely didn’t see an issue with it.
Aidan: You alluded to two things there, I just uh, maybe want to step back in time a bit. How did you come to be at Google?
Ayan: So I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. Um, and I am the youngest of four. My father was a bus driver and my mom mostly raised us. And it was interesting because my family’s big thing was like education. So we all went to private school and it was really important for me to get good grades um so I- I was an A student up until college. (laughs) um …
Aidan: When you went wild. (laughs)
Ayan: Yeah, then I got crazy. well I got crazy and started doing design stuff. And so once I got to college we had, uh, the unique opportunity to do internships every other semester if we so choose and I decided to do an internship every semester so, I graduated with six internships. None of which were at Google, unfortunately. but yes, so I think growing up in a like lower income family definitely gave me a drive to always be at the top of my class whether that was, you know, like standard academics or design. And I think having that drive has definitely put me kind of in this seat right now. just never being okay with life being at the bottom of the class because I knew that my family was giving so much to put me in the seat to be there.
Aidan: How did your family feel when you decided that you wanted to take up design?
Ayan: So I was pretty lucky because my older sister is a fashion designer. (laughs) yeah, so uh, she …
Aidan: Older siblings paving the way.
Ayan: I think she might of had a little but more uh, questions there. but because my sister had already taken a creative path it was kind of easy for me to do a similar thing , and I think with my family it was always about like what makes you happy um, in doing good for the world so like, as long as I wasn’t doing anything that was negative my family wouldn’t care it was just to get the education to give you as many opportunities as possible because they didn’t have that opportunity themselves.
Aidan: And how did you find design?
Ayan: so, I was lucky again, I think I have been lucky my entire life. (laughs) um, so I went to an all girls high school and I was really focused on like student council and like Hands Across Campus, those sorts of things, um, and I was lucky to test out of like Spanish and math early. and then I had this like block in my schedule so I started taking design classes my junior year of high school. And I realize I had a niche for it and I just kind of like kept going on that path once I found it, I never stopped.
Aidan: Going back to those first days, exploring what design was, is there anything that really captivated you at the start?
Ayan: I just didn’t realize that there could be any sort of career that was like a legitimate career that was creative. up until that point I was looking at doing like some sort of business, maybe marketing? and I didn’t realize that you could kind of sit down on a problem and not be like bored to tears. (laughs) or, you know, kind of hating what you’re doing. And I think when I first started it and I realized the legitimacy of a design career it was just such a lucrative idea to me that there was no other option for me like I automatically dropped the idea of doing any sort of business.
Aidan: You mentioned your six internships.
Aidan: What motivated you to do that many?
Ayan: I knew very early on that there were people going to schools like Art Center or SVA and I was, I attended the University of Cincinnati, which, is a decent school, but it doesn’t have that sort of like label shock that maybe some other schools do. And I think from a very early point in my career I started seeing myself as like a product as opposed to a person which, you know, you can say there are some pros and cons there, but I knew that when my resume went across a hiring manager’s desk, I wanted them to not have an option but to put me to the next step so I figured, you know, being fresh out of school with so much experience, would kind of place me above some of the other applicants and I just wanted to do as much as I could to kind of stack the cards in my favor. So, there was that component of it but then I think the other thing is just that I wanted to make sure that I was kind of going into the right type of design. and so I wanted to try like fashion design and I wanted to try packaging and entertainment and I didn’t want to ever wonder kind of what if …
So when I found tech, , I realized like this is actually kind of like the culmination of like so many things that I love and that kind of like I should keep pushing on that.
Aidan: If you could go back to who you were back then to two to three years ago –
Aidan: What advice would you give yourself?
Ayan: To relax. (laughs) I would say I- I look back on my college career and I can be really proud of my grades and my internships and connections that I made and you know, those sorts of things, but I kind of wish that I had a little bit more fun in college. That I sort of like experienced what being young was like at that point um because I think kind of like you’re- the lifestyle you live kind of influences your design and if you’re a happy person, you make you know, designs that make people happy and I think I’m at that point now but in college you can kind of see it in my portfolio that, you know, this is someone who’s stressed (laughs) there are a lot of blacks and greens and intense angles and I would say it was nice but at the same merit like I- I wish I would have had a bit more fun.
Aidan: It’s- it’s interesting not growing up in the American school system like, how I look at it and how- how serious everything- and how competitive it is.
Aidan: Compared to kind of how I grew up. I feel like American students are put under a lot more pressure than any other country that I’ve been to.
Ayan: People. Interesting. I didn’t know that. I think because I always knew how much my tuition was I said I can’t waste this. (laughs) it is like $10,000 every year for a high school student, like that’s ridiculous. You know? And I need to make something of it if my parents are going to sacrifice this much.
Aidan: Going back to the internships, did you have a design mentor?
Ayan: It was interesting because my first internship I was doing like medical advertising in New York and the program gave me a design mentor and I realized right away how effective that was. And so after that a lot of my internships didn’t have that sort of in place um, but I sought out someone every internship to make sure that I had a mentor. And I found it really important to say at like at the end of my internship what was my strength and what was my weakness and then each internship it sort of pivoted how I behaved. And I think you can kind of see it in my resume of getting better and better internships and I would say partially because I was working hard but also I had like a mentor to be guiding me throughout the way.
Aidan: How did you find those mentors?
Ayan: Usually it was someone who I just admired in the workplace. Yeah, like I would, you know, after you’ve been in the job for a few weeks you can see like, oh that person really has something that maybe I don’t, and that was usually kind of like the exigence for me to find a mentor. It would either be maybe someone who was uh well spoken or had a skill that I didn’t have. and I would kind of be a little bit blunt about hey, can you mentor me? (laughs) yeah, and it always seemed to work out. People are always really receptive to sharing their knowledge, so.
Aidan: So you used the performance review to kind of hone in on somebody who could then compliment that?
Ayan: 100%, yeah. Yeah. I’m really glad I did, too.
Aidan: Is there anyone in particular person who still stands out in your mind?
Ayan: Yeah, yeah, there is. my third internship was at Motorola and I had a mentor, her name was Zion, and my first day I was petrified because it was, at the time, Motorola was owned by Google and you know, that was my dream job, right. Uh, and my first day she said, I’m going to throw you into the fire and watch if you burn. And she laughed and I was like oh, god.
Ayan: Yeah, that’s a little bit much, but okay, like let’s buckle up and see what happens, you know. Uh, and then as I had the performance review at the end she said the number one thing you need now is confidence, in your gut you know the right design decision, but you second guess yourself, you need to sort of like follow your gut and ever since, like, that’s been something that I work on, I think that’s a little bit of the imposter syndrome thing when you’re in a room with people who you are so impressed by that it’s hard to kind of speak up. , and she would pull me aside afternoons and be like, I know that you knew better, you should speak up a little bit more, so. I think even now that’s something that I think about on the daily basis.
Aidan: Do you still struggle with any of those self-doubt issues?
Ayan: For sure. (laughs) I think so, especially now that I am at my dream job, like that it becomes a lot more intimidating, um, I think more than anything I have to remind myself that I’m here for a reason, I was hired on the team to, you know, provide some insight and so I kind of use that as a mantra to help my speak up in meetings or, you know, if I do say the wrong thing then maybe that’ll spur someone else’s right thing and you know, I think that’s kind of the nature of design.
But yeah, having a little bit of imposter syndrome is definitely something that I still struggle with.
Aidan: It’s great though that you still take that beginner’s mindset and you’re not afraid to make mistakes. I feel like so many people are afraid to ask the dumb question that, that’s the most important thing is to remain in that beginner’s mindset and it helps alleviate some of that self-doubt, I think.
Ayan: Yeah, I love that, it’s good to be naive.
Aidan: Continuing along the mentor kind of track, do you have a mentor here?
Ayan: Um, I do. I would say I have a lot of like less formal mentors but um, I just transferred to messages two weeks ago but I definitely have some mentors on Android that I’m still going to be doing the one on ones with. Allison and Hannah from Android are two of my like best mentors, I would say. It’s funny because I would say like they’re kind of a yin and yang as far as like things that I can learn from. Allison has such a great like, design mindset, like you open up one of her files and it’s all beautifully organized and she’s one of those people who’s always a step ahead and I’ve always admired that about her so I would say that, that’s something that I can learn from her still. I think I’ve picked up some of it hopefully. (laughs) um, after two years, and one thing that I really love about Hannah is that she is the person who speaks up in the meeting. She’s the person who isn’t afraid to sort of say that thing whether it’s right or wrong. I think that’s the person who tends to push the conversation forward.
So when I look at those two women it’s really kind of a powerful, these are two tracks I should continue to grow in. I would say that those are two things that I struggle with the most.
Aidan: That’s also interesting cause it’s – they’re around soft skills that are surround your day job. They’re not necessarily to do with design but they’re all around kind of organization and communication.
Ayan: Yeah, I mean, I would say that those two things, if you cycle back into like my own personality, like outside of design, I’m definitely kind of a chill person, I’m not very like knit-picky as far as like organization goes and I’m also kind of introverted so I- I can have a little bit of trouble speaking up at times. Um, and it was kind of interesting when I met them even in my interview process, I was like wow you two both have something that I could definitely learn from.
Aidan: Is there anything that has helped you build confidence and be able to speak up more in meetings? Other than I guess tenure?
Ayan: Yeah, I mean I guess tenure is kind of the biggest one, but I think I have to kind of look critically at my own work. It’s been interesting now that I’m an interviewer for Google. Kind of seeing the landscape of candidates coming in. I can see things that I need to grow in but things that I’m also really strong in. And I think I kind of the nature of being like a scrappy maybe poor kid is that you have to be hard on yourself because that’s how you push yourself a little bit forward. But now that I’m a designer and I’m kind of like in the field, I have to say like, Ayan, you’re doing really well for yourself. These are good ideas. This is good design work so don’t be afraid to push it. Push it a little bit further and speak about it. Because my ideas won’t get implemented if they never leave my brain. (laughs)
Aidan: What are you most excited about?
Ayan: Well I’m really excited about my new team. I haven’t been on a project that we’ve had so many new things happening that can go a thousand different ways. I’m working on the RCS branding, which is kind of like those iMessage-esque features for Android messages. And that’s something I haven’t gotten to do yet so I’m definitely excited about kind of starting something from scratch.
Aidan: And what’s keeping you up at night?
Ayan: Right now what’s keeping me up at night is that I’m kind of in this transitional phase. Even though I’m on a new team, I am still thinking about settings on Android, which is pathetic, but, yeah. I think even though I’m physically on this new team there is a bit of my brain that is still on the last one.
Aidan: So it is kind of hard when you probably still getting bug requests and things like that? Your name’s still on things and you just, you can’t quite leave it behind.
Ayan: Yeah, especially when you’re friends with the people and I’m like, if I go to get coffee with someone, I’m like oh, how’s my project doing? And they’re like, stop. (laughs)
Aidan: Move on.
Ayan: Doesn’t matter.
Aidan: Yeah. (laughs)
Aidan: What is the next challenge that you want to take on?
Ayan: This is kind of a soft answer to that but I think my next challenge is just always looking a little bit ahead. I don’t want to stay like too stagnant as far as my career goes. And I think that’s definitely why I switched teams but my next challenge is making sure that I’m continually being agile. I guess what I mean by that is that just because I’m happy with something, that something’s really great doesn’t mean that I should stay there and I guess that’s kind of speaking a little bit more to my transfer but , I think that I can look at that in a few different ways, like right now I’m doing well in work so why not take on freelance projects if the freelance projects keep going well, why not expand that into something a little bit more of like an initiative? yeah so just always looking out to the next frontier, I guess.
Aidan: How important is being curious like that, to you?
Ayan: I think it’s everything. At any given time, if you stop me in the hallway, I will always have a new like project. Whether or not it’s design related, doesn’t matter so much to me because I think they all kind of filter back in but I will always be doing something a little bit weird and pushing myself in that way.
Aidan: Where do you think that curiosity came from?
Ayan: I think my curiosity has always just come from the way that I was raised. Um, I think I’ve always kind of been like a minority in a few different ways. And being like that outlier has kind of pushed me to always be asking questions, seeing where I fit in, if I do fit in, where can I push the envelope? So, I think I’m just a like habitually curious person and that sort of enhances my design skills too.
Aidan: Being a woman of color at Google, how have you found that experience and fit in here?
Ayan: One thing that’s kind of interesting is that I was expecting maybe more of a outlier experience. I haven’t really had that. I think the main times that it comes up is when I have the things like the illustration or like weird little comments that- people don’t really think too much about. And that’ll kind of snap me like back into reality. Um, but yeah, being a woman of color at Google, I think I have to take these sorts of opportunities when you know, you ping me and say oh, can you be on this podcast? I think I have to do it because it’s important that I’m like visible to people and people know that there are women of color in the design capacity and that we are, you know, pushing along good careers, so, yeah, I think I need to be visible.
Aidan: Is there anything within Google or about Google itself that has surprised you?
Ayan: I worked so hard to get a job here, um, I- once I actually got here I was expecting to be working, kind of, again to prove myself and you know, to earn my stripes because that’s kind of been the way that I’ve set my career up. And that hasn’t been the case. It’s been a lot of people giving me the advice to share my work and be more confident within myself. and not to say that I’m not a confident person, but, I’ve been given the advice that I have the right instincts and that I need to act on them more frequently.
Aidan: Ayan, thank you so much for doing this. It’s been great.