Robert Wong

1966, Hong Kong, China

Robert Wong, executive creative director of Google Creative Lab, holds an incredibly enviable position. Creative Lab, a contemporary think tank of the sort that’s been all but phased out of modern businesses, puts a small group of talented people from diverse creative backgrounds (writers, filmmakers, designers, UX developers) together to generate ideas that will help develop the Google brand through the power of storytelling and design.

Very little in Wong’s previous incarnation as an accounting student would suggest that he might land in a creative field one day. Even though his parents didn’t exactly discourage him from a creative career, he says, “In my family that option didn’t exist. The epitome of success was to become a doctor, accountant, or engineer—the typical immigrant kid kind of thing. But about six months into my Masters of Accounting program, I found I couldn’t stay awake for the lectures at all. I was still doing really well and getting scholarship offers, but I saw that I couldn’t spend my time doing something I didn’t love... I didn’t want my life box and my work box to be two different boxes.”

Nevertheless, he pursued his original plan for a short while. He worked at an accounting firm for three months before moving to New York, enrolling at Parsons School of Design, and essentially starting over. Unsure of a direction, he started as a fashion major, but in a draping class he soon realized that he had no desire whatsoever to make dresses. He switched to communication design, which appealed to both the analytical left-brained accountant and the creative soul trapped in the same body. From that point on, Wong’s path to the Creative Lab seems like a natural progression. He was executive creative director at Arnold Worldwide, a global creative agency, and vice president of creative at Starbucks. His branding portfolio includes A-list clients such as Apple, ESPN, Jack Daniel’s, and Harley-Davidson, and his award-winning work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Wong was born in Hong Kong to a father with a high school education and a mother who never attended school. During his early childhood, the family jumped from country to country, moving first to Holland and then to Canada, arriving there when he was 10. The constant change of scenery helped Wong develop the ability to communicate without relying mainly on verbal exchanges. He says, “If you don’t speak the language, you observe and listen with everything you have, and you become more patient and open. Because I couldn’t understand anyone and no one could understand me, I had to do a lot of listening. I came to realize that most of the time, whoever can listen the hardest is the better communicator.” Wong says he also learned a great deal about Western culture by watching TV once he got to North America. He now lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. Asked where he feels home is, he replies, “I’m comfortable everywhere. I feel most at home on planet Earth,” he jokes. “Home is my apartment, but I love New York; it’s my preferred city. I’ve lived here for over 25 years—more than anywhere else—and I plan to retire here.”

So what does the Google Creative Lab team do all day, exactly? “We visualize possible futures,” Wong says, “distilling very complex ideas into products people are attracted to. Things that they want to use, things that engineers want to make. Imagine a dotted arrow connecting a Google product straight to a single user. We create along the whole spectrum, sometimes at the tip of the arrow, where the benefits of a product are so clear all that needs to be done is to tell people about it. Sometimes we create all the way back within the tech, where we may even help shape it into a product.”

The team draws inspiration from both positive and negative experiences as they generate the concepts Wong refers to as artifacts of the future. He says, “Some of our ideas come from: oh my God, this aspect of life totally sucks. How can it suck less, how do you de-suck-ify it? That’s a lot of motivation. The other motivation is once we’ve run through a huge set of possibilities and think, ‘Ooh my life would be amazing if it was more like this.’ And we paint a picture of that.”

Diversity in the Creative Lab is not primarily about gender, national origin, race, or religion; it’s more about finding people from a wide spectrum of creative and cultural backgrounds who can bring radically different intellectual perspectives in response to a problem. Wong likens the environment to a rack holding 32 different varieties of spices instead of 32 jars of plain salt. Otherwise, he says, “I’d be talking to myself the whole time because I only hired people just like me. When we hire, there’s a diversity part, and there’s a commonality part. And you want the maximum of both. You want the 32 spices, and you want them all to be in the same sized jar so you can easily access them.”

Certain qualities are mandatory for potential Creative Lab team members. Wong and his creative partners seek out those with bright, ambitious, curious minds as the sole non-negotiable common denominator. ”In some ways, we only look for people who have an innate desire to have an impact at scale and purpose,” he says. “Plenty of really talented people don’t necessary have that. There are places that willingly put up with jerks because they need the talent, but there is a no asshole factor here. Whether you’re talking about a piece of design, a poster, or a user interface, the outcome has nothing to do with what you think is cool. It’s what people take away from it. It gets back to the empathy for the audience; the best storytellers really understand what the audience is thinking and feeling and how they’re reacting. That defines good communication.”