Creative Lead, Design at Google Creative Lab
Bachelor of Visual Communication, 2005
Elliott Burford has accomplished remarkable success as a designer and art director in a relatively short period of time. Since graduating from the University of South Australia in 2005, Elliott has designed key experiences for global brands including YouTube, Nike+, IBM, Mastercard, Volvo – just to name a few. He is currently a Creative Lead, Design with the Google Creative Lab in New York (and the envy of many!).
Elliott explains how he went from working as a graphic designer in a small team in Adelaide to a billion dollar company within ten years, and shares his insights with others working towards their own career goals - particularly how not specialising in one specific area has opened more opportunities for him.
Briefly outline your pathway from studying a Bachelor of Visual Communication to Creative Lead, Design at Google Creative Lab.
After graduating in 2005 I worked as a graphic designer with a small team in Adelaide for two years before jumping ship to see what London offered (it offered rain). I wanted to see how design might work on a bigger scale — with bigger teams, bigger clients and bigger budgets. It turns out that bigger is not necessarily better, and after 18 months I had a hunger for doing more subversive projects.
This led me to a residency at Fabrica, a communications research centre in Treviso, Italy. Fabrica’s ethos is that “communication, in all its applications, must be a vehicle of conscious social change.” Through this lens the next two years were spent producing illustrations, objects and film for commercial ventures, non-profit organisations and exhibitions across Europe. Working alongside a bunch of incredibly talented twenty-somethings from around the world, I learned about different cultures and the realities of places less (and more) fortunate than ours.
Armed with this broadened worldview, it reaffirmed my desire to work exclusively with ideas that I could believe in; ideas that were useful and would have a positive impact on people’s lives. I headed to New York and soon found a co-conspirator in digital agency R/GA, where I spent the next four years working with clients like Audible, Google, Nike, Samsung, Tiffany & Co and YouTube. Based in R/GA’s Business Transformation team, our role was to shape the idea and expression at the centre of a product or company. I found this extremely fulfilling, but would often encounter clients who didn’t necessarily want the best for their customers — or at least didn’t behave that way. I wondered what it would be like to consistently work with a company whose mission aligned with mine.
Then Google called (well, emailed). “Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Put another way, Google works to democratise access to tools and information for everyone, everywhere — brilliant! I joined late last year and it’s been phenomenal.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m most proud of having been able to somewhat blindly follow my intuition, and embrace discomfort for the opportunity to discover something new.
Your career has spanned across many different types of art – from graphic design and illustration, as well as producing small videos for not-for-profit organisations and exhibitions. Do you think that this ‘non-specialisation’ has opened up more career opportunities?
I had struggled with the idea of specialisation earlier in my career, as it works wonderfully for some creatives. It can be very useful to be ‘the guy that just does that thing,’ particularly if running your own studio; but there is a danger that you won’t be asked to do anything else. There have been opportunities to dedicate myself to specialisation and each time it’s felt like I would be giving up on everything else I’m interested in — good ideas aren’t limited to a single medium or style.
While it’s essential for creatives to have a core strength (mine remains graphic design), being genuinely curious to learn and experiment in other areas will open up not only career opportunities, but creative possibilities. Understanding the challenges of designing a chair enables you to design a typeface differently; designing for an exhibition might allow a new approach to a virtual reality experience, and on it goes.
It’s also made it easier to identify people and studios I want to work with, because they value those excursions outside of the norm — in my first interview at Google I was asked specifically about an object I’d made.
Explain what it is like to work for Google, an internationally recognised and renowned company.
Each day in the Google Creative Lab means working alongside an incredibly talented team of designers, writers, programmers, filmmakers, producers and business thinkers, who spend 99.9% of their time making. With the task to help invent Google’s future and communicate Google’s innovations, it’s a wonderfully challenging and surprising environment. You’re inspired to do your best work, because there are so few limitations to what is possible. There’s no typical project for Creative Lab, so here’s a few examples of recent projects we’ve been involved in:
- Gboard - A new app for your iPhone that lets you search and send information, GIFs, emojis and more, right from your keyboard.
- The Data Center Mural Project - Muralists reimagine the facades of Google Data Centers.
- Chrome Music Lab - For Music in Our Schools Month, a set of experiments that let anyone explore how music works using a technology that’s open to everyone: the web.
- Google, evolved - Evolving Google’s look and feel.
What projects are you looking forward to in the near future?
I’m really captivated by projects (and finding projects) that can utilise Google’s incredible technology to answer real human needs, however big or small. While I can’t talk about any of my current projects, an example of the sort of project I get super excited about is Tap-to-translate, this great new feature for Google Translate that my peers worked on.
With the benefit of hindsight what advice do you have for young graduates starting out in their careers?
Dream big. Go exploring. Make stuff. Share what you discover. Rinse and repeat.