Exclusive interview: Cooper Gill, space and experience designer, Google Glass

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Google Glass opened its first physical location in London this summer, an industrial loft space in the newly renovated Granary Building near Kings Cross. Hot on the heels of setups also launched in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, these immersive showrooms are designed as an opportunity for Glass Explorers to first discover the device.

Rather than a cold, clinical encounter, they artfully combine a hands-on look at the technical capability of the product tied to a design-led retail experience. While these are spaces open only as support sites for Explorers at present, they are a subtle demonstration of how the future of fashion and technology could co-exist in a brick and mortar scenario – away from the homogenous consumption experiences each currently present, towards a new model that combines the best of both worlds fit for an ecosystem of products still to be introduced.

We sat down with Cooper Gill, space and experience designer for Glass to talk about what went into the fit in London specifically, the detail attached to both the technical and emotional considerations of such an experience, and where he hopes his input will take the Google Glass brand in the future.

F&M: The new space is beautifully designed, can you talk us through the concept for it?

CG: Thanks! The Glass Explorer Program is new for the UK and experimental in nature. We wanted the space to feel open in both the spatial sense, but also in the conceptual sense. We are looking to Explorers to help us define our brand and invent amazing use cases for Glass and I didn’t want to lead them on too much with really traditional ‘retail-y’ design, laden with specific imagery depicting use cases; think guys riding bikes and doctors performing surgery or someone in the midst of some dull task like emailing. That type of imagery is so overused when selling technology and ultimately condescending to the user – it’s as if to say: “Hey you’re not too sharp, here’s what you should be doing with our gadget.” Sad. I’d rather present a selection of materials, forms, and more editorial images that could potentially inspire people, and let them know what makes the left side of the Glass brand’s brain tick.

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F&M: What were your key considerations going in for all that it should include?

CG: There was a nice tension of old and new materials within the building thanks to the thoughtful renovation of the Granary Building by Architects Stanton Williams. We also didn’t want to fuss too much with the materiality of the space as our timeline was very fast and budgets were to be considered. That led us to embrace some of the new parts of the space. We focused on simple commodity construction materials like CMU block and readily available plywoods and lumbers for the fixturing.

We truly think that Glass intersects fashion, consumer electronics, ‘wearables’, lifestyle, and culture. With that in mind we had to employ some retail specific design thinking. Our wall hanging mirrors had to be really large and let someone get a feel for the total look of wearing Glass from a fashion and personal aesthetic POV (they also help open the space up a touch), but at the same time we needed to make some affordances for the technical nature of the product and onboarding that needed to happen; so workstations with a degree of privacy became necessary. I mean, who wants to be learning how to use their new device, mouth ajar in awe and have a stranger sitting across from them doing the same thing.

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F&M: How did you hope the design would facilitate or enhance the experience for consumers?

CG: This is a conceptual space for us to engage our Explorer community. The design had to be scalable to accommodate different modes of use; product introduction, technical support, parties, launches, etc [Google Glass Basecamp’s inaugural event in London was the relaunch party for Fashion & Mash]. So there is quite a bit of utility and multipurpose in the fixturing and architecture. Crucial to those engagements is making sure people are having fun and feeling comfortable. If our Explorers aren’t comfortable in the initial stage of interacting with Glass where they are trying it on, learning how to use it, meeting other like-minded people, how can we expect them to fully enjoy it and leverage it in their daily life?

F&M: The role of physical versus digital is a well-debated one in retail circles today, how important did you consider the brick and mortar experience to be for the Google Glass brand? Were there any specific online elements you wanted to bring to it?

CG: I think there is an incredible depth of brand narrative you can get via online channels with imagery, video and community. But at the end of the day with a brand and product this new, this futuristic, this unprecedented in ambition, we had no choice but to present it physically in person. Goal #1 is to get people to simply try it on. In 10 seconds the majority of misconceptions are erased.

Second goal (from my POV) is to locate the brand’s taste level and what we stand for as the designers and thinkers who are bringing this product to light. I want people to know that iSalone in Milan [the leading design and furniture fair] and fashion mags interest and inspire us just as much as complex software, mechanical, and electrical engineering problems. There is such an incredible, energetic, scrappy team working on this project across so many disciplines I wanted to celebrate that fact as our parent brand (Google) can cast a giant shadow sometimes. I hope that intention shows through when in the space.

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F&M: Are there any specific features you would say are particularly unique to the fact this is a tech store in its most basic sense?

CG: I disagree that it’s strictly a tech space, and it’s definitely not a store. I don’t see the inclusion of batteries and CPUs as a rigid construct of technology anymore. The formula for a technology store is pretty homogenous these days; we cannot keep doing the same thing as the products are evolving. The beauty of fashion is that it reinvents itself season after season, [but] the model of replicating 1000+ doors as fast as possible says basically nothing other than you have the money to do it.

As the space where fashion and technology intersect becomes a dominant category over the next few years, it will be interesting to see who presents the most successful iteration and counterpoint to the current model. In regards to our space I think the subtle bit of whimsy in the fixturing, curation of contract furniture and lighting, along with a refined colour palette used in severe moderation set a different tone for our brand and what we hope to grow into.

F&M: What are you most proud of with it?

CG: The recognition you are providing with this interview is pretty awesome. Our team went hard for a few weeks straight and put in tons of overtime to get the space ready in time for our UK launch.

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F&M: What little details do you consider really important that others may not notice?

CG: I love the mixture of commodity products we refinished into design items. It’s cool to think the tables can hold 4000lbs each.

F&M: You come from a store design role at Urban Outfitters if I’m right, what did you bring to this experience from there?

CG: I started my career at UO, correct. I was fortunate to be mentored by some amazing people there who really helped me understand the value of inventiveness, exploration of materials, and a DIY attitude. UO is like creative boot camp, I think any young designer who is fortunate to do a stint there is better for it.

F&M: Are there similarities in designing a physical space between an apparel retailer and a wearable technology one?

CG: Our wearable is a little different than say the current crop of watches or clip-on sensors. We are much more in line with an apparel or eyewear retailer, in the sense we have to make room and consideration for that emotional decision making process. Conversely we do have an incredibly technical story to tell as well as a few narratives surrounding use case. So we have to design in capacity for all of those things for today as well as the ability to change for tomorrow.

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F&M: The location of this Basecamp in London is quite unique too, can you talk us through that?

CG: It’s funny, the first time I went to the site with our real estate broker was an utterly grey rainy early spring morning on a Monday or Tuesday. It was cold and anyone who had any business in the neighbourhood was hiding in doors. Somebody was running late so my broker took me into the adjacent restaurant, Caravan, for a coffee and I was immediately blown away. Why is there amazing coffee here? Why is this pastry so good? Who picked the music? Who are all these kids circa me in art school?! Yes, I’ll have baked eggs. Yes, I’ll have a cocktail (shh!)

We wrapped up our extended ‘breakfast meeting’ and walked back through the University of Arts London, and my mind was made up basically before I even saw the space. The energy that was hiding inside the University and Caravan was a necessary component that few high street locations can provide. I usually dislike overly planned developments, but Kings Cross is apparently being done right (I say this as an outsider and non-resident of London). The history is being preserved, the bustle is being returned, and no dreadful themes are being put into place.

F&M: Where are you planning to launch next and what can we look forward to?

CG: I’m very excited about the future, [but] you’ll have to stay tuned.

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