Text: Jens Persson Top
Image: Stephan Hoederath / Google
Judging by his own career, the empirical evidence suggests
switching lanes is instrumental to fueling and fostering creative
His CV, at a glance, tells that very story. He has displayed an
almost stubborn curiosity, showcased by trying very different
things and switching industries, seemingly while at the peak of his
powers. Having concluded a massive project in Mexico City with his
own design studio, where he oversaw the interior design of movie
theatres at the National Mexican Film Institute, he packed up shop
in 2013 and joined Google. Before soon, he was spearheading the
design end of the tech giant's first venture into the global mobile
"I never wanted to limit myself to one type of product or a
specific industry. I think it makes you a better designer to work
on a variety of projects. Actually, the more you know about a
certain type of product the more you start thinking about how to
not do things. Then you might start to limit yourself creatively",
says Alberto Villarreal.
One of the movie theaters at Cineteca Nacional
designed by Alberto Villarreal. Image: Courtesy of
The Cineteca Nacional project in Mexico City, a huge government
contract, is a telling example. Alberto and his friend and
colleague, architect Michel Rojkind, were given the responsibility
of reinventing a unique cultural space at the heart of Mexican
cinema. A daunting prospect. One that any young designer may have
hesitated to take on. On top of that, designing movie theatres was
quite the stretch for Alberto at the time. Being responsible for
the interior design he found himself, for the first time in his
career, consulting with experts in acoustics and lighting.
"It was truly fascinating and educational. We got the
opportunity to remodel some of the old theatres and even design a
couple of new ones, eleven theatres in total. And it was
super-satisfactory to then see people going to the complex for
movie festivals, witnessing it becoming an actual part of cultural
life in Mexico City."
Finding your creative fuel in design
Switching gears to stay creatively fresh in your career is not a
revolutionary concept by any means. In fact, these days it is
probably one of the standard tips given by career coaches
everywhere. However, in a job where the innovative process carries
such defining significance as it does in design, the creative
muscle needs to be continually flexed.
So, what does the creative process in industrial design entail?
What are the inspirations, methods and mechanisms that allow the
creative juices to flow? Such motivations may differ significantly
from one designer to another. In Alberto Villarreal's case, the
front end of a product's journey is where it all happens.
"For me, that's the heavily creative phase where you have to
come up with a lot of concepts through sketching, mock-ups,
prototyping and making models. At that stage, when it's just you
and the form, that's really a beautiful process"
The fuel for such creative sessions has to come from somewhere.
No designer is an empty vessel where ingenious ideas are born out
of nothing. Getting stimulated and drawing inspiration from
different sources is important, whether it is taught in a classroom
or not. It's also a highly individual process. A lot of the time it
is even an unconscious one.
A sketch of the interior and exterior of the
Cineteca Nacional project at the National Mexican Film
Institute. Image: Courtesy of Alberto
"Most designers will probably say that they're inspired by
people. And that's of course true in my case as well. But I also
tend to look towards other industries such as architecture, fashion
and furniture. For example, you might be browsing a magazine,
another time you'll be walking around a store absorbing all kinds
of cultural information visually. I also used to paint a lot, I'm
really passionate about music and I'm curious to learn more about
sculptures. All these things stay in my brain and when I'm
sketching the influences mix together and combine to inspire
"Other times, of course, it will be more conscious. Perhaps tied
to an already defined project. You might be trying to understand
and analyze certain cultural trends and translate that into a
specific product where you aim to appeal to a certain market or
maybe a specific season of the year."
"Designers are experts in beauty"
Alberto Villarreal has been quoted saying that "designers are
experts in beauty". Some industrial designers, perhaps leaning more
towards function and usability, may not agree. In his opinion,
these parts are not mutually exclusive.
"I think it's true that we're experts in beauty, especially so
when working in an environment with multiple experts from other
disciplines. For me, when I'm dealing with professionals in
engineering, materials and business, I have to be the expert in
during a session for the Google Pixel 2 Phone.
To Alberto, all humans bear some responsibility for what we put
into the world. For a leading designer at Google where products are
produced in large quantities, that responsibility multiplies
The cultural revolution at Google
At Google, the main challenge for Alberto has not only been the
grand task of suddenly designing for a multitude of users. It has
been to give birth to a new culture within the company. From one
day to the next, his team has been part of ushering in a new era,
creating and producing hardware products within the world's biggest
software corporation. For the Pixel Phone series and the Pixelbook
(the Google laptop), where Alberto has been the Creative Lead
designer, that also meant crafting a new design language, from
The design team at
Google during the development of the Pixelbook
laptop. Photo: Google
"Developing a hardware product in a company that has built its
brand around software development presented its challenges, of
course. But it's been truly rewarding to create a new culture here,
being part of that journey has been really fascinating.
"For both products, I've been heavily involved in developing the
design language. If you look at the Pixelbook from ten meters away,
for example, you immediately know what product it is. That pretty
much tells me everything. That's the most important part of the
design language for me. The Pixel 2 Phone is another example with
its black and white aesthetics that became quite iconic. That one
you could also spot from far away. People even started calling it
'the panda' after a while".
Alberto Villarreal and his team explore
different design trajectories working on the Google Pixel Phone
series. Photo: Google
Putting together a smartphone that is able to compete in today's
flooded marketplace requires more than a distinctive exterior
design language. Naturally, the Pixel Phone team at Google also
involves experts developing software and AI, as well as the camera.
All these capabilities needed to converge into one tangible
"Of course, with such complex products it's sometimes a bit of a
negotiation among different teams with experts from different
disciplines, but ultimately we're all designing for the user and
that sentiment resonates among us all."
On being ingrained with the UID DNA
Last year, Alberto returned to his alma mater as keynote speaker
for the UID19 Design Talks & Degree Show. Although he hadn't
been back since graduating from the Master's Programme in
Transportation Design in 2002, the school premises soon felt
strangely familiar despite 17 years having passed.
"I think it's because you spend so much time at school when
you're here as a student. That also means you end up developing
really strong bonds with your fellow students. It all makes the
school feel like an actual home".
during his keynote adress at the UID19 Design Talks & Degree
Show. Photo: Peder Fällefors
"At UID, everybody's talking about design all the time,
inspiring each other. While you're developing your own projects,
you're learning so much from the other students, exchanging ideas.
It's intense and it's very passionate. It's such a unique
educational environment. Working so closely with the industry on
projects, it also really felt like a design office. Those two years
were very important for me and my development, and they still
Alberto Villarreal is an avid long-distance runner, as his
well-stocked Instagram feed will tell you. Competing in multiple
races each year, he approaches his running with the same meticulous
rigour as he does a design project. Every year he sets himself
detailed goals in order to evolve as an athlete. One assumes he
will continue to keep pushing himself in a similar way in design
before he reaches the finish line of a colourful career.