We spoke to Sara Lunder, Design Lead & Manager at Google, to hear about her award-winning design background, her love-hate relationship with advertising and listen to her advice on how creatives should tackle any big problem.
“Everything that followed was deeply grounded in reality. Always very ambitious, but grounded.”
When are you most creative?
To be completely honest I have a completely dysfunctional biorhythm, and so it seems rather ironic that I have dedicated my career to improving people’s wellbeing.
I spend most of my nine to six in back to back meetings, with a lot of time dedicated to being ‘creative together’ — whether that means going in depth on complicated problems or catching a glimpse of insight that changes your perspective on a problem that you thought you had solved already.
So to get back to the question, really it’s not about the time of the day, but rather about the input that triggers my mind in a certain way. For me these things happen usually in a quiet space — or the total opposite, like when I am challenging an opinion of someone or deliberately sharing a strong opinion just to be challenged by another person and spark that creative co-creation.
Where do you have your best ideas?
Either through a properly structured and engineered process or when I’m asleep. I love what I do, sometimes a bit too much, and sometimes after work I’d get nightmares about work — especially when I don’t take sufficient time to decompress after work — but often these lead to interesting outcomes. I kind of like that these nightmares can be reshaped into something constructive.
In my day-to-day life, I really place a lot of importance on discourse. So when someone holds an opinion strongly that I actively try to challenge it from all possible perspectives, using all the possible data I can find. It’s not necessarily about my ideas, but ideas that are born out of those different ways of viewing the world.
Did you have any ‘genius’ ideas as a child that you now cringe at?
I honestly don’t remember any, but I think that’s due to the fact that I was taught very early on to ‘kill my babies’. This lesson came in two waves:
The first was from my grandma, I think I was a bit of a hyperactive toddler, so she had to keep me busy. I remember so vividly I was creating a playdough structure and when I finished it proudly showed it to her.
She smiled, acknowledged the effort, and then crushed the sculpture into a blob. Then she said: “the earthquake shattered it into pieces, can you help me rebuild it so it’s going to survive the next one”. You could easily think "how mean of her", but honestly she was the sweetest creature. I wasn’t disappointed for a second. I accepted the challenge and rebuilt the thing.
And the second phase was when I was becoming a designer — building for people meant never designing for my own needs. So it’s a personal oath that I took very early on and lived with throughout my life.
When did you first realise you were a creative thinker?
In school as a teen. I couldn’t understand why some of my brilliant friends struggled with their studies. When I look back I find it quite traumatic how we were all required to digest piles of books, and linear text, all to then spell back a few facts. I started summarising those books, creating diagrams of information, and condensing it all to a few pages. I found it so rewarding to see that it helped my friends pass those tests with excellent grades. That led to creating websites, and then the field of interaction design / later UX emerged, and all the dots got connected.
Do you remember your first ‘creative concept’? (what was it, and how do you feel about it now?
Oh, I do and it still makes me laugh and cry at the same time. It’s basically both my bachelor’s and master’s thesis work. As I went through my bachelor’s programme, I was really frustrated by the advertising industry. Growing up in Ljubljana, the city — which is heavenly beautiful — also had this ugly part to it; jumbo ad boards on every step (and also the largest shopping area per capita).
I went into the nitty-gritty of trying to understand how something so ugly manipulates people’s decisions to such a great extent. So my thesis was all about the behavioural impact of design, and the ethical responsibility the designers should adhere to — but don’t. That was the theoretical part.
As for the practical part, I had this bizarre idea to create ‘A day without an ad’. Literally imagine a city where all those jumbo boards would have those ugly ads not just scraped off, but taken out of the frame - so people would see the city through that frame.
I was stubborn enough to research the feasibility of it, and soon realised that I couldn't possibly raise millions of euros necessary to buy off the advert spaces for a day. So I took a video of the city, and photoshopped those ads out but kept the frame in.
Everything that followed was deeply grounded in reality. Always very ambitious, but grounded.
Any advice for others in their creative endeavours?
My advice for anyone starting out is: fall in love with the problem and not the solution. Try out everything outside of your comfort zone; that’s how you can shape you superpowers. Once you find them, stick to them and keep refining them.
Which brand’s art direction do you most admire?
Road signage — it’s universal and people understand it in most parts of the world without the need to spell out what each sign is for. People agree to respect each other, driving towards their goal, while allowing others to do the same.
You can see it as daily collaboration that blends egoistic with altruistic intentions. I think that’s quite beautiful particularly when you think of accidents in that context, and how they got triggered by people breaking that balance.
Are there any designers who you look at and wish you could do what they’re doing?
I admire a lot of designers and conventionally speaking, I could point at famous figures - but to be honest, oftentimes those names hide behind themselves a massive team of thinkers, who made that final idea happen.
So let’s say Jony Ive, or Dieter Rams, or Le Corbusier for instance — Charlotte Perriand worked for him and I love the fact that she made her voice heard in the era when women didn’t get a seat at the table.
But really, the people I admire the most are the people that I was lucky enough to meet, see them in their element as they design and think ‘wow’.
Maja Kecman, she used to be my boss, and is the brain behind many wellbeing products. She strives to make tools as simple and intuitive as possible. I think ‘integrity’ is a value that she lives by as a person, and breathes through every piece of work that she produces. Or Chrisoula Kapelonis, my colleague at Nest / Google Home. She really knows how to leverage technological intelligence to ease most complex human interactions.
What do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
I want to see more proof on technology positively impacting people’s health & wellbeing — honestly my dream brief would be ‘Here is what people really struggle with, and here is this amazing piece of tech - we have no idea what to do with it’ — and I want to personally be orchestrating the invisible work that will contribute to solving the problems we are all facing; or rather at least enable other people to do so.