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Around Design Podcast — episode eight: Alberto Villareal

For the eighth episode, we welcome Alberto Villarreal, Director of Design at Tonal. He chats with Daniela about his career path, the intersection of industrial and digital design, and the importance of creating intentional spaces for design critique and evaluation.

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Exploring every avenue of design

For the past year, Alberto has been the Director of Design at Tonal, an at-home smart gym company seeking to revolutionize the fitness industry. In that role, he leads both the industrial design and user experience teams. 

Prior to joining Tonal, Alberto spent a decade working on the industrial design team at Google, where he helped develop the Pixel smartphone. Before that, he worked in the consulting industry for ten years, both at his own firm and for LUNAR, one of the most well-established agencies in the Bay Area. 

His degree is actually in transportation design, a unique educational background that has helped him to understand the wide-ranging impact design can have on just about any industry. “I’ve intentionally strategized my career so I can remain a generalist,” he says. “I want to touch as many industries — transit, consumer electronics, architecture, digital products — and aspects of design as possible.”

Understanding both hardware and software design

During Alberto’s tenure at Google, he got the opportunity to witness a major shift at the organization. “It was sort of a ‘startup within an enterprise,’” he says, referring to the Pixel smartphone industrial design team. Until that point, Google was known almost exclusively as a software company, not a producer of consumer products. Even Alberto admits that this shift into making hardware came with a bit of a learning curve. 

“It took bringing in new people to build the right team and expertise,” he says. It also required a change in mindset. “With software, development can move very quickly. If there’s an error, you can release an update and address it even after you’ve shipped,” he explains. “With hardware, that’s not possible. You need to consider factory time, raw materials, and so forth. It requires lots of infrastructure, which doesn’t allow for quick changes or patches.” 

As the industrial design team grew in both size and influence, they were able to reach a “critical mass” within the organization and could communicate critical design information around timelines, development, and potential obstacles with cross-functional stakeholders. However, it took time—years, in fact. “It wasn’t like flipping a switch,” Alberto says. “But we were able to permeate the value of design across the organization.”

Google pixel

Alberto spent a decade working at Google developing the Pixel smartphone

Establishing a dedicated design space

Different groups can sometimes speak different languages when it comes to communicating ideas and sharing feedback. After all, not everyone who is involved in the design process is a designer by trade. Part of the problem is also where design feedback is often given. At Google, they initially brought their prototypes into a regular conference room to gather opinions and suggestions from stakeholders outside of the design team. However, Alberto discovered this wasn’t really the ideal environment to evaluate device models. So, he decided to change things up. 

“We needed to create the right physical environment to review designs,” he says. That meant good lighting, a white table and backdrop, and clutter-free surfaces. Alberto got to work creating these dedicated design spaces, and quickly found that design review meetings became more productive. He even noticed a change in the energy as colleagues entered the “sacred design environment.” “We were very intentional about setting the stage for design to be evaluated,” he says. “It turned out we needed a sort of ‘ceremony’ for design to be properly appreciated.”

The importance of expertise 

Having design-focused spaces could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, these types of environments can be inviting, allowing for more democratic participation in the review process. On the other, they can seem intimidating. 

Alberto acknowledges this, and realizes that striking the right balance is a bit of a “dance.” “Because we all have experience with consumer products, all of us have opinions on them,” he says. “That’s fine and we welcome them. However, we do ask that our colleagues trust us to make the final decision.” 

Because design often involves so many subjective elements, it can be difficult to quantify why a certain design decision makes the most sense. Over time, however, professional designers develop what Alberto calls “informed intuition,” or an innate understanding of best practices and user behavior. “As a designer, I’ve built up an expertise around aesthetics, so I do want my cross-functional partners to respect that. And I do the same for them. I trust their marketing, financial, and decision-making process as well.” 

The most critical skill for a designer

One might think the most important skill for a designer is visual thinking, artistic ability, or creativity. According to Alberto, however, it’s the ability to learn quickly. Products aren’t what they used to be! So many of them now include both hardware and software, and the development and delivery processes involve a wider range of stakeholders. Also, designers work in just about every industry, and some are employed by agencies or consulting firms, which require a broad range of expertise and experience. 

“That’s why I’ve always tried to stay a generalist,” Alberto says. “And you’ve got to be able to learn fast! That’s the most important skill for a designer today.”

More from Around

You can listen to all the Around Design Podcast episodes, or watch previous sessions from the Around 3D Design Festival  all on the Around website.

You can subscribe to the podcast and listen on the go with Spotify, Apple podcasts, and Google podcasts

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