Inside Google Creative Lab with Steve Vranakis

'I didn’t have much growing up. But it was technology that empowered me and opened my mind to learning more about the world and accessing opportunity, says the Executive Creative Director at the Dubai Lynx Creativity Festival  

“History has shown that this region has some of the most creative minds in the world and I’m here to tell you, we need more creatives in this world, not just to touch the lives of consumers but also to transform lives for those in need," says Steve Vranakis, the Executive Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab.

Vranakis brings his ethos of “creative activism” to the 11th edition of Dubai Lynx Creativity Festival, the Middle East’s foremost gathering for the creative communications industry. With “our gift of creativity, we are more powerful than we think”, he says.

It’s a belief that has defined Vranakis storied 20-year career in the advertising world, as the brains behind snazzy product launches for Coke Zero and UK mobile carrier O2, and in his role at Google’s Creative Lab in London overseeing a “ragtag group of idealists and vagabonds” scattered across Europe, the Middle East Africa and India.

I try to shield my team from having their creative focus diverted and diluted by meetings. All we do is think and make

Part think-tank, part supercharged start-up, the Google’s Creative Lab works on everything from YouTube to Deepmind and Google X. “We have writers, designers, filmmakers, coders, architects, engineers…people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds,” says Vranakis. Whereas some societies are insular and exclusive, he says the Creative Lab is living, breathing proof of how diversity is essential towards human progress. “Bringing the best talent from all over the world is what allows this phenomenal creative collision that results in some truly amazing expressions of creativity”.

These expressions of creativity have touched people all over the world, from students to refugees to slum-dwellers. The Lab’s legacy includes projects such as the World Wonders Project which offers access to the world’s heritage sites through Google Street View; the YouTube Space Lab Channel, a global initiative in partnership with NASA that challenges high school students to design a science experiment to be performed in space, and the award-winning Project Jacquard, where technology is woven into textiles, turning any piece of clothing into an interactive and connected surface.

“Yes, the Lab is a hotbed of intense creativity, not just for the sake of being creative, but for being impactful,” says Vranakis. While most office-goers have to juggle meetings and briefings alongside their assigned tasks, not so at the Lab. “We ‘make’ 99.9 percent of the time,” he says. “I try to shield my team from having their creative focus diverted and diluted by meetings. All we do is think and make.” 

The process is lean and democratic, where ideas with the most merit and momentum move forward. Whenever a team member has an idea, he or she articulates what they want to achieve in one line on a plain poster and puts it up on a communal wall. If the idea draws interest from a critical mass of colleagues, then it gets the go-ahead.

Yes, the Lab is a hotbed of intense creativity, not just for the sake of being creative, but for being impactful

Much like a high-growth start-up, rapid prototyping is the lifeblood of the Creative Lab and “We aim to make stuff on a very small budget within a week”, says Vranakis. One such fast and furious sprint saw the team create a mobile info hub for Syrian refugees in just 36 hours. This open source smartphone project, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps, provides refugees with information about their journeys including maps, translation facilities, nearest medical centers and housing.

According to Vranakis, the work of the Creative Lab goes beyond being a megaphone for brand Google. “We’re looking to remind people what they love about Google, but beyond that, it really is about breaking down barriers through technology to enable everyone to succeed.”

He cites his own experience, growing up in a working class Greek immigrant family in Canada. “I didn’t have much growing up. But it was technology that empowered me and opened my mind to learning more about the world and accessing opportunity. The internet is not racist or classist or sexist. When people use it constructively, it can truly transform their lives.”

“Know the user. Know the magic. Connect the two. That’s what Google is about. The more we can understand and help people, the better.”