Google Adopts the Language of Steve Jobs for New HQ

| Analysis

Apple and Google are both bitter competitors and sometime partners in the smartphone business, but that hasn't stopped the search giant from looking to the computer company's legendary and late cofounder for inspiration.

In a Vanity Fair article about Google's new headquarters, the civil engineer in charge of the effort used ideas and language Steve Jobs developed at Pixar and was implementing at Apple's own Spaceship HQ to describe the building's intent.

Google Bay View Campus

Google Bay View Renderings
Credit: NBBJ

Googleplex Times Two

Google is building a new built-to-order headquarters in Mountain View the company is calling Bay View. This will be Google's first major building effort that doesn't involve repurposing existing structures to Google's needs.

“We’ve been the world’s best hermit crabs: we’ve found other people’s shells, and we’ve improved them,” David Radcliffe, the civil engineer who manages the company’s real estate projects, told Vanity Fair.

Google's current world headquarters, named the Googleplex (a fun nerdy play on math), was originally build by former tech giant Silicon Graphics. Google took it, redesigned it, expanded it, and did it's very own thing intended to make it easy for its employees to spend long hours working happily.

You can read more about it at Vanity Fair, but it was the language used to describe the building that caught our eye (after a heads up from TMO member mrmwebmax).

From the Vanity Fair piece:

The layout of bent rectangles, then, emerged out of the company’s insistence on a floor plan that would maximize what Radcliffe called “casual collisions of the work force.” No employee in the 1.1-million-square-foot complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other, according to Radcliffe. “You can’t schedule innovation,” he said. “We want to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

The Building that Jobs Built

Readers of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs (Amazon, iBooks) might find those thoughts familiar. In Chapter Thirty Three "Pixar's Friends...and Foes," Mr. Isaacson described Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, California.

According to Mr. Issacson, Steve Jobs, "had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations."

He did so by designing the building around a huge atrium that included all of the bathrooms (two large facilities for each sex), all of the mailboxes, the company's café, and the stairwell to get to any other part of the building. Even the screening theaters empty into this atrium, guaranteeing unplanned meetings.

"There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat," Mr. Jobs said. "That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."

He added, "If a building doesn't encourage [encounters and unplanned collaborations], you'll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that's sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see."

"Steve's theory worked from day one," Pixar's visionary director John Lasseter told Walter Isaacson. "I kept running into people I hadn't seen for months. I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

The similarity in approach is unmistakable, and it shows that Google is a company willing to learn from the lessons of its competitors. Other companies where creativity is valued asset would no doubt benefit from taking their own notes (we're looking at you, Marissa Mayer).

One More Thing

Check out the rendering of Google's Bay View HQ at the top of this article. The buildings are rectangles, bent in the middle to form angles. They explode out from a central courtyard in many directions.

Now look at Apple's Spaceship HQ. It's a circle, complete. It's controlled and encapsulated.

Apple's Spaceship HQ

Apple's Spaceship HQ
Credit: Photo Released to Cupertino City Council

Both campuses may have been designed to spark "casual collisions" and "unplanned collaborations," but each was done in a way that utterly reflects the overall approach of their respective companies.

That's fascinating.

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Great article as always, Bryan, and thanks for using my suggestion, as well as kudos on that new tool for suggesting articles. I hope to see it prominently on TMO, as in the past I’ve just posted to the forums and hoped one of you saw the post.

I would also like to direct TMO members to the wonderful documentary film The Pixar Story. I’m not as far into the Issacson bigraphy to have read the passages you cited. However, when reading the Vanity Fair article on the new Googleplex, I was immediately struck by how similar Google’s David Radcliffe described “casual collisions of the work force” with how Steve described the new Pixar HQ in that documentary. It was like Android all over again: Google taking Steve’s ideas and actual words almost verbatim and slightly bending them to their own preferences.

As for:

The similarity in approach is unmistakable, and it shows that Google is a company willing to learn from the lessons of its competitors. Other companies where creativity is valued asset would no doubt benefit from taking their own notes (we’re looking at you, Marissa Mayer).

Given that she’s just nixed Yahoo’s long-standing work-at-home telecommuting policies, it will be interesting to see if she can apply any of the above lessons to her always on-site staff in her continued efforts to turn around the darling of Web 1.0. (Do you Yahooooooooo? Wow, remember those Super Bowl commercials? The white bald guy who grows an Afro from something he finds online? The Eskimos who order a hot tub for their igloo? And then there was Google….)


I’m not entirely sure how collaboration works at Apple, but they have a lot of secrecy and locked-down areas.  Will the Spaceship HQ encourage chance collaboration with people who share the same lockdown and have the same NDA disclosures?  I wonder how the secrecy of Apple has affected creativity as opposed to the environment inside Pixar.


The Google building messes with my OCD.


The design philosophies of both companies are really shown by the extremely different architectural design. But even more than that the buildings seem to reflect the ethos of the respective companies. Google’s is like a fun and nimble environment whereas Apple’s is closed and mysterious. Truly fascinating indeed.


My initial impression from looking at the renderings is this:

How does having a bunch of separate buildings (it looks like 9 maybe? or if they’re connected, maybe 5 buildings?) encourage collaboration? I’m guessing people from a building in one far corner of the campus aren’t going to be seeing much of anyone from a building in the opposite corner.


See also Building 20 on the MIT campus

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