Sharon Harris and what it’s like working in tech

Editor’s note: More and more people are flocking away from the standard studio or freelance model toward the tech industry. There are a lot of questions surrounding the topic of what it’s like to work in tech as a motion designer. After all, there is a big shift from working primarily on advertisements to working on a specific product. Motion is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity and thankfully, in this Guest Post, we hear from the very talented Sharon Harris about what it’s like working in tech and her experience being a part of the Google Design team. Enjoy!

When I meet someone for the first time and tell them what I do for work, I’m often met with a puzzled look and a variety of questions afterward. As a motion designer, I’m accustomed to people not fully understanding what I do, but even those that have a general grasp tend to scratch their heads when I say I work at Google. Questions range from how did you get a job at Google? Did you always know you wanted to be a motion designer? Is the work boring? Do you use Framer? 

I began my career in advertising, in an agency called Wieden + Kennedy. At W+K I did an array of motion work for clients like Coca Cola, Old Spice, Verizon, Nike among others. After three years of doing this work, I decided to leave to join Google and the Material Design team in 2016. Material is a design system helping Google and third-party teams to build high-quality digital experiences. My day used to start with an early 1.5hr bus ride to Mountain View with a coffee in hand. 

Motion design roles at Google truly depend on which team you’re a part of. If you’re in a product team there is a tighter focus for projects, and you’re tasked with understanding and reacting to your product’s user research with the best solutions. If you’re in a system team (like me) you’re thinking of Google overall and how to systematize animation to serve a wide variety of contexts. In a product team your role (often times) is to advocate for Material patterns and illustrate how those patterns can apply as a system within your product. You also work closely with engineers to implement these patterns.

When I started in Material Design back in 2016, my role was more focused on dissecting our Material Design Guidelines and figuring out what needed to change and why. Then working with UX and visual designers, researchers and engineers to prove these new concepts. Jonas Naimark, Eric Henry, Adam GrabowskiKe Li and I ended up writing the second version of the Material Motion guidelines (shoutout to John Schlemmer for writing the first version!). The process took extensive research and trial/error to arrive at our conclusions.

Today, my role in the Google Design team is currently closer to that of a role at a motion studio. Only that my client is always Google, but the projects range from building a new feature to our editorial website, to creating a visual and animated identity for a video program, to putting together a design conference. At Google Design, similarly to Material Design, we work across teams to create content and produce events that showcase Google’s design work and champion innovators in our field. Just a few years ago Google wasn’t considered a design leader in the industry at large. Google Design was part of helping to change that narrative for Google. Our editorial platform allows teams to tell their stories in creative and immersive ways. We also partner with many teams at Google to craft intentional and thoughtful experiences. We are the platform for teams at Google to showcase, talk about and engage with our audience. As a motion designer, I’m embedded in crafting these experiences with teams and making sure we are improving our platform to meet their needs. 

What uniquely unites all of the work I’ve done at Google on the Material Design and Google Design teams is the importance of advocating about the value motion brings to a variety of experiences at Google. Often times collaborators didn’t understand the value that motion could bring to a product not only in the final implementations but in the process of getting there. Over time people have become much more open to thinking about motion early on in the process. 

I see motion at a tech company as a powerful asset. We dance between telling narratives and implementing beautiful, smart and accessible interactive animations to our products. Motion internally can be used to pitch ideas, tease new updates, branding and deck presentations. Motion to an external audience can be seen in all our interactive applications (through componentry, onboarding, branding, Material Design guidelines), Google hardware (Nest, Home, Pixel, Daydream), product websites, advertising, social media, teasers, and more. There are plenty of opportunities for motion designers to be creating, implementing and showcasing motion across our products.  

Something I had never experienced before in my career before coming to Google was the ability to shape what processes and new patterns look like for a company this size. However, with this comes responsibility. Inclusivity is a huge part of the design process as well as intricately understanding the audience you’re trying to design for. As a Googler you always put the user first, no matter how beautiful or innovative your idea. Top-level questions are: does it benefit the user? Is it accessible to all audiences? Is there data to back this design decision? And motion has no shortage of this. A practice I do when animating an interaction is to test extremes: expressive vs conservative. This allows me to stress test against different personas and rule out the ones that are not accessible or functional.  

Impostor syndrome is really real for me. I don’t come from a traditional design or interaction background, so being surrounded by incredibly brilliant designers, researchers, content strategists and engineers can be very intimidating. But something I have come to realize over the last few years is that coming in with a different perspective, having an opinion and staying curious are key elements to staying relevant at a place like Google. Embracing your uniqueness is important because this is the value that you bring to the company. Additionally, being a flexible and friendly collaborator are a few immensely important skills to have anywhere, but especially at a place like Google. Google is all about collaboration. You don’t need to have all the answers the minute someone asks you, you just need to be willing to get your hands dirty and do the work to find those answers and work with the right partners to get there.

If you’re still curious to learn more about working at a place like Google, I’m always happy to chat more about this. Definitely check out guidelines to learn more about motion best practices in UI/UX. And check out our editorial platform to read more about what’s happening in design at Google.

About the author

Joe Donaldson

Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.