Six Questions: Tom Chi

Introducing Device Design Day 2012’s speakers!

This year we asked them a version of Jennifer Bove’s Six Questions. First up, we want you to meet Tom Chi, Experience Lead at Google X.

Tom Chi has worked in a wide range of disciplines from astrophysical research to F500 consulting to developing new hardware and software (web & client) products and services. He’s worked on large projects of global scale (Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo Search), and scaled new projects from conception to significance (Yahoo Answers from 0 to 90 million users).

Tom has pioneered and practiced a unique approach to rapid prototyping, visioning, and data-driven design that has allowed him to both get new things off the ground and move large organizations at unprecedented speeds. This is been put to use most recently as the head of the design group
at Google X.



1. What is your most cherished product, and why?

The upright piano I grew up with… decades of memories and during some of the most important passages of life. For example, when I was younger and unable to play music yet, I carved designs into the wood. When I grew older, I learned how to play it and was taught how to read music. The piano also taught me mechanics, since when it broke I was able to take it apart and learn how it worked. I took apart a lot of stuff and turned them into other things after that.  Now, when I go back home and play that piano, it is the sound of home to me and my family. I have learned over the years that very few products can compare to that upright piano.

2. What’s the one product you wish you had created/built/designed, and why?

I don’t really have thoughts like that because I have never wished I could do something else. Products are products.  When you set aside all the parts of a product, it has no purpose. Meaning is crafted, and sometimes even the best designers only get glimpses of this. Designing the product is intellectually satisfying for me, the finished product is just material.

3. What excites you about today’s tools and technology?

What’s exciting is that technology is finally getting good enough to meet human beings on their own terms instead of requiring that people meet technology on its terms. By this I mean that we have it all backwards. Human beings have always been social, local and mobile, it’s not a fad. It’s not about people catching up with technology, it’s technology that is catching up with us and it is awesome!

4. When do you first remember getting excited by the intersection of design and technology?

I’ve pretty much always been interested in both. Perhaps the first time they intersected was trying to write games on the Apple IIe when I was in 5th grade. I was in a special program that allowed our class to have access to computers. On cold days, we would take computer games, break them, and inject different codes to change the game’s behavior. It was stupid programming, but programming nonetheless. I became more interested in designing screen savers at that age than creating games. To be honest, I just got lazy and wanted to create something that looked cool rather then write games.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned and who taught it to you?

From having a near death experience I learned that there’s nothing to fear. I had lost about 40% of my blood in 30 minutes. I was on the edge of having permanent brain damage and entering a coma I wouldn’t be able to come out of. I received four blood transfusions simultaneously. After that didn’t work, I received four more to keep me from dying. I was conscious the entire time, so I could feel my systems shutting down. After you have had a near death experience, things that seemed important lose value. You build up all this anxiety over little things and suddenly you realize that none of the stress is worth it. This experience completely molded my career because now I choose what is important. People have all these different constructs in their lives and most of what we fear is some sort of attraction to all constructs. Suddenly, I realized that it’s all made up and we can choose what we want to take seriously.

6. What are your five pearls of wisdom you can give to the product design community?

Pearls of wisdom: (quotes by me)

“Art is about freedom, design is about constraints.”

“There is no design without data.”

“Leadership is just the act of creating shared value.”

“The more people you lead, the more people you serve.”

“All of life is expression or abstraction.”


Don’t miss Tom Chi’s presentation, “Rapid Prototyping X”, at Device Design Day, August 3, 2012 in San Francisco. Registration is open, so reserve your spot and get ready for a day full of innovation and inspiration.