The Inverse Interview

The Real Reason Google Keeps Changing the Pixel Camera Bar

Aesthetics, or clever engineering?

Originally Published: 
Claude Zellweger, Director of Industrial Design for Google Pixel hardware holding the Pixel 8 Pro's ...
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Raymond Wong
The Inverse Interview

Not too long ago, smartphones had more personality. An iPhone with a home button looked distinct from a BlackBerry with a keyboard; an HTC might have used metal instead of the plastic in a Motorola; Samsung phones flaunted their curved glass edges while OnePlus devices touted pop-selfie cameras.

You used to be able to identify what phone everyone used just because they all had so much character. Nowadays, phones mostly all look the same. With the exception of phones that fold or flip, they’re turning into iPhone clones.

The last easy way to distinguish phones in the wild is by their rear camera setup. How many lenses does a phone have? Do they sit on a platter or a bar? Are the lenses vertically or horizontally aligned? The best way, for example, to tell the difference between a Galaxy S24+ and iPhone 15 Pro is to look at the camera arrangement — three cameras in a triangle for the iPhone, a vertical row of three for the Galaxy. The next biggest difference is one of them has an Apple emblazoned on the back.

When I visited Google’s highly secured Pixel CMF (Colors, Materials, and Finish) and Industrial Design lab last month to talk with the head of Pixel cameras, Isaac Reynolds, I also took a little detour to chat with Claude Zellweger, Director of Industrial Design (aka the guy in charge of designing new Pixel hardware).

“It’s natural for people to anthropomorphize the products.”

“No, it was architecture,” Zellweger tells Inverse, when I ask whether the Pixel 8’s prominent “camera bar” was inspired by Daft Punk’s helmets or R2-D2, two pop culture icons that reviewers and consumers always seem to reference as potential source material. “It’s natural for people to anthropomorphize the products. We’re wired that way as humans to see faces and things like that.”

For my visit, Google brought out every single Pixel (from the original to the current 8 Pro) and I could see seven years of smartphone design laid out in front of me, all at once. It was revealing how much the upgrades to the camera (arguably the most important feature on phones nowadays) facilitated the changes in design. Google has refreshed the Pixel’s design language every time a new camera has been added, which might have kept things fresh back when there was more phone differentiation, but the camera bar is now a recognizable design element that makes a Pixel a Pixel. What direction will Google take the Pixel hardware in now that it’s at the beginning of injecting generative AI into its phones? Zellweger gives Inverse a tease on what’s to come.

Hardware Is No Hobby

Claude Zellweger, Google’s Director of Industrial Design, is in charge of developing the look and feel of new Pixel hardware.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Zellweger has been at Google since 2016. Prior to arriving at the Mountain View, California-based technology titan, Zellweger was a creative director at HTC, where he worked on the Vive VR headsets. He joined Google to do industrial design for Google’s ill-fated Daydream headsets and then moved over to the Pixel hardware team.

When we meet in the atrium of the Pixel design lab (a discrete-looking building that requires high-security clearance), Zellweger’s tall Swiss frame towers over me. But he’s an easy-going guy who lets his goofiness hang out every once in a while. We talk about how the natural light gleaming from the overhead glass and the earthy tones of the furniture keep everyone in the lab invigorated and inspired, and where and what he and his team draw from to design Google hardware. Our focus is on the Pixel phones, but Zellweger reminds me that all of Google’s hardware (Pixel phones, tablets, smartwatches, wireless earbuds, Chromebooks, Nest smart home products, etc.) are designed so that they not only work together, but look cohesive.

“There are a ton of eyes on us including the CEO [Sundar Pichai] who cares about having a really well thought-out and deeply integrated experience, and there is a pressure in the sense that we need to be successful as a company,” Zellweger says. “Making hardware went from a hobby to becoming a critical element for the Google business.”

“Making hardware went from a hobby to becoming a critical element for the Google business.”

Pichai’s involvement in the Pixel wasn’t always a given. Just four years ago, when Google launched the Pixel 4a, a mid-range phone that was entirely forgettable, it seemed as though the company was done with smartphone innovation. But then a year later, Google released the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, marking the start of what has been a three-year run of high-end phones, with custom Google-designed Tensor silicon and packages that compete head-on with iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones with gorgeous designs, versatile cameras, top-notch displays, and big batteries, but that also leap ahead of them in terms of AI features.

“[Pichai] loves design. He actually has great insights. He will comment on color, ergonomics, on things like that. But at the end of the day, it’s [Rick Osterloh, Senior Vice President of Devices & Services at Google] hardware organization.” (After my trip, Osterloh was promoted from leading only Google hardware to also overseeing Android and Chrome services.)

The Limitations Of Phone Design

Since the Pixel 6, the Google’s phone hardware has been designed around the prominent camera bar.

As I walked around the design lab — only a portion of which was made available to me, with several tables of presumably unreleased products covered with large white tarps — I ogled at the various products and color schemes laid out on shelves and in cabinets on one side of the room. There were products from all over the world, brought back by team members, in many colors and patterns. Zellweger opened one empty drawer and told me it had been crawling with ants because it had been filled with candy — a colorful inspiration from around the world. On another wall of shelves were all of Google’s current hardware — a spectrum from black, green, blue, white, and pink — really highlighting how they all look as an ecosystem of products as opposed to standalone ones.

“We try not to look too much at other tech for inspiration,” Zellweger says as I observe the different cloth-like fabrics, plastics, and metals of the Pixel lineup. “We have to be aware of it, but that’s definitely not where we’re looking.”

“We try not to look too much at other tech for inspiration.”

“A design language should never be rigid,” Zellweger says, explaining why the Pixel Fold’s camera bar doesn’t stretch edge to edge like it does on the non-folding Pixel phones. “It should always allow for you to design the best for that particular category. If you have a foldable, it’s a different proposition when you open it up and it becomes a tablet. The camera bar, from edge to edge, doesn’t work very well. It’s only on one side so we created this free-floating element that’s sitting better within the overall shape.”

A recognizable product with a strong visual element like the camera bar is important for brand awareness, but at the end of the day, Google’s industrial designers still have to work with physical restraints.

“You need to always think about every aspect of the product. One of the important things is 90 percent of people use cases. With the Pixel 8, seriously going forward, we’ve begun to design the product with the case together from the beginning. So just like color is not an afterthought, cases cannot be an afterthought, because you have to design it as such that it looks great and feels great.”

Big Hero 6

The current generation of Pixel phones (Pixel 6, 7, and 8) is nearing its end. The Pixel 9 should come with a redesign, but one that’s not too radically different.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Since the introduction of the horizontal camera bar on the Pixel 6 series, it does feel like a purposeful design evolution was unleashed. The camera bar not only looks unique, but it also balances the phone so that it doesn’t rock on a flat surface such as a table. The camera bar elevates the Pixel phones at a slant so it’s easier to glance at, but the non-rocking factor really is a touch that Apple, Samsung, and other phone makers clearly don’t consider.

“[The camera bar] is functional but also static to create a better visual balance,” he says. “It’s just a little switch that we turned on a couple of generations ago.”

Though Zellweger didn’t start working on the Pixel’s industrial design until the “modern era” (aka the “Pixel bar era”), he points to three distinct design eras for the eight generations of Pixel phones, presented on three trays in front of us. In the first era, there’s the Pixel 1, 2, and 3 — with a two-tone rear finish that accommodates a single rear camera. Then, in the second era, there’s the Pixel 4 and 5 — these phones had a square camera bump (before the iPhone did!). And then, the third or modern era as Zellweger calls it includes the Pixel 6, 7, and 8 — three generations of refining the camera bar.

“When you look back at these [Pixel 1, 2, and 3], the camera placement is kind of arbitrary and wherever the engineering could fit it because we didn’t have the deep engineering design integration that we have today. But [the Pixel 4 and 5] is really the first time where the camera became one of the primary design elements. With the introduction of two cameras, we had this opportunity to really create a strong graphical icon that harkens back to the playfulness of the Google brand.”

The triple-lens camera sensors for the Google Pixel 8 Pro.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

It’s really with the Pixel 6 that Zellweger says they decided to lean more into the cameras as a strong part of the Pixel’s industrial design. If Google is claiming it has the best camera in any phone, then the hardware should project that.

“[The phone design of the Pixel 6] was driven by our desire to have a much more sophisticated camera module,” he says. “We wanted the [triple lenses] to be more hidden in a way rather than look like individual lenses. We wanted to create this kind of Mondrian architectural, graphic element with multiple colors, so being able to run that camera bar across was like a really nice way to achieve a ‘you can read it from across the room’ kind of thing and to accommodate a really good camera.”

Of course, while the camera is very core to Pixel phones, there are other components that are of equal priority — like the battery. Zellweger didn’t directly say it, but an oft-cited reason why camera modules are placed in the upper left corner or towards the top and not the center anymore is because a larger battery needs to occupy that space. “It’s definitely a song and dance with engineering but sometimes what is best for one component is not best for the overall product,” Zellweger tells me.

“You’ll see a lot of this idea of DNA, and not jumping from one design to another every year is really important.”

As such, at this point in the modern smartphone’s life, we’re reaching peak design. Bar-style touchscreen phones are the standard. Foldables are for the outgoing. And new form factors that phones are morphing into, whether that’s clothing-worn device like Humane’s Ai Pin or smartwatches with more standalone features, are clearly experimental. Zellweger wouldn’t share specific details about what Google has planned for future Pixels, but we can all be confident that bar-style Pixel phones aren’t going away anytime soon. Google will continue to refine the phones and polish them with tweaks every year. We’ve already seen that with the Pixel 6 through 8; each model has a cleaner design with fewer seams and more unibody construction that’s both aesthetically prettier and more functional (i.e. better wireless performance through the metal frame bands).

“It’s going to be a new tray [for a new generation of industrial design],” Zellweger teases when I probe about what’s next for the Pixel. “You’ll see a lot of this idea of DNA, and not jumping from one design to another every year is really important. Our customers actually want that continuity. They want progression — the visual progression needs to follow the technical progression underneath and not zigzag all over the place.”

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