Project Ara was a project under development by Google that consisted of building a modular smartphone. In January 2015, Google decided to use Puerto Rico as a test market for Project Ara. As part of the initiative, they decided to work with local creatives and professionals. 

Miguel: “This story begins on a Monday at 4 in the morning when I received an email from a Jason@Google asking if we were interested in participating in a project. I thought it was spam! How random. Why would anyone at Google San Francisco email me to inquire if I was interested in participating in a project? How did they find out about us? Could it be a phishing scam or virus? All of these questions kept circling my mind and I was hesitant to answer. So, I decided to make coffee and as soon as Celina woke up (I always wake up first) I told her-”

Celina: “I couldn’t believe it! Of course, we want to participate! I could not wrap my head around how they found us because working in Puerto Rico can feel like you are literally on an island. I told Miguel, ‘Lets Google it!’”

Miguel: “We decided to research Jason@Google and quickly found his profile. At that moment we realized it was completely legitimate. We quickly replied that we would love to work with them and in less than 20 minutes they answered back with an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) and a note that read: ‘Thank you for your interest! Before proceeding you have to sign this document.’”

Celina: “The NDA had like 40 pages!”

Miguel: “Something like that.”

Celina: “And this was before we talked, officially or unofficially, with anyone at Google.”

Miguel: “Exactly. So, we filled, signed and sent all of the documents. They replied immediately saying that we had an interview that afternoon and started sending us a lot of information, PDF’s, and technical drawings. I still didn’t understand what the project was about and had no idea what was going on. There was one document that was an RFP (Request for Proposal) to design something called Project Ara. At that time we weren’t sure if they wanted us to design the product or its packaging. 

Celina: “We tried researching Project Ara and only two video teasers that Google posted a couple of months prior came up, but it still wasn’t clear what the project entailed.”

Miguel: “At that time our portfolio wasn’t as diverse as it is today. We had only worked on one packaging project.”

Celina: “Interestingly, at that time in the office we were really focusing on innovation. We had industrial designers, architects and an interesting combination of multidisciplinary people.”

Miguel: “Super multidisciplinary!” But, we still didn’t have that big of a portfolio. Anyways, we had the interview, which I thought was going to be very casual, and they mostly wanted to know about who we were, validate that we were a serious design studio, and had experience designing packaging.”

Celina: “The interview was with both Google San Francisco and Google New York and, for some reason, our Google Hangouts was not working. We had to do the interview by Skype!” *They laugh*

Miguel: “Jason and the team told us about the project and asked for a proposal to design a packaging for this new Google project that would ‘revolutionize’ the smartphone market. It was a modular smartphone that would allow users to customize it depending on their needs.”

Muuaaa Design Studio for Project Ara

Celina: “The launch of Project Ara’s prototype would take place in Puerto Rico because it is a regulated market and Puerto Ricans, as we learned during this process, buy a lot of smartphones and consume a lot of data. Google requested a proposal to consider us to design the packaging for this project. The proposal needed to have a budget, timeline, visualizations of the packaging, a video, and more. All of this needed to be ready in a week and, because of the project’s timeframe, they would decide on the winner that same week.”

Miguel: “Project Ara was part of the Moonshot Projects of Google ATAP, which was a division of Google that developed semi-secret and speculative projects.”

Celina: “The idea of launching it in Puerto Rico was to do so in a contained location. If you launch it in a big place like Los Angeles you have to then reach the entire nation and cannot the Project’s reach.”

Miguel: “Also, if the project fails it is much harder to contain the disaster.”

Celina: “And, obviously, since the project was taking place in Puerto Rico, Google decided to seek out local creatives. That is how they find us and reach out for a proposal. We really went the extra mile!”

Miguel: “I’ll never forget that week!  We explained the situation to our team and gave them the option of helping out with the proposal. Everyone was immediately on board and worked 16 hour days all week with us. We paralyzed all of our projects to focus on creating the best proposal we could. Google calls this: “Innovation Under Pressure.” It was a very unique situation for us and the pride and comprise everyone felt during this time gave un an adrenaline boost! We managed to put together a great presentation of over 100 slides and send it to Google on time.”

Celina: “We also made a statement of what Fresh Design meant to us. We’ve always talked about Fresh Design, but we wanted to communicate to Google exactly what that meant, and means, to us. In simple terms, Fresh Design has always symbolized how we absorb a local context, but design globally. For the presentation, we included examples of local Puerto Rican context, like the light you find in Puerto Rico, the patterns, the cadence, and not only the music but the side to side movement that characterizes us, that impacts our design. It was our belief that Google needed to understand these things if they want to penetrate Latin Markets. We understand that all of these things can translate at a design level and are very important in the designs we create.”

Muuaaa Design Studio | Project Ara

Miguel: “We also did things differently when it came to packaging. For example, for the proposal, we created a plastic packaging that was photo-chromatic. The packaging would appear transparent in stores, but once it was exposed to the sun it would become activated and you could read the instructions and see all of its details. We were trying to push the materiality of the packaging.”

Muuaaa Design Studio | Project Ara Prototype
Muuaaa Design Studio | Project Ara

Celina: “So we handed in the proposal that Monday and by Wednesday they called us saying we needed to be in San Francisco by next Monday. They told us that only one of us could go and gave us no indication if we had won the project. Even though they said we could choose who went, it was clear that they preferred Miguel. I was so nervous!”

Miguel: “When I get there on Monday for the Creative Kickoff Meeting I quickly noticed that, in the room, were a lot of people from offices I knew of and admired. Out of everyone that was there, Tom Crabtree, who designed all of the iPhone’s packaging and had already collaborated with Google in a bunch of projects, was the person that most stood out. When I first saw him I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to pitching against him!’ with the self-esteem at an all-time high.

Later I realized that we had lost the project, but they wanted us to consult on the creative aspects of Puerto Rico. The only other Puerto Rican at that meeting was a woman that was going to consult on quantitative marketing. Apart from the two of us, there were designers from Germany, New York, London, San Francisco, along with other professionals that had worked with Steve Jobs to launch the iPhone and iPad there.”

Celina: “When Miguel realized the caliber of professionals in that room we realized that, although we lost the project, we lost against the creators of the iPhone packaging. That made us feel much better!”

Miguel: “So, the meeting started and it was super productive because we determined different models that were going to be implemented to sell the smartphone.”

Celina: “The idea was to create an accessible smartphone, sold at less than $200, and for it to be modular. If you wanted better audio you would choose the audio stick. If you love video games, you would customize your modular smartphone for that purpose. Users would, in some way, build their own smartphone-based on their needs.”

Miguel: “This was also part of an ‘eco friendly’ initiative because the idea was to create a smartphone that you would never have to get rid of. Instead of changing phones you would just upgrade the one you already had. Unfortunately, the price point for the phone went way up during production, it went over budget and Google had to terminate Project Ara.”

Celina: “The smartphone ended up costing $1,000 more than what they initially thought.”

Miguel: “But for us, it was an amazing experience of professional growth because we learned a lot about Puerto Rico’s cultural idiosyncrasies. We also learned about innovating under pressure. Meaning, how to generate a lot of ideas in little time. If you generate 15 ideas maybe 5 have a lot of potential and you can launch them.”

Celina: “Also, this was a beautiful time for us an office. We stopped everything that we were doing to focus on this project with Google and it was super fun. The synergy and energy was great. At that time we had Zabdiel, Marvin, Ricardo, Melissa, and Alfredo working for us.”

Miguel “I think that this experience also proved to us that we are more than capable of creating work of the highest quality and caliber. They would not have invited us to that meeting in San Francisco if they hadn’t seen potential in our proposal. Maybe we did not have the experience that we have today, but all of the delivery was there. Being in that table was a privilege!”

Celina: “It also proved that you do not have to operate out of those big cities to work with a company like Google. You can do it being from, and working in, Puerto Rico. World Class design from Puerto Rico to the world.” 

This article was written with the context that Google would be visiting our offices on July 10, 2019.