In 2021, with the launch of Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Google debuted a dramatically improved camera. The design process was a labor of love between the design and engineering teams — one that’s greatly paid off.
Since its debut on Pixel 6, the camera bar has become a trademark of the lineup — so much so that today, when you think Pixel, you probably automatically think of that sleek bar spanning the back of the phone. But moving away from the formerly boxy home for Pixel camera sensors and lenses was a big departure for the team and the product, and required a lot of creative collaboration and experimentation to get right. Here’s how the team worked together to design and build the Pixel Camera Bar — and how it keeps getting better over time.
Designing and engineering the Pixel Camera Bar
The teams building the Pixel 6 lineup had big goals for the new camera. The kind of image quality they wanted to accomplish would require more light, and bigger lenses. But they didn’t want those much bigger lenses to mean a much bigger phone. “If you look back at Pixel 5 all the sensors were all grouped into this little square — so when we knew the camera would be greatly improved, we wanted to do something different,” says industrial designer Sangsoo Park. “We didn’t want the phone to be bigger, and wanted to really maintain everything being contained and streamlined, but also celebrated in a way.”
Plus, they didn’t want Pixel 6 to have its larger lenses sticking too far out, which would make the phone lie unevenly when placed screen-up. And then there was Pixel 6 Pro. “Pixel 6 Pro also included three rear cameras for the first time, too,” says Pixel product manager Stephanie Scott. “We wanted to bring the capability to zoom both in and out of a scene for more creative control.”
Both the engineering and design teams were ready to try something new. “We all wanted to create a camera design that was completely different, something we hadn’t seen,” Sangsoo says. “We wanted to take the design to a new level.” Taking the Pixel 6 series to a new level meant the designers wanted to package it in something that felt like a step up. That required a lot of work, of course. “It’s a massive undertaking to rearrange an entire camera system,” Sangsoo says. Designers wanted the new look to be bold, eye-catching and surrounded by the soft surface of the phone’s exterior. “We created a very precisely sculpted metal chassis to house the new camera system,” says Sangsoo. “The camera glass organized the new camera system into one single element.” This design added a simple, functional structure — the team describes it as being “visually clean.”
Physically putting it all together wasn’t so simple, though. “One of the biggest challenges was how many ‘hidden’ constraints there were,” says Stephanie. “Some of our engineers likened arranging the phone to Tetris — finding a spot for everything. I think it was more like chess, because the design is so interdependent.” For example, the main and ultra wide cameras couldn’t just go anywhere; they needed to be next to each other for features like portrait mode to work. But in the end, multiple teams worked together through manufacturing challenges to bring the camera to life.
Oh, and the name? It felt like a natural choice. “‘Camera bar’ is a nod to Search bar,” Stephanie says.
The Pixel Camera Bar’s evolution
The Pixel Camera Bar has continued to evolve since its initial release. “We really wanted to mature the camera bar’s design from Pixel 6 to the 7 and bring more emphasis to the camera,” says industrial designer Jaeun Park. They did this by more fluidly integrating the bar with a metal frame. “We took inspiration from liquid metal surfaces to create this look,” Jaeun says. Pixel 7 and 7 Pro’s metal surface surrounds the cameras with pill and circle shapes, which are also found in Google’s Material You UI, bringing cohesiveness between software and hardware.