Long-time Microsoft watchers like me are marveling at the company’s transformation. Slowly but surely, the siloed behemoth that once couldn’t get its desktop and mobile operating system teams to talk to each other is now starting to glide forward as one vast entity. The most visible refection of this sea change: design.
It’s no secret that, across Microsoft’s products, especially in software, there is now a single design language defined by reductionism, typography and unadorned shapes and colors. The look is called Metro, but if you think it only explains the look and feel of Windows 8, Windows Phone, Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live, you’d be wrong. As Microsoft designers explained during a recent and rather intimate panel discussion in Soho, Metro is a design philosophy with five core tenants that they say help drive product design and delivery throughout the Redmond, Washington company.
This is not the Microsoft I know and I asked the group to explain the moment when Microsoft woke up and realized it was heading down the wrong path. Naturally, they all said there was no moment. Panelists variously described the changes as a “grass roots movement” among designers across different divisions and as a gradual realization that they “wanted to be better.”
There were little epiphanies, though, that may have led to the big changes we see at work today in Microsoft. Rochelle Benavides, Sr. Experience Development Lead for Zune and Xbox, for instance, said that in the Zune design they realized “Typography is the new iconography.” The design impulse has now carried through to virtually all of Microsoft’s latest consumer interfaces.
Sam Moreau, Principal Director of User Experience for Windows, also pointed out a couple of key influences, which included subway sign symbols and the Swiss wayfinder symbols.
Stuart Ashmun, General Manager, Interactive Entertainment Business, who joined Microsoft back in 1984 as an industrial designer, told us that changes within Microsoft are a reflection of changes in the way consumers interact with technology. “We’re moving away from the need for us to learn a device and to the device needing to learn us.”
Microsoft’s Metro design philosophy is, the designers said, in evidence in hardware like the new Windows Phone. It reflects what Moreau called “affordance,” which is design speak for the innate qualities of an object allowing you to perform the implied action. You might also describe it as “form follows function.”
Not About Apple
The designers insisted that their big conversion was not influenced by Apple, a company that has had consistent ecosystem design language for more than a decade. On the other hand, they all made a number of veiled, somewhat negative, references to Apple’s design style. Jeff Fong, who has been with Microsoft for 15 years and works on the Windows Phone design team explained one of the Metro design principles: Authentically Digital. It might seem an odd one since everything Microsoft does is more or less digital.
“It’s all about honesty,” Fong told panel moderator and Next at Microsoft editor Steve Clayton. Fong said that with Windows Phone the goal was to get people to tasks quickly and to present content as plainly as possible. So they steered away from what he sees as a growing trend: “Taking your icons and taking things you have on screen and giving them glassy reflections, drop shadows, transparency… I think we can do a better job…in a more direct way.”
That authenticity also means Microsoft won’t use faux material, like wood grain. Microsoft is not about to start building products out of only titanium or gold, though. As Young Kim, Senior User Experience Designer, Microsoft Hardware Group, explained it, good design can come out of any material, “Using plastic and making it the most beautiful plastic possible.”
All of the designers talked about how intense collaboration, not just with other designers, but with engineers and developers, is leading to a new pride in craftsmanship. “What’s different now,” said Benavides, who apparently obsessed over the speed with which the Xbox dashboard moved when you waved your hand at the Kinect interface, is that “these aren’t the details that fall off and reach the customers. We care about it so much.”
While none of the designers could tell me the moment Microsoft changed, they did admit that it was not an entirely bottom-up conversion. Moreau told me they did have buy-in from management.
As for where the original design for Metro on the Windows Phone came from — likely the design that started all this — Fong came closest to taking credit “Yes, I was there to help kind of guide the direction for how the UI was gonna get implemented… but those things that guide and direct came from lots of other people and designers.” The designers all laughed when I insisted that there’s a whiteboard somewhere with the original Metro design.
If you want to know all of Microsoft’s new Metro Design Principals, check out the slideshow and then let us know what you think about Metro design and the philosophy in the comments.
*story by Lance Ulanoff from Mashable