Microsoft Inspired by London Tube Seeks Sleeker Designs: Tech

A dozen top Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) designers convened in a conference room at their company headquarters in February 2010 and studied a collage of product screen shots plastered along a 40-foot wall.

People who were there said that while the gadgets and software looked nice by themselves, they appeared to have little in common when viewed all at once.

“It felt like we didn’t really know what our soul was or our design ethos,” said Sam Moreau, who oversees Windows design. “When we put it all up on the wall, it became amazingly evident that we didn’t have a voice.”

Moreau and the 11 other managers in that room are racing to give the company’s products a more cohesive -- and alluring -- design. Drawing inspiration from signs in hubs like the London Underground that use simple symbols to orient travelers, the Metro design uses bright colors and basic shapes to help users navigate phones, tablets and computers. The quest to use design to boost sales is made more urgent as Microsoft plays catch-up in tablets and phones to Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc.

“It’s a really good thing that Microsoft finally stepped up and created a design language that’s their own,” said Mark Rolston, chief creative officer at Frog Design Inc., which designed some of Apple’s early products, such as the Apple IIc case. “They did ape existing products too much. They never aped out in the open, they just quietly longed to be respected in the way Apple is. But they will only get respect when they step out on their own.”

Phones, Tablets, Xboxes

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, will showcase Metro in its Windows 8 software, due to be released this year for tablets and personal computers, and is considering weaving Metro into the hardware of the Xbox gaming console. Metro is already featured in Xbox and Windows Phone software.

Metro does away with Microsoft’s traditional operating system design, with its rows of clickable icons and applications that open in window-shaped boxes bedecked by tool bars and drop- down menus. Metro’s start screen boasts boldly colored, touch- enabled square and rectangular tiles for each application --say, a Web browser or an online store. Navigable by touch, the applications fill the screen and the start-page tiles update automatically with new information, such as a weather forecast.

It reflects a philosophy intended to put emphasis on information, rather than ornamentation.

Design Matters

“It’s a very gutsy move,” said Gadi Amit, principal designer at NewDealDesign, the San Francisco-based design agency behind products like the Slingbox video player and the Fitbit activity tracker. “In two-three years people will look at it and say this is actually a major shift in design strategy.”

In an industry once dominated by large, beige office computers, design has become increasingly important for consumers who purchase devices for use during leisure time and sport them like fashion accessories, said Steve Kaneko, who has been a Microsoft designer for two decades and attended the 2010 meeting. Microsoft needed to sharpen its design and be seen less as a follower to contend with companies such as Apple that have won praise for the look and feel of products, Rolston said.

Apple has become the world’s most valuable company in part because of the allure of products characterized by sleek design and easy-to-use features. Google (GOOG), with a Spartan home page, became the world’s top Web search provider as Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft buried their search tools in cluttered portal pages.

Mouse at MoMA

Over the almost three decades that Microsoft has made hardware, its products have won many design awards, including eight International Design Excellence Awards last year. A Microsoft mouse designed by Kaneko is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Still, the company has failed to establish a reputation among consumers for excellent design. Many products looked focus-grouped, as though too many opinions went into their design, Kaneko said.

The Kin phone, for instance, won design awards, yet it flopped with consumers and spent just two months in stores. Windows Phone won a gold International Design Excellence Award for interactive product experiences in 2011, as well as the People’s Choice award from the same organization that year. Still, Microsoft accounted for only 3.9 percent of the U.S. market for smartphone operating systems at the end of February, according to ComScore Inc.

With Metro taking over so many Microsoft products, it’s critical that users like it. Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer refers to key releases as “bet-the-company” products. Metro has become a bet-the-company design, said Kaneko.

“We don’t flinch about that commitment,” he said.

‘Limiting Minimalism’

Rolston, of Frog Design, said the design is too imposing and will inhibit outside developers from attempting to build a broad range of applications that work with the software.

“They tried to create an interface that put content first,” he said. “Ironically, what happens is that the design itself is so aggressive and unique you can’t help but see it first, and the minimalism can become limiting.”

Young Kim, industrial design manager for Microsoft’s hardware division, said it will take a while to change consumer perceptions.

“That trust in the brand is something we’re going to have to earn,” he said.

Microsoft plans to expand Metro beyond phones, tablets and personal computers. Kaneko is working on how to translate it to the Office package of business-productivity applications. The company’s hardware designers are also considering the implications for mice, keyboards and the next version of the Xbox console, Kim said.

Adding Staff

The challenge there is translating the clean, modern aesthetic of Metro without being overly literal in copying the software interface -- say, by producing an impossible-to-hold, square mouse, Kim said.

“They way we designed Metro is to set us up for the next 10, 20 years,” said Albert Shum, a Nike veteran who oversees design for Windows Phone. Shum’s team has expanded too, doubling to about 60 people in three years, with hires from places like the Seattle Art Museum and Frog Design.

Metro got its name in 2009, when Shum and eight designers locked themselves into their studio in downtown Seattle’s Pioneer Square to work on the design for the next iteration of Microsoft’s mobile phone. Shum said he wants his team to draw on influences as varied as top sushi chefs and classic furniture designers. He wants customers to view Microsoft they way they do Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) -- as a place to get a consistent, unique and appealing kind of experience with each visit.

Subway, Traffic Signs

Like the Windows Phone designers, Moreau’s group also draws inspiration from subway, airport and traffic signs. The team’s conference room has an entire wall covered with images from the New York City subway, London Underground and airports across Asia.

Another early influence is even more unlikely: Microsoft’s Zune music and video player. While it met with tepid demand, it nonetheless garnered praise for its design.

Since the advent of the graphical user interface, designers have tried to help customers understand computers by modeling graphics on tasks outside the world of technology. That explains why the icon for discarding files became a trash can, and Windows began using drop shadows and transparencies to give them real-world depth. Windows 8 Metro does a complete turn with its flat squares and lack of shadows and shading.

Changing Perceptions

The company, with help from the Pentagram design agency, also overhauled the Windows logo. It replaced the older one that looked a bit too much like a flag with a simple, blue and white window that Amit terms “poetry.”

“Windows 8 is maybe a turning point,” said Amit. If Microsoft can use the market-dominating operating system to get critical mass for their new look, “they really have a chance to change the perception of Microsoft’s design.”

Microsoft’s same design leadership team, plus six new members, met at Seattle’s Space Needle earlier this year and put the product lineup up on its wall for a second look.

“It’s started to feel like you can see us,” Moreau said. “You can see the design ethos we are working on starting to appear.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dina Bass in Seattle at dbass2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net

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